Maurice Hines on the Legacy of the Apollo Theater

The legendary dancer talks about starting his career in Harlem and his upcoming Sammy Davis Jr. project

Maurice Hines, left, joins his brother Gregory (now deceased) in the finale of the smash 1981 Broadway musical Sophisticated Ladies. (© Corbis)

Dancer, singer and choreographer Maurice Hines, who began dancing at the Apollo Theater with his brother, Gregory, when the two were children, reminisces about the legends he observed and the lessons he learned at the famous Harlem theater.

How old were you when you first appeared at the Apollo?
Gregory and I were brought to the Apollo by Henry LeTang, who choreographed the movie The Cotton Club (1984). We were, I think, 7 and 5, and we did the Apollo almost every other week. We worked with a lot of great, great stars. Of course, there were a lot of rock ’n’ roll acts there at that time, the Flamingos, Ruth Brown. And we also worked with Dinah Washington, Diahann Carroll and a lot of comedians: Nipsey Russell, Redd Foxx.

Was the Apollo audience tougher than other audiences?
Had we got up there and tried to be cute little kids, yeah, that’s boring. They got cute little kids on the street. Henry LeTang said, “You got to dance, you got to flip, you got to jump around. You got to get the audience loving you so they have no decision to make. There’s no ‘Will I like them?’ No, no, no!”

What was the most important lesson you learned there?
We did this show with John Bubbles. It was about 1957. John did stuff from Porgy and Bess, from his tap act with Buck and Bubbles, and numbers from his various movies like Cabin in the Sky (1943). The audience, who were mostly younger kids into rock ’n’ roll, loved him. And Gregory and I couldn’t understand it. He told us, “We must always tell the truth to the audience. If I were to try to sing what Larry Williams did [Williams had a hit at the time with “Bony Maronie,”] which is not my style, they would laugh at me. But because I believe in what I’m doing and because I do it so well, they’ll respond.” He was a tap dancer, too, one of the greatest, and Gregory and I were tap dancing then. He said, “Never do a step that you don’t love because the audience will see it.” I never forgot it and Gregory didn’t either.

What was John Bubbles’ contribution to tap?
He invented rhythm tap because he was basically a flat-footed dancer, which means that he used his heel in the same way he used the toe. As wonderful and phenomenal as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was, he tapped mostly on his toes. John Bubbles put the foot down in a combination, rather than just putting the heel down like a period at the end of a sentence—that’s what most dancers did—and he used the heel throughout; therefore he could dance at any tempo. He was like a drummer.

Did having theaters for African-American audiences, such as the Apollo, change the landscape of entertainment?
No doubt about it. Nothing could have stopped the creativity of the black performers. But those black theaters gave them a venue. When you’re doing four shows a day, you could make mistakes on the first show because you could correct it by the second show. You could perfect your art that way. Ella [Fitzgerald] learned to scat more because she could play with the musicians and try something new the next show. There’ll never be anything like the Apollo again. First of all, performers today would never do four shows a day. They can barely do one concert. They’re not trained to do it.

We worked with giants. But the performer I fell in love with, I do a tribute to him in my concerts when I do them, was Nat King Cole. When I saw Nat King Cole at the Apollo—I didn’t know who he was at that time—I think I was 11, maybe younger, 9, and Gregory was 7. Daddy wanted us to see all the greats, so every week there was a star. This man comes out and they didn’t say his name and the audience is screaming and yelling. He had not sung a note; he just stood there. I said, “Daddy, he hasn’t done anything. Who is that?” Daddy said, “That’s Nat King Cole. He doesn’t have to do nothing. Watch, he’ll stand there and then he’ll sing.” So when I saw Michael Jackson do it in his concert, and he just stood there and the audience applauded, I think everybody thought that was new. Nat King Cole did that.

What do you think about the recent inductions of Michael Jackson and Aretha Franklin into the Apollo Theater Hall of Fame?
I think it’s wonderful to recognize greatness, and when you’re talking about Aretha Franklin and Michael Jackson, you’re talking about greatness. I do think we have a tendency to do what is hot; of course, Aretha’s been hot most all of her career and that’s as it should be. She is the Queen of Soul. And Michael, they try to say his career went down—everybody’s career goes down. Sinatra’s went down, you know, hills and valleys. But what he contributed to the music business was spectacular. I hope they will also do Lena Horne, who just passed away, Mahalia Jackson and all those people that opened the doors. They paid the dues; without them opening those doors, none of us would’ve had a chance, including Aretha.

Who are the tap dancers that you admire most?
My idol was Fayard Nicholas of the Nicholas Brothers because he used ballet without balletic training. They could hoof, but he was also pulled up and did wonderful things with his hands. They kept it alive, thank goodness, and danced until they died. Bunny Briggs was a great influence on me. He was a great tapper, did close floor work. That’s really my expertise. Very few people are great at it. Savion [Glover] is great; Jason Samuels [Smith] is great; Sammy Davis was great. My brother, of course, that kind of greatness I don’t see. When you see greatness, it’s rare. We see hype and we see lip-syncing but tap dance—you can’t lip-sync that. You got to do that. The Manzari brothers [John and Leo] are great. I’m getting ready to choreograph the life story of Sammy Davis Jr. for Broadway and we’ve been doing auditions all week and the Manzari brothers came in and got [parts] with one number.

Tell me about your Sammy Davis Jr. project.
It’s called Cool Papa’s Party. We did a little version of it at the MetroStage in Virginia. In fact, I won the Helen Hayes choreography award for it. So we’re doing a bigger presentation. And I’ll be choreographing it like I did in Virginia. We haven’t found a guy to play Sammy yet, because that’s almost impossible. The only one who could’ve ever played Sammy was my brother. They don’t make’em like Sammy and my brother anymore. Or like me, to be frank with you.

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