I am thankful to the late jazz dance historian Terry Monaghan for this article. He sent it to me for corrections in 2009, but it was never published on his http://www.savoyballroom.com . The site has not been working for years after his death in 2011. On his savoyballroom.com, Terry published quite many profiles that mostly he and Robert P. Crease wrote about the Savoy Ballroom Lindy Hop legends. I paraphrased parts of this previously unpublished Al Minns article in my doctoral dissertation.
I am also thankful to Larry and Sandra Schultz, and Paul Grecki for discussions on Albert ‘Al’ Minns and for the discussions with all the others who knew and worked with Al Minns, with whom I have been lucky to discuss, and who have helped me with my Albert ‘Al’ Minns research. The idea of Al Minns’ birthday on January 1 comes from the Al Minns’ curriculum vitae that Larry compiled for Al. This is the original version without my corrections. Indeed, I removed a few pictures from it for the copyright reasons.
Back in the early 1980s all the main Lindy newbies around the World headed for New York to find Al Minns. Emerging from ‘retirement’ for a third time, he had begun teaching the Lindy at the Sandra Cameron Dance Center in NYC. Although it tends to be forgotten now, Al’s teaching there resulted in the emergence of the nucleus of enthusiasts who founded the New York Swing Dance Society. The intrepid Swedish Swing Society separately got their act together, located him in NY and took him back to Sweden for their Lindy Hop induction. Of the LA enthusiasts who came looking, only Erin Stevens struck lucky in happening to take class with him at the Sandra Cameron studio. The London contingent arrived in Easter 1985 only to hear the sad news that he lay dying. To have attracted such widespread interest in such a short space of time says a lot about this at times troubled but always brilliant Lindy Hopper, and it all took place during a brief coda at the end of a long and varied career.
Born in Newport News, Va. in 1920 he went with his mother to watch his father playing twelve-string guitar in wealthy houses, and began dancing at the age of 5 when his father played the same music at home. Soon after they moved to Harlem, Al’s father took him out singing and dancing at house-rent parties. Once started, he never stopped. Eventually he made it to the Savoy, and finally won a dance contest. On being invited into Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, he joined with Joe Daniels, Joyce James and Mildred Pollard.
The details become somewhat vague here, possibly to hide the more prosaic reality that Whitey had been primarily interested in recruiting Mildred. Although WLH’s folklore has it that originally Al danced with Joyce and then switched to Mildred at Whitey’s suggestion, this seems unlikely as Joe and Joyce competed in the 1937 HMB as a team. Al later told the story differently to Marshall Stearns, in describing how he’d learnt the company’s routines from an unnamed female member of WLH who partnered an early member Chick Hogan. Al then clashed in some way with Leon James, after the latter insouciantly swaggered back into the Savoy in 1937 following the filming of the Day At The Races’ celebrated Lindy sequence in Hollywood. While the story as reproduced in Jazz Dance sounds exaggerated, it would seem quite plausible that a kind of ego challenge occurred between the two, but on realizing how remarkably different their dancing styles were, Leon pointed out to Whitey his initial neglect of a major dancing talent.
Going apparently for the obvious comedy potential of the little guy with the big women, Whitey had meanwhile partnered Mildred with Shorty Davies who had actually won the HMB that same year with another partner. Whitey sent them on the 1937-8 tour to California as part of the Big Apple Lindy Hoppers led by the 400-pound dancer Tiny Bunch. It seemed this partnership didn’t cause any creative sparks to fly though, as Mildred featured in the Lindy sequence shot on that tour for the movie Radio City Revels on her own. She put her new mastery of the twist-twist to effective use when truckin’ memorably across the main dance space. After the tour Whitey replaced Davies with Al, thus unleashing an even greater potential by combining a male who could play with partnering techniques ranging from strong leads to submissive follows, with a female who possessed a similar range of abilities.
Whitey’s reorganization paid off later in 1938 when Al and Millie won the Lindy division of the HMB on their first attempt. Despite predictions that Roseland dancers would finally take the Lindy prize away from the Savoy, no other couple could match the ‘devastating gyrations’ of Al and Millie in the finals according to the Daily News. Even the HMB newsreel footage which rarely visually depicted the Lindy entrants sympathetically spotlighted Al and Millie’s special qualities. Theatrical from the outset, Al had taken no chances and worn an unmissable white suit. Subsequent newspaper reporting noted that Al and Millie received by far the most applause when they appeared in the traditional follow-up victors’ performance show at the Loew’s State hosted by Ed Sullivan.
Whitey then stepped up the pace. As that year’s Lindy Hop champs Al and Millie featured in high profile performance slots. Their inclusion in the fall show at the Cotton Club working alongside Cab Calloway from Sept 1938 to February 1939 took them to a new level; while the demand for ace Lindy Hoppers intensified. In addition, from the following October Al found himself appearing in Knickerbocker Holiday at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, a commitment that also lasted into the following year. Al, as one of eight ‘Algonquin Indians,’ simulated a ferocious attack on Walter Huston with a frenzied Lindy routine that included numerous air steps. According to another ‘Indian,’ Willie Jones, their routine proved so popular the Director drastically reduced its length in order to minimize the prolonged applause it aroused. Apparently Al and Millie also found time to fit in a week at the Apollo starting November 11in 1938 as the Prize Winning Jitterbugs. Al must have been racing from one gig to the next, faster at times than he actually moved on stage, and that was quick enough.
1939 saw new challenges. Al and Millie appeared in the Blackbirds of 1939 flop, but also in WLH’s major successful theatrical success in the Hot Mikado that opened at the Broadhurst Theatre. It ran for 85 performances despite competing with the original version, the Swing Mikado, which it had in fact plagiarized. After dancing all the way through this run, Al and Mildred carried on into 1940 when it switched to the World’s Fair. But when the Hot Mikado finished Mildred decided to break with Whitey’s operation and turned solo. She signaled this by marrying ‘Gip’ Gibson of the Chocolateers and became Sandra Gibson.
Promptly teaming Al up with another strong female dancer, Willamae Ricker, Whitey sent them almost immediately on a New Hollywood Hotel Revue tour of the Mid West in 1940. Partnering Willamae proved to be fortunate indeed for Al. Being keen to involve Willamae in the group of dancers Whitey had assigned to go to Hollywood to appear in yet another movie, Frankie invited the both of them to join. They replaced Tops and Wilda, who despite being 1940 HMB champions lost their chance to be the featured team on this tour over a dispute about rehearsals with Frankie, the tour’s manager.
In just over three incredible years Al thus reached the pinnacle of appearing in the sensational film version of Hellzapoppin’, and the follow up Hot Chocolate soundie. Few first time viewers of the Hellzapoppin’ clip forget Al’s seemingly lightning speed especially when his back leg extensions stretch out in perfect counter-point to Willamae’s characteristic powerful, but always feminine pivotal hunch posture, that culminates in him finishing upside down, with her holding him. It represented a drastic updating of the classic conclusion to his and Millie’s winning HMB performance of 1938. Perhaps the Hot Chocolate title of that latest piece contained some kind of allusion to Sandra Gibson’s new associations? If so such ruminations were soon swept aside as Whitey dispatched three of this group’s four Lindy teams, which included Al and Willamae, straight to Brazil for an envisaged another major success.
Their major impact on the night club world of Rio and the Argentine though came to be overshadowed by the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii which brought the US into WW2. German U-Boats attacks on shipping meant flights were hard to find, and stranded them in South America for ten months. Finally making it back to Miami by late 1942, Al’s parents mailed his fare home as the US Army had already issued his draft papers to them. Enlisting on 11 Feb 1943, Al curiously enough gave his former occupations as Cook, Parachute Jumper and Dog Trainer. He appeared to be expressing contradictory feelings about the war, ranging from the strong African-American sentiment of that time about not wanting to sacrifice for a cause that remained indifferent if not hostile to their inclusion, to expressing his preferences as to which section of the Armed Forces he wanted to serve in. He finished up in the Army Air Force, and spent time in the UK, where apparently some locals were lucky enough to be taught Lindy by him. Following demobilization he came back to a very different Harlem that he didn’t respond much to and drifted off into a regular factory job.
Around that time Mura Dehn had come to a realization of the limitations of her own jazz dance performing ability and so set about mobilizing the remaining jazz dancers who were increasingly being swept aside by the new “white” trend in US entertainment. She found Al working in a paint factory and brought him together with Leon James and other Lindy Hoppers for a 1947 production she devised and promoted. They demonstrated the dances of the Savoy in her concert style lecture-performances. Al and Leon became major featured dancers in her epic film ‘The Spirit Moves,’ shot in 1951 at the Savoy and in a studio, during which Al turned in a truly dazzling Charleston performance. Al along with Leon James, Esther Washington, Pepsi Bethel and Blue Outlaw became the core of the remaining contingent of Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers still actively dancing at the Savoy. They also passed on that legacy to representative dancers of a new generation of Savoy Lindy Hoppers who were also featured in Mura’s film. A couple of years later Al and Leon were recruited for Roger Tilton’s technically ground breaking 1954 film Jazz Dance, to inject some ‘authenticity’ into this film record of the then mid-town student jazz scene that consisted mainly of drinking beer to astounding music.
About this time Marshall Stearns met Al & Leon after he became involved in Mura Dehn’s live productions. Whereas Mura focused more on their bodily dance ‘talking’ Marshall also took an interest in their vocal expressions, for which they were also renowned. The timing proved good, as Marshal had virtually completed his book on Jazz Music and guided by the musicians he’d interviewed, his interest now moved towards jazz’s dancing aspect. Who better to talk to, but Al and Leon? Mura had aroused their former enthusiasm by working with them to identify old jazz dance steps that were resurfacing among the new 1950s dancing generations of young people who had begun dancing wherever they could to the new swing influenced rhythm and blues music. In 1957 Marshall’s first wife Betty headed a funding initiative to raise funds to launch Al and Leon as a new professional dance company. Lengthy interviews, panel discussions in jazz events, and performances at the Newport Jazz Festival and in TV documentary expositions of classic jazz steps and their new versions- 1960 ‘American Jazz Dances’ (1960), and ‘Chicago and All That Jazz’ and ‘Those Ragtime Years’ (1961) – followed. They regularly advertised their activities at the time in Dance Magazine as the leading Authentic Jazz Dance teachers.
Although Marshall eventually followed the dance story more towards tap dancing and other more dedicated performance expressions of authentic jazz dance, Al and Leon enjoyed a busy schedule until Marshall’s health began to decline around 1965 and he retired to Florida to complete his epic study Jazz Dance. Followed Marshall’s death in 1966 Al and Leon dropped out of the picture for a while when they ‘retired’ again. The book’s 1968 publication however stirred them back into action to resume live performances as a tribute to Marshall, and yet again their efforts found enthusiastic audiences. It also left a contentious legacy as the accuracy of Al and Leon’s observations made in Jazz Dance, have been challenged much more recently, especially by Frankie Manning.
Unfortunately the popular dancing aspect of the Stearns’ book was overtaken by the widespread, and grossly exaggerated fears about street-hoodlums, who thus were written into the Savoy story as being responsible for the Lindy Hop. The myths that emerged about the Lindy Hop being invented by unknown street gangs high on drugs or alcohol, who occupied by physical force an equally mythically named Cat’s Corner at the Savoy thus became prominent, and possibly had something to do with the elimination of the Mambo from its otherwise intended inclusion in the book. Al himself later repudiated the Cat’s Corner name when he met the new Swedish enthusiasts in 1984, but elements of this confusion still persist. Seen as the almost inevitable consequence of difficult times when establishment USA seemed to want to bury the Lindy Hop as deeply as possible, all such efforts to keep the memory alive need to be respected, while making appropriate corrections.
Al and Leon’s performing renaissance came to an end a few years later when Leon died and Al retired and got into a bad way with excessive drinking. The Lindy Hop world’s real caring continuity though still had some life in it, and just as Al and Leon had kept in touch with the old Savoy brigade through Mama Lou Parks’ annual HMB ‘Savoy prelim’, the same event threw out another lifelines to Al in the early 1980s. When the Harvest Moon Association dropped the Lindy as a dance category in 1980, Louise Parks turned her ‘prelim’ into a standalone event that continued to rally the dance’s remaining loyal cadre. The following year’s 1981 event had two directly beneficial consequences for Al. At that year’s event Larry Schultz of the Sandra Cameron dance studio finally met up with this surviving Lindy legend, and set to work trying to revive his career. Also in that same yet The Southbank Show – one of the UK’s leading TV arts programs – paid for Louise Parks to re-run her 1981 ‘Savoy prelim’ in Harlem as the basis for the first full-length documentary on the Lindy, in which Al spoke and danced with Sugar Sullivan.
It had proved to be an uphill struggle that sadly all too soon became downhill. If anyone mints a Lindy awards medal, Larry Shultz should be the first recipient. His intervention proved decisive. Al still had a problem with the drink, and nursed old grievances, even muttering disdainfully about Louise Parks, while also rightfully remembering old wrongs, such as being excluded from the Roseland. Larry persevered though, and even if a return to Broadway proved to be a step too far, he enabled Al to register significant successes that played a critical role in sparking off the new interest in the dance. Most importantly Al began teaching Lindy at the Sandra Cameron Studio as Dance Magazine announced in July 1982. He appeared on US TV with Sugar Sullivan talking thoughtfully about the past and present of the dance, and successfully performed in 1982 with Sugar in a cycle of dance tales called ‘In The Circle: Stories From The Savoy’ for the Riverside Dance Festival. In 1983 he danced an impromptu Big Apple, at the Richard Yarde Savoy Art Exhibition in Harlem with his old partner Sandra Gibson plus Frankie and Norma, and Sugar & Sonny Allen who fortunately remembered the steps! It was followed up by a truly memorable reunion of Savoy Lindy Hoppers at the Sandra Cameron dance studio.
Unfortunately his new partnership with Sugar broke up soon after though when they were offered a European tour with the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band in 1983. For domestic reasons Sugar couldn’t make it, so the rhythm tap dancer Tina Pratt replaced her. Her Lindy style though originated in Pittsburgh where they swung out differently from New York, and so the partnering aspect of the resultant performance was unsatisfactory, but they both danced brilliantly as individuals. Al remained on form, enjoying what amounted to his stage swan-song. Back in New York in 1984 he enjoyed a brief reprise when Norma Miller, reunited on stage Al, Frankie and Billy Ricker, the three surviving male dancers from Hellzapoppin’ during her own production at the Village Gate. Shortly afterwards Al found himself being stalked around New York by three ‘Vikings’ who he suspected of being from the FBI. Finally he spoke to them at the Red Parrot. In fact were the members of the Swedish Swing Society intent on persuading him to visit Sweden, which he did later that same year. An interview with Al was thankfully recorded in Sweden which can be seen on Youtube in part 1 and part 2.
After igniting a new intense enthusiasm for the Lindy Hop in Sweden that has blazed ever since, his poor state of health finally caught up with him soon after returning to New York early in 1985. His terminal conditions became apparent as his health declined rapidly. Bob Crease of the NYSDS who took class with him, and spent quite some time interviewing Al wrote a memorable article after his death, which this writer has gratefully drawn upon for source material, and especially Bob’s sensitive description of Al’s funeral:
“On April 25 Albert Minns died. A memorial service was held at a rundown chapel in Sugar Hill, once Harlem’s finest neighborhood. On the walls black and white angels frolicked together. A pale blue sky dotted with clouds was painted on the ceiling above Al’s coffin; he was in heaven. On each side of the dais was a stand of flowers, one from the Swedish Swing Society, the other from the New York Swing Dance Society.”