On this day in comedy on September 20th, 1921, Melvin White was born near the old Royal Theatre in Baltimore, Maryland. At the age of ten he was dancing outside for coins and selling candy at the theater, but by the time he was 13 he had to get out of town. All that hanging out hustling money equaled too many school absences and they were going to throw him into a reform school. So Melvin joined a traveling carnival as a tap dancer. Unfortunately that career was short-lived. The police got ahold of him and took him back to his parents. That also didn’t last long. Melvin had been bitten by the show biz bug and was terminally diseased. He was going to be a performer.
White got his nickname when a theater manager billed him and his dance partner as “Slap and Happy”. He didn’t get into comedy until he hooked up with Clarence Schelle in 1940. They called their act “Two Zephyrs” and appeared on The Major Bowes Amateur Hour as well as working with jazz greats, Lionel Hampton, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and others. They worked together for 4 years.
Slappy showed he was a team player when he got his second successful team pairing called “Lewis and White”. They appeared with the likes of Johnny Otis, The Ink Spots and their old friends, the Count, the Duke and Hamp. They also popped up on The Morey Amsterdam Show on TV. However, everybody seems to remember him best for the four years he was partners with Redd Foxx from 1947-1951. Formed in Harlem, the duo toured from coast to coast with the Billy Eckstine Orchestra.
Slappy was married to Pearl Bailey at the time, but it wasn’t going well. When the union commenced they were both relative unknowns, but as Bailey was getting bookings in better clubs, Slappy was still on the low end circuit. That could put a strain on any marriage and Slappy’s was no exception. So they did what any couple would under the circumstances. They got a divorce. Oddly enough Slappy worked with Pearl’s brother, Bill Bailey years later in an act Slappy said should’ve been called, “Rev. Bill Bailey and his ex-brother-in-law”.
Slappy went solo in 1951 and took a strange path to get there. He was working as a chauffeur for singer, Dinah Washington, cracking her up on jokes as he wheeled her around. One night she was running late at her engagement at the “Black Hawk” in San Francisco. She didn’t want the audience to get too restless so she asked Slappy to go out on stage and be funny while she got ready. She didn’t need to rush. Slappy was a hit and she hired him as her opening act.
Not only did he make Dinah Washington laugh he got her loyalty. One night Slappy made the club’s owner the butt of his jokes; fine with the audience, but the white owner didn’t appreciate being made fun of by a Negro and fired Slappy. He stayed fired all the way up to when Dinah said she’d leave too. Like Larry Tate (the opportunist boss on Bewitched), the club man did a quick rehiring job. He stayed with Washington for four years then went solo.
Slappy White gained a reputation for not using offensive material. During the civil rights movement he was more about uniting than dividing. He received a personal commendation from president Kennedy for a piece Slappy wrote and performed called “Brotherhood Creed” using one black and one white glove to demonstrate the equality between men.
Presidents seemed to love Slappy. He and his new partner, Steve Rossi performed for President Richard Nixon at the White House in 1969 and Slappy managed to do it without once hugging old Tricky Dick. White was a recurring character, Melvin, on “Sanford and Son” and remained active guest starring on various sitcoms and performing across country for the remainder of his career. In the mid-90s he was tired and in the process of retiring from acting and moving out of Los Angeles, but then Slappy White died suddenly on November 7, 1995.
By Darryl Littleton