Smooth Operator: Jimmy Slyde
Born James Titus Godbolt, “Jimmy Slyde” (1927-2008) is a legend both in and out of the tap community. Early in his childhood, Slyde’s family moved from Atlanta to Massachusetts, where he began dancing at Stanley Brown’s studio. He is said to have learned how to slide from his teacher, Eddie “Schoolboy” Ford. Early in his career, he joined forces with Jimmy Mitchell (who went by the stage name “Sir Slyde”), and the two performed for a time as The Slyde Brothers.
Remembered as a consummate performer and a tap dancer’s tap dancer, Slyde appeared with many jazz-era greats, including Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. He and some of his contemporaries embraced the new sound of bebop in the 1940s, and even as this emerging musical style in some ways turned away from its historical connection to social dance, Jimmy threw himself into interpreting the looser, manic energy of the new sound of jazz. It is ironic that, like bebop music, tap from this era was just coming into its own and flourishing artistically, even as audiences turned to new forms of expression. Slyde, like many of his contemporaries, found work hard to come by, until the tap revival of the 1970s and 80s. In a way, it is to this period, and to his frequent teaching and performing on the tap festival circuit, that the high regard in which he is held within the subsequent generations of dancers can be traced.
I was lucky enough to see Slyde perform in the late 1990s, and I remember being struck by his signature style, which, as impressive as it is on film, was even more impactful in person. He barely seemed to touch the floor, and when he did, it was with a controlled attack who’s delicacy belied its power.
He is, to me, the perfect combination of elements in a dancer. He has showmanship for miles, but it is understated, and he doesn’t get in your face with it, merely dances and shows himself honestly and simply. He is an amazing technician, and never seems to miss a beat, but the technique quickly disappears and you just see this graceful, musical movement. He is not just moving, he is in his own words “painting pictures” which seem to leap out of the floor and into the air fully formed. It all comes together and you feel, watching him, like you are just sitting down with him and listening to him talk.
His signature slides (from which he took his name) are, as anyone who has tried them can attest, not as easy as they look. I have heard dancers trying to deconstruct the precise combination of physics that goes into such a smooth, graceful movement. Momentum, inertia, gravity, friction, all have to work together, and Slyde must have practiced hour upon hour to perfect the elements that he makes look as easy as breathing.
Beloved still, Jimmy is often cited in classes I have taken when a teacher wants the students to “smooth it out.” He remains one of my biggest tap heroes, and I am sure I am not alone remembering him as a superb dancer, musician, and artist…
Happy Birthday, Jimmy.
(Note: this post was originally written in Baakari Wilder’s tap class at Montgomery College, Rockville, in May of 2013. Each week, students were required to write a short paper about a different figure from tap’s history. I waited carefully until I was ready to write about one of my very favorite tap artists, Mr. Jimmy Slyde.)
Tap Dancing America, Constance Valis Hill, 2010
“Jimmy Slyde Taps on George Benson’s Guitar,” YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oW3CbQZSVIs
Retrospective, New York Times, Claudia La Rocca, 2008