He used to practice on the metal flap doors that dotted the sidewalks of Harlem. Tappety-tap-tap-tappety-tip. When it got too cold, he danced in the hallways of nearby apartment buildings. Tappety-tip-tip-tappety-tap.
One day, when he was 14, a fellow “hoofer” knocked on his door, said they needed somebody up at the Apollo, quick, let’s go. A few breathless minutes later, he was auditioning in the basement of the most famous theater in his universe, just him and his dream and the silver plates on his shoes. Tappety- tappety-tappety-tip!
“Not bad,” said the producer, stepping in alongside him. “Can you do this? . . .”
This was before the big war, before the South had heard of equal rights, before there was such a thing as Black History Month. Back then, nobody told you the band leaders you worked with, guys named Ellington, Hines, Basie, Calloway, would one day be considered legends. Or that the singers, Fitzgerald, Vaughn, Eckstine, would spawn generations of fans and imitators. Back then, you got $35 for seven days’ work, four shows a day, five on Saturday, and you danced your toes off.
“Can you do this?” Lloyd Storey says now, retelling the story. His hair is thinner and gray and he wears glasses. But when he rises from the chair to imitate the producer, his feet, in gray zip-up boots, the kind you buy in any shopping mall, begin to tap the carpet, heel-toe, heel-toe, and each touch is a gentle kiss of rhythm.
“Cross step,” he says. The left leg sweeps across the right. “Now pulls.” His arms yank in the air as if he’s trying to race a bus. Bumpety-bumpety-bum-bum-ba!
Stop. Smile. Back in the chair. “You know,” Storey says, “that producer wasn’t very good. I got the job pretty easy.” Dancing through danger
Back in those days, the ’30s and ’40s, Storey danced in theaters and fairs and gangsters’ night clubs. He could make white audiences applaud wildly, but after the show, he had to exit through the back door. Once, he was riding a bus with a touring cast in the deep South. A white man said his wife was pregnant, and asked Lloyd to surrender his seat, even though Lloyd was seated in the “colored section” — back of the bus — and there seemed to be seats up front.
“Wouldn’t she be more comfortable in the white section?” Storey asked.
Next thing he knew, a sheriff came from the front of the bus and stuck a gun to Storey’s head. “Move or I’ll blow your brains out.”
Knew a man Bojangles and he danced for you . . . Do you remember that song? Well. Lloyd Storey really knew Bojangles. Worked in his troupe for several years. One day, Bojangles (whose real name was Bill Robinson) found Storey suckered into a card game with the older dancers. Poor Lloyd had already lost $17 of his $35 pay check.
“Let me take over,” Robinson whispered.
A half-hour later, he had won the money back. He handed it to Storey, then frowned. “And if I ever catch you gambling again, you’re fired!”
Storey laughs now. He rocks back in his chair. You wonder how one man can have so many stories and not be famous, not be on talk shows. This is Black History Month and kids in Detroit are asked to dig into the past. I wonder if they realize they are living in a gold mine. Remember their memories
There are people like Lloyd Storey all over this city, people with memories. Ask Storey about the black tap dancers who sold their routines to white movie musicals, but never got a mention. Ask him about the famous black singer who took the Apollo stage and began to croon songs he usually sang for white audiences. “The crowd booed so loud he stopped, ran to the band leader, and switched to a slower, bluesy number.”
Ask him about Ella, Duke, Basie. Ask him to dance. Lloyd Storey is still dancing. He has his own tap duo, called The Sultans, and he teaches part-time at the Center For Creative Studies in Detroit. Like his art, he seems timeless. Right now he is working with a 6-year-old boy named Amani Henry. They danced together a few months ago with Gregory Hines and the Detroit Symphony. Brought the house down.
Tappety-tappety-tip-tip-tap. This month, our kids will dig into books about Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King. History. Yes. But history is
not always behind us, you know, not always on paper. Sometimes history is close enough to touch, right alongside us, tapping like a heartbeat.
To benefit CCS, Mitch Albom will host a celebrity roast of Red Wings coach Jacques Demers at the Embassy Suites in Southfield, at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 7. Lloyd Storey and others will perform. Roasters include Steve Yzerman, Glen Hanlon, Chuck Daly and John Salley. Proceeds go to Detroit youths to study the arts at CCS. If interested, please phone Julie Pace at CCS, 831-2870.