Leonard Harper (1899-1943) was in the thick of the Harlem Renaissance, the bright lights and the low life, the big venues and the back alleys, as performer, promoter, owner—in front of the audience and behind the scenes. His grandson, Grant Harper Reid, has spent years piecing together this remarkable tribute.
Born in poverty in Alabama, Harper was the son of an entertainer father and a church-going mother; both encouraged his musical abilities. When his father died, he resolved to help feed the family, realizing that singing for dimes and nickels was more profitable than cleaning toilets for pennies. Although Harper’s dancing talents were exploited by sharp African-American promoters on the sawdust circuit, he soon learned his own worth, and began demanding equal billing with the bosses and by age 16 he was working solo.
Harper, whose instinct told him that the audience would always want to see beautiful young women, became a highly successful entertainment entrepreneur. His career spanned Prohibition and the Great Depression, paradoxically a good time to be an African American entertainer. Though blacks suffered prejudice in pay and other areas of the business, their rhythmic moves and sweet vocal intonations were enjoying a special vogue. It was a wide-open scene, combining the thrills of first-rate song and dance with a hint of serious sin. Many famous names crop up in Harper’s story; his fans included Franklin Roosevelt, Charles Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich, and Lady and Lord Mountbatten.
Reid does not tiptoe within the restrictions of political correctness, but instead uses contemporaneous terms such as “coon” and “pickaninny” when appropriate. Harper’s show titles are sufficient reminder of the era: Lucky Sambo, Plantation Days, Blackbirds of 1926, and perhaps his most famous venture, Hot Chocolates. His extravaganzas featured cameo performances from the likes of Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, and Bill Bojangles Robinson. Writing exuberantly, Reid transforms a well researched biography into a richly tonal fable, with emotive observations like this reference to Harper’s many infidelities during his marriage to former dance partner Osceola Blanks: “Osceola’s domesticity could not compete with the young females that rhythm tapped with an abundance of bouncy seductive energy on the dance floor and in his backstage office.”
Harper died suddenly of a heart attack at age 44, on a dance floor, during a rehearsal. At his funeral, the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Jr, eulogized that, in Reid’s words, “there was little difference between church life and the show business world because both seek to serve to Lord by making man’s existence a little bit nicer.” The honorary flower bearers were a bevy of “the most angelic, striking and mouth watering…showgirls in the world.”
A vibrant portrait of a dynamic, multi-talented American who battled daunting odds with innate business acumen and flamboyant hope; RHYTHM FOR SALE reveals a different America and how our perspectives and aspirations have altered and evolved.