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John W. Bubbles papers

Identifier: MSS 8026

Scope and Contents

Contains the professional and personal papers of Bubbles. Includes correspondence between him and family members and associates, many photographs of himself performing as well as others with whom he performed, artifacts from his life, audio and visual media of his own performances and other performers, and sheet music collected by him and used in his performances. Also contains address books and materials related to his health, marriages, and other topics. Materials date from approximately 1894 to 2000.


  • approximately 1894-2000


Conditions Governing Access

Open for public research.

Conditions Governing Use

It is the responsibility of the researcher to obtain any necessary copyright clearances. Permission to publish material from the John W. Bubbles papers must be obtained from the Supervisor of Reference Services and/or the L. Tom Perry Special Collections Board of Curators.

Biographical History

John W. Bubbles (1902-1986) was an American vaudeville performer, dancer, singer and entertainer.

John W. Bubbles was born John William Sublett in Louisville, Kentucky on February 19, 1902. His family moved to Indianapolis as a youth, where he met and formed a partnership with Ford L. "Buck" Washington. In 1919, they began performing as "Buck and Bubbles" with Buck playing piano and singing while Bubbles tapped. They appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1931 and were the first black artists to appear in the Radio City Music Hall. On November 2, 1936, they performed live in the inaugural program of the world's first scheduled 'high definition' television service at Alexandra Palace, London, and may thus be said to be the first black artists in television history. In 1920 he gave lessons in tap dancing to Fred Astaire.

Bubbles is known as the father of "rhythm tap", a form of tap dance, which brought in percussive heel drops and innovated with the traditional eight-bar phrase to allow for more rhythmic freedom. He thus merged the art of tap dancing with the new improvisatory style of jazz, reinventing the tap art form. Bubbles was chosen by George Gershwin for the role of Sportin' Life in his opera Porgy and Bess in 1935. Sublett performed the role occasionally for the next two decades. In the 1963 studio recording of Porgy and Bess featuring Leontyne Price and William Warfield, he performed Sportin' Life's two main arias from the opera, "It Ain't Necessarily So" and "There's A Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon For New York."

During the Vietnam War John Bubbles toured the war zone with the USO. He also appeared in a few Hollywood films including "Varsity Show" in 1937, "Cabin in the Sky" in 1943 and "A Song Is Born" in 1948. In later life, he also made television appearances. Bubbles received the 1980 Life Achievement Award from the American Guild of Variety Artists. He died on May 18, 1986 in New York City.


1 box (0.5 linear ft.)

21 cartons (21 linear ft.)

9 oversize boxes (6.75 linear ft.)

3 items (7 linear ft.)

Language of Materials



Arranged in six series: 1. John W. Bubbles photographs, approximately 1924-1985. 2. John W. Bubbles professional papers, approximately 1930-1986. 3. John W. Bubbles personal papers, approximately 1920-2000. 4. John W. Bubbles clippings, film recordings, and audio recordings, approximately 1925-1985. 5. John W. Bubbles music files, approximately 1894-1975. 6. John W. Bubbles artifacts, approximately 1925-1986.

Custodial History

Donated by Michael Bateman in 2012. Prior to that time, they were the property of Wanda Michael.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Donated; Michael Bateman; 2012.


Arts and Communications.

John W. Bubbles was an African-American vaudeville star and dancer from the 1930’s, and was one of the first African-Americans to succeed in Hollywood as dancers and performers.

Processing Information

Processed; David Day, Curator and John M. Murphy, Curator; and Kelsey Samuelsen, student manuscript processor; 2012.

Processed; Sadie Hutchinson, student manuscript processor; 2015.

Register of John W. Bubbles papers
Kelsey Samuelsen, student manuscripts processor, John M. Murphy, curator, and David Day, curator.
2012 November 1
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English in Latin script.

Repository Details

Part of the L. Tom Perry Special Collections Repository

1130 HBLL
Brigham Young University
Provo Utah 84602 United States