John William Sublett: The Father of “Rhythm” Tap Dance

Written by Jae Jones

John William Sublett was best known by his stage name John W. Bubbles. He was an American vaudeville performer, dancer, singer and entertainer. He is best known as the father of “rhythm tap,” a form of tap dancing. Unlike the tap dancing of Bill Robinson who emphasized clean phrases and toe taps, Sublett brought in percussive heel drops and played with the traditional eight-bar phrase, slowing it down to allow for more rhythmic freedom.

He was born in Louisville, Kentucky on February 19, 1902, but soon moved with his family to Indianapolis. While in Indianapolis, he formed a partnership with Ford L. “Buck” Washington known as “Buck and Bubbles,” with Buck playing stride piano and singing while Bubbles tapped, beginning in 1919.

Sublett was unable to read music, and despite this George Gershwin chose him to create the role of Sportin’ Life in his opera Porgy and Bess in 1935. He went on to perform the role for the next 20 years. In 1920 he gave lessons in tap dancing to Fred Astaire, who considered Sublett the finest tap dancer of his generation.

In 1978, John Bubbles spoke at the Variety Arts Theatre in Los Angeles as a participant in a seminar on vaudeville. Sublett also appeared in several Hollywood films during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Some work that he was noted for was Cabin in the Sky (1943), The Lucy Show, and A Song is Born (1948). Sublett is also known for his catchphrase, “Shoot the liquor to me John Boy,” which has been used by several well-known entertainment artists. Sublett stop performing after suffering a debilitating stroke. He died in 1986.



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About the author

Jae Jones

Jae Jones has been writing professionally for over 10 years. She holds a degree in Business Administration, and enjoys writing on various topics.

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