Black News and News Makers in History: Nipsey Russell

African American news from Pasadena - Black news and news makers in history this week - Nipsy RussellNipsey Russell, dancer and comedian, one of the first Black stand-up comedians who found success with mainstream audiences.

Born in Atlanta, Georgia, on October 13, 1924, Nipsey Russell was most widely known for being a guest panelist on many 1970s and 1980s game shows, such as Match Game, To Tell the Truth and Pyramid. Russell started performing professionally in 1931 at the age of 6, when he was featured as a singing, dancing master of ceremonies for a children's troupe in Atlanta organized by Eddie Heywood Sr.

Russell went to high school in his home town and received a BA in English from the University of Cincinnati. He also served in the United States Army. He got his start in the 1940s as a car hop at the Atlanta drive-in, The Varsity, where he would earn his tips by making his customers laugh. By the 1950's he had set his act apart from the baggy-pants, mostly raunchy comics who were the staple of most Black clubs of the time. Dressed in a conservative business suit and tie but wearing a raffish porkpie hat, he offered a confident, sophisticated approach to comedy.

His jokes and topical observations were often delivered in the form of aphorisms and rhymes. Russell read Shelley, Homer, Keats and Paul Laurence Dunbar when he was 10 and sometimes quoted from Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales." He was hip, glib and conspicuously intelligent, he attracted downtown crowds to Harlem, becoming a standout pull at the Baby Grand, Small's Paradise and other cabarets with puns like "America is the only place in the world where you can work in an Arab home in a Scandinavian neighborhood and find a Puerto Rican baby eating matzo balls with chopsticks."

In addition to his sharp game-playing skills, Russell also delighted audiences with short poems, earning him the nickname "the poet laureate of television." His move to nightclubs were essentially a compilation of his stand-up routines, not unlike what Redd Foxx was doing at the very same time. In the late 1950s, he was featured on The Ed Sullivan Show, which led to a small part in the comedy Car 54, Where Are You? in 1960.

Numerous appearances on various television series followed, as well as performing guest host duties on The Tonight Show during the Johnny Carson era. In 1971, he started as a featured panelist on To Tell the Truth, which led to him being hired for The Match Game when Goodson-Todman Productions revived it two years later. He was also a trained dancer, and appeared in the 1978 film The Wiz as the Tin Man.

Nipsey Russell died October 2, 2005 in New York City from stomach cancer at age 80.

Excerpts from http://www.anothershadeofcolor.com.