Driving along Sammy Davis Jr. Drive—31st Street from Federal to Lake Shore Drive—it’s hard to imagine that, seventy-five years ago, the area served as an entertainment mecca for the Midwest. The plots of parking lots and high-rise condominiums leave little trace of the happening scene that was known as Black Broadway, where entertainers like Davis used to play to packed rooms, dabbling on the drums, crooning out of the side of his mouth and tap-dancing bebop rhythms with his feet.
At a dedication ceremony in September 1990, Mayor Richard M. Daley addressed a rain-soaked crowd. “Legendary artists of the thirties, forties and fifties were showcased in clubs and theaters and even private homes that lined 31st Street, which was once the hub of jazz and blues. It’s only fitting that this street is chosen to honor one of the greatest performers in show business, the late Sammy Davis Jr.”
Is Chicago’s rich artistic history just that, history? Not so fast!
The authentic, old-school experience is hard to look up; in fact, you’ll have to look down, underground, in the subway, or on the sidewalk for Chicago’s veteran street performers. Out of all of them, there’s only one man in Chicago who embodies the swagger of Davis, the lightheartedness of Bill Robinson and the audience-embracing warmth of Gregory Hines. His name is Ayrie Easley King III, but you may know him as Mr. Taps.
Mr. Taps has been dancing up a storm on subway platforms and sidewalks in the Loop and Gold Coast neighborhoods for forty years. He is often credited by Chicagoans as their first time seeing a live tap dancer up close, and has even inspired some to pursue the art form.
Bril Barrett, artistic director of M.A.D.D. Rhythms and one of the most in-demand tap dancers in the world, credits Mr. Taps with his first exposure to tap. “At eight years old, he was the first person I saw in real life tap dancing, down in the subway. I asked if I could dance with him, and my training in tap improvisation and jazz music began.”
When asked to describe his style of dancing, Mr. Taps shares bursts of words: “Echo. Crisp. Sharp. Hollow. Humor. Character. A message.” The descriptor he uses above all is “whimsical.” “I call myself ‘King of the Whimsical Dance’ because I do it on a whim. Brrrrap buh buh bop! Brrrrap brrrrap brrrrap! And if I hear you and it’s selling, then I’ll really take you out there. Duh da, duh da, duh da! It’s on the whim. On the whim.”
In his act, Mr. Taps incorporates impressions (not impersonations) of his heroes—Sammy Davis Jr., Fred Astaire, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, The Four Step Brothers, The Nicholas Brothers, Ray Bolger, Gene Kelly and Eleanor Powell—improvising in their different styles while dropping doses of tap-dance history along the way. “Most of the audiences don’t know much about tap dancing,” laments Mr. Taps, “They only have a rigid vision of what’s really going on.”
During the 1980s, Mr. Taps would be hitting the pavement (literally, with his feet) almost daily, dancing in the depths of the Washington/State subway station or on State Street in front of Marshall Field’s, wearing black-and-white checkered pants and tap shoes, gliding across the pavement like an ice skater, launching into a double turn that falls into a series of fast shuffle grab-offs, the sounds echoing off the tiled walls, the crowd watching as if under a spell.
“Why, it’s none other than Mr. Taps,” writes Chicago Sun-Times reporter and film critic Richard Roeper, describing “that guy in a Santa Claus hat… who was dancing up a storm on a sheet of sound-amplifying plastic material in front of Neiman Marcus on Michigan Avenue.” In fact, he started receiving so much coverage that he was fired from his day job at an upscale hotel after department heads saw him mentioned in newspapers on days he had been truant from work. “What did I care,” Mr. Taps remembers, chuckling, “I was making twice as much on the streets than at that job.”
Mr. Taps graduated from sidewalks to a featured act in concert halls, revues and nightclubs in the early 1990s. Sid Smith wrote a review in the Chicago Tribune about his performance at the New Variety Cabaret on Clark Street, saying that he “overcame the space’s limited potential for dance with his flailing, knockabout daredevilry and unexpected humor—rare in a tap act.” Also in the Tribune, notifications of Mr. Taps’ performances at fairs and festivals appear in a column serendipitously titled “On Tap.”
An article in the Chicago Defender from October 6, 1990, places Mr. Taps at the dedication ceremony for Sammy Davis Jr. Drive. During Mr. Taps’ rendition of Davis’ signature song, “Mr. Bojangles,” it says that “Davis’ widow wept openly during [his] performance.” After performing for jazz royalty and securing headlining spots throughout the city, it looked like the sky was the limit for Mr. Taps.
A spotlight on Mr. Taps in the Chicago Tribune from 1985 contains a sobering exchange. Reporter Laura Kavesh writes, “So far the man from Broadway has not arrived but Easley is keeping his eyes open; he’s not going to miss the man when he chances by, en route to elsewhere. ‘He’s going to walk by and say “Let’s go,”‘ Easley says, ‘And I’m gone.’” But the man from Broadway never appeared.
I asked Mr. Taps what he thought about that quote thirty-eight years later. “Well, I almost made it to Broadway, in the show ‘Black and Blue,’ but I was a week late in getting there—I was in New York dancing at schools, doing my thing—but isn’t that what happened? People from companies like Urban Gateways kept dropping me their card in the subway, and that’s how I got into schools and colleges. From there I signed up with the Class Act agency and toured forty-eight states.”
For Mr. Taps, the idea of “making it” is more about his service to humanity than being in a big-name show. “This ‘Broadway’ [waves his fingertips derisively] that’s cool, fine, but I dance for more people in a week in the subway than people on Broadway in a season. People from all places. All walks of life. I just have a different measure of success.”
At sixty-one years old, Mr. Taps still performs, but is back to working a side hustle as a maintenance man at an upscale complex of condominiums. However, he swears he’ll never stop dancing. “A lot of entertainers I used to know see me and go, ‘You’re still dancing?’ I don’t like to run into entertainers who are not entertaining anymore.”
I asked Mr. Taps what he thought of his life and career. He paused a long while, then grinned sheepishly and said “You know the song ‘Send in the Clowns’? ‘Making my entrance again with my usual flair/Sure of my lines, no one is there.’ Some people think it’s sad, but I like it.” Another pause. “But remember, show’s not over yet.”