Culture

The Last Song and Dance Man: Gregory Hines

Mark Anthony Neal

When Gregory Hines died on 9 August, he left a legacy of artistic accomplishment in the fields of pop music, film, stage, and, of course, 'hoofing.'

When Gregory Hines died on 9 August, he left a legacy of artistic accomplishment in the fields of pop music, film, stage, and, of course, "hoofing." Born in New York City in February 1946, Gregory Hines initially made his mark as a member of a tap-dancing family act with his brother Maurice Hines Jr. The duo broke through with acclaimed roles in the Broadway productions, Eubie (1978) and Sophisticated Ladies (1981), which celebrated the music of the legendary musicians Eubie Blake and Duke Ellington. Hines won a Tony Award in 1992 for Jelly's Last Jam, a musical devoted to another legendary back composer/musician Jelly Roll Morton.

But Hines was likely best known for his film roles, most notably opposite Mikhail Baryshnikov in White Nights (1985) and Billy Crystal in the cop-buddy film, Running Scared (1986). In 1986, he also recorded a pop album produced by Luther Vandross, featuring the hit single, "There's Nothing Better Than Love." In the best sense of the word, Gregory Hines was a renaissance man.

Gregory Hines, like Maurice and fellow song and dance man Ben Vereen (remember Tenspeed and Brown Shoe [1980]), was part of the generation of black male performers directly influenced by the crossover success of Sammy Davis, Jr. in the 1950s and '60s. At his best, Davis was the equivalent of "five-tool" baseball players like Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, and Mickey Mantle; when on stage, he could do it all. But for Davis and his peers, as well as those who came after him, like Hines, the drive to sing, dance, compose, choreograph, and act had less to do with "the hustle" and more to do with maximizing their opportunities in an entertainment industry that rivaled the political apartheid in South Africa throughout much of the 20th century. In an era when prominent black ministers write cookbooks and record R&B CDs as little more than a side hustle, and every rent-a-rapper has a role in an action film to go with his clothing line and porn site, Gregory Hines is a reminder of a time when the hustle was literally a matter of survival. And hustle he did.

After making his mark 25 years ago on Broadway, Hines began his film career as Josephus in Mel Brooks' History of the World, Part 1 (1981), a memorable comic role (originally intended for Richard Pryor); he also had a minor rap hit with the song "It's Good to Be the King" (1982). He was set to appear opposite Nick Nolte in 48 Hours (1982), but scheduling conflicts due to his role as Sandman Williams in Francis Ford Coppola's The Cotton Club (1984). Though 48 Hours became the springboard for Eddie Murphy's emergence as the dominant black crossover star of the 1980s, and The Cotton Club was a commercial and artistic dud, the ambitious Sandman Williams embodied the big time crossover dreams Hines harbored. In fact, early in their careers, Gregory and Maurice fell out because Gregory didn't just want to be a black crossover star; he wanted to be a mainstream pop star, surpassing even his hero, Sammy Davis, Jr.

White Nights and Running Scared brought Hines some level of this success (though clearly less than Murphy, Michael Jackson, and even Lionel Ritchie), but perhaps it was his role as Max Washington, in Tap (1989) that allowed him to put his dreams in perspective. Written and directed by Nick Castle, Tap was a cross-generational celebration of the tap dance tradition that produced stars like Bert Williams, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, and again, Sammy Davis, Jr. In one of his last screen appearances, Davis and other hoofer legends like Howard "Sandman" Sims, Bunny Briggs, and Harold Nicholas all got the chance to get their "hoof" on for the film. Tap also introduced the "next generation" in the figure of young Savion Glover.

Though Hines continued to act in films throughout his career -- for examples, A Rage in Harlem (1991), Renaissance Man (1994), and The Tic Code (1998) -- he reconnected with his dance background during the last decade of his life. Thus, his Tony Award-winning role in Jelly's Last Jam, in many ways found Hines coming full circle.

Because so much of Hines' crossover success went against the afro-pomo cultural nationalism championed by Spike Lee, Public Enemy, and Eddie Murphy to some extent, Hines was often perceived as outside of the "black by popular demand" loop of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Much of that changed with Hines' performances in the Whitney Houston vehicles, Waiting to Exhale (1996) and The Preacher's Wife (1996).

This success may have inspired him to attempt a television sitcom, The Gregory Hines Show (1997), in which he played a single father raising his son (played by Soul Food's Brandon Hammond). Like so many black shows from that period, if it didn't border on minstrelsy, it didn't get the support from the network or black audiences. Hines went on to win a daytime Emmy award for his voice work as "Big Bill" in the Bill Cosby-produced animated program, Little Bill, and was nominated for an Emmy for his starring role as Bill Robinson in the Showtime production, Bojangles (2001).

It's worth noting that Sammy Davis, Jr. often closed his late career concerts with "Bojangles," a song written by Jerry Jeff Walker and recorded by numerous artists. The song is about a down and out hoofer, an apt metaphor for the aging Davis. But it doesn't match up with the life and career of Gregory Hines. He remained a vital and respectful link to a previous generation of black male performers, long gone, along with public consciousness of the art form they championed. Some would call them "song and dance" men. Gregory Hines was the last of the Song and Dance Men.

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