Mable Lee, 97, tap-dancing ‘Queen of the Soundies’
NEW YORK — First, she sings: a boogie-woogie dance instruction number called “Chicken Shack Shuffle.” And then, because this is a soundie — one of the many short musical films made in the 1940s to be played on coin-operated jukeboxes — she demonstrates.
Wearing a feathered bikini and high heels, she swivels her hips nearly out of joint as her feet subdivide the beat. Her mouth open in joy, she rides the rhythm with her whole swinging body.
“Do it any way you will,” she instructs through song, but few are likely to do it quite the way she did.
That was Mable Lee, a singer and dancer who appeared in enough films of this type to earn the title “Queen of the Soundies.” Ms. Lee died Feb. 7 at a nursing home in Manhattan. She was 97.
Her son, Michael Mansfield, said the cause was heart failure.
A professional entertainer since she was 9, Ms. Lee had performed as recently as July, at Symphony Space in Manhattan as part of the New York City Tap Festival. In her later appearances, she tended to behave as she had in the 1940s, her sexy moves making no concessions to age. Her range of motion may have been slightly diminished, but her indomitable spirit not at all. Secure in her ability to charm any audience, she might forget the lyrics and improve the song. In the days before her death, she was still discussing plans for a new one-woman show.
“She made a way for herself and paved a way for others,” said Beverly Moore, a dancer and friend of Ms. Lee. “She was a lover of life, but she took no tea for anybody’s fever.” Ms. Lee refused, in other words, to put up with anyone’s nonsense.
“Mable had a way and she cared to teach it,” said tap dancer Michelle Dorrance, the most prominent member of a generation of dancers, younger than Ms. Lee by a half century or more, who were strongly and directly influenced by her.
Mable Lee was born in Atlanta on Aug. 2, 1921, to Rosella Moore and Alton Lee. In elementary school she choreographed, directed, and starred in shows at recess, charging a quarter. As she told The Atlanta Constitution in 1978, “I have thought of myself as a star since I was about 15.”
By that age, Ms. Lee was already appearing in local venues like the Top Hat nightclub and the 81 Theater. Already she could be, in her word, “belligerent.” Ms. Lee, who was African-American, told The Constitution about a time when she was boarding the back of a bus and a white girl grabbed her by the hair. Ms. Lee fought with her fists.
“I’m not really malicious,” she explained. “I just don’t like to be talked down to. I just let them know I was human.”
In 1940, Ms. Lee and her mother moved to New York City. In Harlem, she joined the chorus lines at the West End Theater and the Apollo, doing six shows a day.
These were elite groups, filled with dancers often as skilled as the headliners. Still, it was rare for any woman to break out of the chorus. Ms. Lee did, appearing in comedy skits and singing and dancing as a soloist with a line of dancers behind her.
She performed in Harlem nightclubs and received rave reviews for her work in the 1947 London revue “Here, There and Everywhere.” That year she also appeared, showing much skin, on the cover of Ebony magazine.
She was never shy about displaying her body. “Wham, Sam, dig them gams,” Louis Jordan sings in the 1947 musical film “Reet, Petite and Gone” before the camera ogles Ms. Lee’s legs.
Those limbs didn’t stay still for long, not in this film nor in any of the soundies Ms. Lee made, once hard to find but now accessible on YouTube.
When the all-black 1921 musical “Shuffle Along” was revived on Broadway in 1952, Ms. Lee was in it. But her kind of show business was headed into decline.
In 1960, she gave birth to her only child, a son, with Tony Mansfield, a musician. In addition to him, she leaves two grandsons and a great-grandson.
In 1969, she was one of only three women to dance in “The Hoofers,” a hit off-Broadway show that brought renewed attention to black tap dancers.
From 1976 to 1978, she starred in the touring production of the Broadway musical revue “Bubbling Brown Sugar,” which looked back at the heyday of Harlem nightclubs.
While tap dancing was only one of Ms. Lee’s many talents, it was in the revival of tap in the 1980s and ’90s and the concerts and festivals that grew out of that revival that she found a late-career home.
When she appeared at the annual Tap Extravaganzas honoring National Tap Dance Day, it was usually with the Dancing Ladies, her own chorus line of young women.
These young women, Dorrance among them, had been heavily influenced by the masculine style of Savion Glover. Teaching them the chorus line tradition, Ms. Lee taught them how to be feminine.
“She was one of the only people who could,” Dorrance said.
“In a culture with so much vulgarity, she showed us how sexuality could be funny and tasteful.”
Alexandria Bradley, another of the Dancing Ladies, said Ms. Lee “showed us class and grace, but also that when it’s time to get loose, get loose. And it was more than the dancing. It was a sisterhood.”
Tony Waag, the artistic director of the New York City Tap Festival, performed regularly with Ms. Lee in her last two decades. “You never knew what she was going to do,” he said. Once, he recalled, he asked her what she had planned for their duet, and she told him, “Just come on when I tell you to.”