[img]http://hits.guardian.co.uk/b/ss/guardiangu-feeds/1/H.20.3/90924?ns=guardian&pageName=Jimmy+Clark+obituary%3AArticle%3A1307742&ch=Stage&c3=Guardian&c4=Dance%2CCulture+section&c6=Terry+Monaghan&c7=09-Nov-19&c8=1307742&c9=Article&c10=Obituary&c11=Stage&c13=&c25=&c30=content&h2=GU%2FStage%2FDance[/img]Half of a key American duo from the golden age of tap-dancing
Jimmy Clark, who has died aged 87, was the "straight-man" of the renowned tap-dancing Clark Brothers. As the last "brother" tap act from the golden era of swing, Jimmy and his brother, Steve, had an extraordinary career. They negotiated mob-run venues in the US and mixed with royalty in the UK, but seldom put a foot wrong. After one command performance, the Queen Mother came along the line and shook Steve's hand. Lord Delfont asked if she remembered the Clark Brothers. She replied: "Yes, but I can't understand how they keep dancing so fast for so long." Steve, the "funny" half of the act, responded: "You're not doing so bad yourself!"
Along with their older brother, Cornelius, and four sisters, Jimmy and Steve were brought up in Philadelphia by a hard-working father and deeply religious mother. She taught them 125 hymns at an early age, and four of them, including Jimmy and Steve, formed the Clark Singers. Realising that they could earn more money from dancing, Jimmy and Steve began to teach each other tap, and soon split away. Having produced Honi Coles, the Condos Brothers and eventually the Hines Kids – or, as they became better known, Gregory and Maurice Hines – Philadelphia had a rich tradition in this respect.
Jimmy and Steve moved to the Bronx, New York. Making a successful, high-level entry in 1941, when Bill Robinson recruited them for the Hot Mikado in Harlem's Apollo, they took Bojangles's advice that "you can't make rhythm in the air", which meant that they ignored the vogue for including acrobatics in their act.
Instead they developed a distinctive, suave style that put them alongside artists such as Billie Holiday, Fats Waller, Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington. Their growing reputation took them into the Catskill mountains "Borscht belt" hotels such as Grossinger's Catskill Resort hotel (the real "Dirty Dancing" venue), where they worked with existing and future stars including Patti Page, Frankie Laine, Tallulah Bankhead, Sophie Tucker, Howard Keel and Frank Sinatra.
A 1948 booking for Olson and Johnson's Hellzapoppin' in the London Casino brought them across the Atlantic. Despite press criticism, the show's innovative humour, which included throwing unobtainable types of American food at the still-rationed UK audiences, proved popular. Having marked the UK out as a new stamping ground, the brothers returned to New York to appear in the film Killer Diller (1948), then later back to the UK to perform with Gracie Fields at Windsor Castle for George VI.
Repeating that transatlantic pattern during the next 10 years enabled them to manoeuvre between the slowly shrinking centres of the once-global cabaret circuit. In New York, they worked at the Latin Quarter and were then directed to the newly mob-acquired Sands hotel, in Las Vegas. The Grade Organisation lured the Clark Brothers back to the UK in 1952, and introduced them to the London Palladium and the booming northern working men's club scene.
In New York in 1954, as leading cabaret artists for the city's ballroom dance contest, the Harvest Moon Ball, they met up with Sinatra, and returned to the Sands in Vegas. Among other duties, they introduced a new hopeful, Elvis Presley. In 1959 in the UK, various royal command performances and Sunday Nights at the London Palladium bookings followed. Dancing late night at the Churchill Club led to an introduction to Princess Margaret, who cut the opening ribbon for their new dance school in London. Pop stars and actors who needed to dance on television attended, and the Clarks taught Cliff Richard and the Shadows, Freddie and the Dreamers, Bonnie Langford and many more.
By the 1960s, drastic changes were being wrought on the music scene, matched by a similar transformation of US entertainment, especially its nightclub scene. As the Atlantic liners became cruise ships, the Clark Brothers worked on such vessels for eight years in an environment where older entertainment styles prevailed. Their talents as all-round entertainers, with Jimmy on drums and Steve on piano, or as impersonators, with Jimmy as Nat King Cole and Steve as Louis Armstrong, came into their own. Opting eventually for dry land, they worked in Tito's Inn, Majorca, until the late 1970s.
A two-year attempt to run their own piano bar next door, modelled on London's Ronnie Scott's, had its moments, but they eventually returned to the UK to work with visiting orchestras such as Lionel Hampton and Cab Calloway, and settled in Dunstable, Bedfordshire. In 2002, I featured them in a two-night sell-out tap show at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, where their "old-school" professionalism contrasted with the new wave of enthusiasts. More engagements followed before Jimmy's declining health finally brought the Clark Brothers' stage career to an end.
Jimmy is survived by Steve, five children and four grandchildren.
• James Maddison Clark, tap-dancer and entertainer, born 23 July 1922; died 30 October 2009
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Guardian: Jimmy Clark obituary
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