Fayard and Harold Nicholas grew up in Philadelphia, where their parents ran the house band of the Old Standard Theatre. Fayard, 7 years older than Harold, learned to dance by watching the vaudeville performers who came into the Old Standard and imitating their moves. Harold idolised his big brother, who taught him to dance, and the two began perfecting a double act.
In 1931 a producer for the radio show Horn and Hardart Kiddie Hour spotted Fayard in a school play and invited him to perform on the show. Fayard told the producer about his brother, and the two began their first professional engagement together.
Their Father, Ulysses, refused to enter the boys in local talent competitions, amateur hours or dance contests. Instead, he used his connections as a musician to arrange an audition for The Nicholas Kids at the Standard, and eventually they were scouted for the famous vaudeville showcase in New York at the Lafayette.
In 1932 they opened the Lafayette with Eubie Blake and his band. He recommended them to the producers of a movie he was about to film Pie, Pie, Blackbird. In their biography Brotherhood in Rhythm: The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers, author Constance Valis Hill says: “While the brothers drew from the traditional lexicon of tap dance and the black vernacular sources of movement, their choreography…demonstrated a presentation of traditional steps that was quite unusual for the early 30s”.
In the October of 1932 the Nicholas Brothers became featured acts at Harlem’s Cotton Club, where they worked for two years alongside some of the biggest names in Jazz: Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Ethel Walters among them. In Tap! The Greatest Tap Dance Stars and Their Stories, 1900-1955 by Rusty Frank, Fayard recalled: “Nobody could follow us. Stopped the show every night! Yeah, they called us The Show Stoppers.” Acts at the cotton club were strictly segregated, with no white performers appearing on stage, and no people of colour were allowed in the audience. Cab Calloway wrote: “Some of the proudest Negro musicians in the world played there and adhered to the policy of racial separation… I doubt that jazz would have survived if musicians hadn’t gone along with such racial practices”. However, contrary to this, the young and charming Nicholas Brothers were allowed “out front” to rub shoulders with the audience. Fayard said: “I’m glad we did go out there, because we started something like integration.”
The Nicholas Brothers’ Broadway debut was in the Vincent Minelli-directed and George Balanchine-choreographed “Ziegfeld Follies” of 1936, with actors such as Bob Hope & Fanny Brice. Balanchine was so taken by the youngsters that he put them into the original Rodgers and Hart’s Babes in Arms (1937).
During the 1940’s, a long and brilliant association with Hollywood began, notably in a succession of marvellous dance sequences in six 20th Century Fox musical films, including Sun Valley Serenade (1941); with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, featuring Dorothy Dandridge dancing with the brothers in the “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” number; in Orchestra Wives (1942), where they performed one of their most beautiful routines to Glenn Miller’s music of “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo”; and in The Pirate (1948), in “Be A Clown” with Gene Kelly. The most famous of all their works has to be the iconic performance of “Jumpin’ Jive”, with Cab Calloway’s Big Band in Stormy Weather. This virtuosic performance, in which the brothers danced on platforms in the band jumping over the head’s of the brass players, ends with them jumping into splits over each other’s heads down a staircase. Fred Astaire described it as “the greatest musical sequence of all time”.
The Nicholas Brothers have received numerous accolades, including a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, being nominated to the Apollo Hall of Fame, The Kennedy Center Honors (presented by President George Bush), and an honorary doctorate degree from Harvard University, where they were teachers-in-residence. Harold won the Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Award for Best Principal Performance for Stompin’ at the Savoy, and Fayard won a Tony award co-choreographing the Broadway hit Black and Blue.
The family legacy is continued by Fayard’s granddaughters – The Nicholas Sisters – with Cathy Nicholas running the annual LA Tap Fest, along with Jason Samuels Smith.
“Believe me, I stole what steps I could from them and even today when I do them, I’ll yell out: “This is A Nicholas Brothers Step!” Because I feel so good I’m even able to do the step, and I simply have to pay homage to the lasting greatness they created.”