John W. "Bubbles" Sublett is one of the great historical figures in tap dancing, as well as a legendary early entertainer in Hollywood films. There has never been any argument about the brilliance of his dancing or vocalizing, or really any aspect of his technical performance, yet there are many people that have difficulty getting past the racial stereotypes featured in films such as Cabin in the Sky," let alone Sublett's portrayal of the black pimp Sportin' Life in Porgy and Bess. While some biographies of the man, often credited as simply John Bubbles or just plain Bubbles, list his professional debut as happening when he was 18, tales about the duo of Buck and Bubbles usually claim that Sublett was only six years old when he first teamed up as a piano accompanist with Ford Lee "Buck" Washington. The pair were childhood associates from Kentucky.
Buck and Bubbles worked together off and on until the former man passed away in the mid-'50s, but Sublett also had an active solo career as both a dancer and vocalist. In the latter capacity he toured California's famous Orpheum circuit in the '20s, and sometimes worked as a frontman with jazz bands. But his decision to study dance was a good one, as it is in this area that he is considered a real innovator. A style of tap dancing known as the "rhythm tap," consisting of phrases that accented four beats to a bar rather than two, was a Bubbles phenomenon that echoed developments in swing and later bebop music. And no wonder, since the dancer developed the style to better hold forth in front of bands such as Duke Ellington's.
Despite these innovations, there have been attempts to pop Bubbles made by the politically correct squad, including a famous incident at an early-'60s meeting of the NAACP in which the entertainer was literally called on the carpet for his performances, responding by saying he had done what he had to do simply to make a living. Many scholars of tap dance consider him to be the greatest improvising dancer of all time. Buck and Bubbles were featured in more than a dozen Hollywood productions and following the death of his partner, Bubbles appeared frequently on television as a solo in the '50s. Bob Hope took him on several performing tours entertaining American troops stationed in Vietnam.