by Linda Lombardi, Literary Manager
What’s Tappin’ Thru Life about? Why tell this story now?
I was reading this magazine article on tap and it was fabulous, but they didn’t mention my brother Gregory, and I said to myself, “Wait a minute here, that’s wrong, very wrong.” In my estimation my brother was the greatest tapper that I had ever seen. He had improvisational skills, he could choreograph, he was sexy, he was beautiful to look at – he had everything. So for him not to be mentioned, upset me. I decided that I would do a show that would celebrate him and the style of tap that we were taught, which is close floor work and rhythm tap. It’s very percussive – you have to be a musician; like a drummer.
I also wanted to tell the story of my parents, because my parents nurtured us. I go through a lot of stuff about my mother and father. I have the picture of their very first date in 1942 and I sing the song that he sang to her – “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” So that’s really how it started. I wanted to celebrate my brother, my mother and my father, and also I wanted to celebrate the singers that influenced us, like Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole. My mother used to say, “If you’re going to do anything in life and on stage, do it with class.” We don’t hear that word anymore. There are classy people still around, but they’re not celebrated like they should be. To meet people like Frank Sinatra, to work with Judy Garland, it’s beyond anything you can imagine.
Tell us about Sherrie and the DIVA Orchestra. How did
they come to be part of the show?
The great Joe Layton was doing a tribute to the Shubert theater in New Haven. Gregory and I had worked in the musical The Girl in Pink Tights for Agnes de Mille. This was 1954. So I was one of the artists they asked to come back. This band was there – all men – an all-male orchestra and I was doing “Parade Passes By” or something, some really swinging things, and my manager said “You see whose playing drums back there?” I’m a stickler for two things – you’ve got to play the drums and you’ve got to have a heavy lip for the trumpet player. I mean all my charts are big, big charts and high charts for trumpets, because I like a big sound. So I see this woman and I said, “Oh my gosh! She’s driving this big band. She’s fierce!”
So Stanley (my manager at the time) got to know her, and he decided to start an all-girl orchestra, which he’d always wanted to do. He used to be the assistant drummer for the Buddy Rich Orchestra and he started this band. It’s fifteen pieces – fifteen women – and they are spectacular. I love playing with them. I love working with women because they’re no-nonsense. I found that out when I was in California. All the producers out there, they all want to take you to lunch and talk about their Rolex watches. Women just want to do the business. I like an all-girl orchestra, because they play right away. We didn’t even have a rehearsal the other night. They just played it. They're gonna rock this place, baby, they're gonna rock it!
You've brought the Manzari brothers back on stage with you. How did you meet John and Leo?
They were in Sophisticated Ladies with me, and they are spectacular. I found them at the Duke Ellington School. They didn’t go there, but they came for my jazz/hip-hop class and I found them. They are better than ever, beautiful to look at. They’re like Gregory – beautiful, charisma, without even trying. More beautiful than ever, now that they’re grown up. They’re grown men now. It's just wonderful. I love the idea of getting a young dancer from the community. It’s about giving back to the next generation of dancers.
Is that personally important to you – to be a mentor
to the next generation of dancers?
It’s so important, because it has to be carried on. Our style of tap has to be carried on. For a while there it was ignored. The black tap dancer was ignored. That was obvious. So it’s very important to me for that style to stay, because it can’t be discounted. So the next generation of that is very important for me, that’s why I want them to see the Manzari brothers. Gregory would’ve been crazy over them. They do a step at the end of their section, it’s almost mindboggling how they do it. It’s precise. It’s legendary, I don’t know too many dancers who can do that, because their feet are so fast. So to give back to the young tap dancers, that’s very important for me to do as a tap dancer myself.