April 15, 1888
|Died||March 10, 1963
New York, USA
|Residence||New York City, New York|
|Occupation||Vaudeville entertainer, Producer|
Although white, Lew Leslie was the first major impresario to present African American artists on the Broadway stage. He became famous for his stage shows at the Cotton Club and later for his Blackbirds revues, which he mounted in 1926, 1928, 1930, 1933 & 1939. Blackbirds of 1928 starring Adelaide Hall, Bill Bojangles Robinson, Tim Moore and Aida Ward. was his most successful revue and ran for over 1 year on Broadway where it became the hit of the season. The sell-out show transferred to the Moulin Rouge in Paris, France, where it ran for three months before returning to the U.S.A. where it commenced an American road tour. Adelaide Hall starred in the show for just over two years. The Blackbirds revues helped advance the career of several famous artists, including Florence Mills, Adelaide Hall, Tim Moore, Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson, Aida Ward and Lottie Gee. Leslie began his career doing a patter act in vaudeville. He had two well-known wives, torch singer Belle Baker and Ziegfeld Follies showgirl Irene Wales.
Leslie started his showbusiness career in vaudeville, first as an impressionist then in a double act with Belle Baker to whom he was married for a while. Becoming an agent, he listed among his clients Ben Bernie, Frank Fay and Bea Palmer. He put on a revue starring Baker and Palmer at the Café de Paris, which later became the Plantation Club where Leslie staged Plantation Revue, the second edition of which, in 1922, starred Florence Mills and her husband, dancer Ulysses ‘Slow Kid’ Thompson. Leslie also staged Dixie To Broadway (1924), again starring Mills and Thompson, and then came his Blackbirds revues, which began in 1926 with a show also starring Mills. At first, these revues were only moderately successful but they paved the way for Blackbirds of 1928.
In January, 1928, Blackbirds opened at Les Ambassadeurs Club in New York under the heading Lew Leslie's Blackbird Revue, starring Adelaide Hall. On 9 May 1928, the show transferred to the Liberty Theatre, Broadway and was re-titled Blackbirds of 1928. Along with Adelaide Hall, the show also starred Aida Ward and Bill Bojangles Robinson. The show ran until August the following year, playing a total of 518 performances. The songs were composed by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields, both of whom worked on revues at the Cotton Club. For Blackbirds of 1928 they wrote ‘Baby!’, ‘Dixie’ and ‘Here Comes My Blackbird’, and while these had little life outside the show the same cannot be said for others that became popular: ‘Diga Diga Doo’, ‘Doin’ The New Low-Down’, ‘I Must Have That Man’ and what became a perennial favourite, I Can't Give You Anything but Love, Baby.
Leslie’s Broadway shows that followed included several editions of Blackbirds. Ethel Waters appeared in the 1930 edition, the 1934 show had Robinson, and the 1936 show, which also ran in London, featured an appearance by the Nicholas Brothers. The last of the series, Blackbirds Of 1939, included in its cast Lena Horne. Interspersed amidst these revues were other Leslie ventures, including The International Revue (1930) and Rhapsody In Black (1931). Although not among the leading Broadway moguls of the 20s, Leslie helped make an important contribution to the integrating of the Broadway musical.
Confusion surrounds Leslie's place of birth. On his World War I draft registration card of June 1917, Leslie stated that he was an alien and was born in Russia on April 15, 1888. His brother Saul Leslie's draft card gives Saul's birth date as May 26, 1886; Saul was also listed as an employee of his theatrical producing brother, Lew. He also appears on the 1910 census as Louis Lesinsky, with his parents Max and Mary Lesinsky and brother Saul (also known as Sol); they lived in Manhattan and Max, aged 50, was a butcher. In the 1920 census they appear again, but this time as Max Leslie, 60, Mary Leslie, 54, Sol Leslie, 32, and Louie Leslie, 30; all were listed as born in Russia, except for Lew who is now listed as born in England. But the year of emigration to America is the same, 1890. Leslie also stated he was born to Jewish parents in Orangeburg, New York.
- Cary D. Wintz, Paul Finkelman, Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance
- IBDB Broadway data base http://ibdb.com/person.php?id=7313
- Time Magazine, Lew Leslie's International Revue, 1930 http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,752398,00.html
- Stars of Broadway, Lew Leslie http://travsd.wordpress.com/2012/04/15/stars-of-vaudeville-471-lew-leslie/
- Lew Leslie, biography http://www.jazzbiographies.com/Biography.aspx?ID=180
- Jazz Age Club, Les Ambassadeur Blackbird show, 1926, article and pictures http://www.jazzageclub.com/cabaret/the-ambassadeur-show-1926/#more-1975
- 'Underneath a Harlem Moon ... the Harlem to Paris years of Adelaide Hall' by Iain Cameron Williams. http://www.amazon.com/Underneath-Harlem-Moon-Paris-Adelaide/dp/B005ZOLV7C
- 1929 photograph of the Blackbird troupe on board the SS Isle de France en-route to Paris, France. Lew Leslie is on the front row. http://metafactory.ca/intermedia/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/clifford1991.pdf
- These historic records can be found on the website, www.ancestry.com.