American Vaudeville Museum

All material © 1998-2010 American Museum of Vaudeville, Inc.  Page 20

Carnell Lyons

In the 1920s and 1930s, Kansas City was a swinging town, a jazz center largely unknown to the general public until record producer John Hammond discovered Count Basie in 1936. Hammond heard Basie over a radio broadcast from the Reno, a club in that city. Among the musicians that Kansas City boasted were Benny Moten, Andy Kirk, Mary Lou Williams, George E. Lee, Jay McShann, Lester Young, Jimmy Rushing, Ben Webster and future jazz star Charlie Parker. The Vine Street District hosted all kinds of night spots and jazz clubs, most owned by the local mafia and protected by city boss, Tom Pendergast. Many night spots like the Reno and theaters like the Lincoln had a floor show which featured some of America’s best tap dancers like Peg Leg Bates and exhibitions by Lindy Hoppers.

Dancing in the movies were Bill Robinson, Buck and Bubbles, Jeni Le Gon and the young Nicholas Brothers—a special inspiration for all youngsters, including Carnell Lyons, who decided that he, too, would learn to tap dance. His first teacher was a neighborhood kid, Cornelius Redman, whom everybody called ‘Perk.’ A little older than Carnell and the other kids, Perk taught them the basics of tap, such as time steps, wings, over-the-top—which they called ‘plain dance.’