Jimmy Slyde (October 2, 1927 – May 16, 2008), born James Titus Godbolt, and known as the King of Slides, was a world-renowned tap dancer, especially famous for his innovative tap style mixed with jazz.
Jimmy Slyde was a popular rhythm tapper in America in the mid-20th century when he performed on the nightclub and burlesque circuits. He was also popular in Europe because he lived in Paris for a brief period of his life. Slyde appeared in several musicals and shows in the 1980s, and he received numerous awards for his talent. Slyde died in 2008, but many will remember him for his musicality and his signature move: slides.
Jimmy Slyde was born James Titus Godbolt in Atlanta, Georgia, on October 2, 1927. When he was three years old his family moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where he attended the Boston Conservatory of Music in order to advance as a violinist, which his mother encouraged. However, the Conservatory was across the street from Stanley Brown’s dance studio where Godbolt would visit to watch great tap hoofers of the time, including Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, John W. Bubbles, Honi Coles, and Derby Wilson. At the age of twelve, he quit playing the violin at the Conservatory, which he was less interested in and because he could not stay still. He then started lessons at Stanley Brown’s studio with his mother’s blessing, who wanted him to do something other than play sports to help contain his energy. At the studio, he studied under Stanley Brown himself and a student teacher, Eddie “Schoolboy” Ford, who taught him how to slide. He connected with another dancer who was known for slides, Jimmy “Sir Slyde” Mitchell, and they put together an act to take on the road.
In the 1940s Mitchell and Godbolt started performing at local clubs and on the burlesque circuit calling themselves the Slyde Brothers. This in turn caused Godbolt to be renamed forevermore, Jimmy “Slyde.” Their acts included action tricks similar to those the Nicholas Brothers performed; however, they used slides as their trademark move. One dance critic, Sally Sommer, explained his slides as such, “He’s upstage left and sliding downstage right as fast and smooth as a skier, arms held out to the side, head tilted. He stops the cascade by banking backward, slips into a fast flurry of taps, working quick and low to the floor and ends the phrase by pulling up high and flashing off a triple turn.” The act was such a hit, they received invitations to go on the road to perform with big band names of the time, including Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Barry Harris. Their tapping was part of the bands’ songs where they would create the music for many measures and then the band would come back in, and they would trade off back and forth like that the entire act.
Unfortunately, the time period in which Jimmy Slyde’s talent emerged was disagreeable, as he became popular in the 1950s when rock and roll was taking the stage and stealing American interest away from big band music with tap acts. He attempted to find work in other cities including San Francisco, Chicago, and Hollywood on the burlesque and nightclub circuits as well as in movies, but work had dried up in America. He found a temporary job working as a choreographer for the tap dancers the Crosby Brothers in the 1960s, but in 1966 Slyde was invited to perform at the Berlin Jazz Festival in Europe. He attended with Baby Laurence, James Buster Brown, and Chuck Green, and the crowd received them with excitement and positive praise including regarding them as “Harlem's All-Star Dancers.” This left a lasting impression on Slyde and he felt valued again, which led him to move to Paris in the 1970s. With the aid of Sarah Petronio, he helped introduce rhythm tap to Paris.
After living, teaching, and performing in Paris, he appeared in the production Black and Blue (1985), which was later reset in New York on Broadway in 1989, in which he also performed. He was nominated for a Tony award for this performance and from then on he felt the tap revival, which led him to stay in the United States and thrive much like during his early career. Throughout his revival and the resurgence of tap in America, Slyde performed in The Cotton Club (1984), Motown Returns to the Apollo (1985), Round Midnight (1986), and Tap, with Gregory Hines and Sammy Davis, Jr., in 1989.
In the 1990s, Slyde started holding jam sessions every week at a jazz nightclub in New York called La Cave. This became an education-based practice where up-and-coming tappers would come and improvise, while older and experienced tappers would mentor them. Among the mentored included dancers such as Savion Glover, Van Porter, Ira Bernstein, and Roxane Butterfly.
Jimmy Slyde earned many awards including the Choreographer’s Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1984, 85, 86, 88, and 1993; as well as the National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1999; the Charles “Honi” Coles Award in 2001; the Hoofer Award of the American Tap Dance Federation in 2002; an honorary doctorate of Performing Arts in American Dance from Oklahoma City University in 2002; the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation fellowship in 2003; and a Dance Magazine Award in 2005.
Jimmy Slyde died on May 16, 2008, at the age of 80 in his home in Hanson, Massachusetts, due to declining health. He was known for being a great rhythm tapper who had impeccable musicality (partly due to his early music training), perfect timing, and slides that made it appear is if he could glide across the floor effortlessly. His slides were essential to his musicality “The slides took on many parts of speech, from little connective scoots to long, stage-traversing slalom runs. Slides allowed him to tease the beat, delaying then catching up. They were silences, visually exciting rests, but they also functioned as long notes, as Slyde's physical dynamics, speeding and slowing, suggested crescendos and diminuendos.” He was usually the last dancer to perform because he would top any dancer who rivaled him. However, Slyde was a humble man happy to be part of the tap community, who brought a sound-oriented emphasis to tap and called it “a translating thing.” The younger generation gained knowledge from him and regarded him as one of the greats including Savion Glover who stated he was “the Godfather of tap” and “one of the true masters of the art form.”