J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Silver Belles in Been Rich All My Life


Been Rich All My Life
Directed Heather Lyn MacDonald
Toots Crackin’ Porduction/First Run Features

There was a time when people dressed up for a night out. The big bands ruled the night clubs and theaters, and the women of the Silver Belles were dancing in the chorus at the Apollo Theater. Director-producer-and most-everything-else Heather Lyn MacDonald records their stories in the touching theatrical documentary Been Rich All My Life, now available on DVD.

It was big band swing that they danced to at the Apollo and legendary night-spots like the Cotton Club, so as one would expect, music plays an important role in their story. Silver Belle Marian Coles explains: “We do mostly jazz moves. You got to be loose to move and the music inspires that.” Which band did they single out? Jimmie Lunceford’s: “that was our band . . . because they were swinging.” Lunceford even wrote a tune specifically for them, “For Dancers Only.”

Ms. Coles, age 88 at time of filming, was also teaching tap in addition to performing. When she talks about preserving the tap tradition, her words have resonance for jazz lovers as well: “I love to dance—I teach because our style of dance—there’s no one out here doing it . . . I teach to pass it on, because the students love it.” Her teaching techniques even reflect a jazz influence, as she scats the dance steps to her students.

What starts off as a pleasant portrait of the Silver Belles, becomes very real, with the passing of their senior member, Bettye Lou Wood, and another suffers a serious injury. At one point it is uncertain whether the Belles will be able to continue as a troupe. MacDonald captured some great interviews, preserving some important cultural history and the American history that shaped it. In one interview, Cleo Hayes tells us: “I’m from Greenville, Mississippi and I don’t have to tell you why I left.”

If you don’t know, it should be clear when listen to their experiences on Southern tours. Even when a part of the first African-American USO tour, they had to deal with segregation, despite soldiers shouting: “Hey Apollo, Hey Apollo.” The Belles certainly were apart of great musical history, working with the likes of Bill Robinson and Eubie Blake, the musical director for their USO tour.

The DVD release puts together a nice package, with a lesson in dancing the Shim Sham Shimmy taught by Silver Belle Fay Ray. Love to see that catch on in the clubs. Also, Pete Whitman gets his due as composer in a bonus interview. He wrote some nice tunes inspired by the original swing bands that hold up well on their own, and are available here as separate audio tracks. The soundtrack also features some effective solo piano performances by Benny Weinbeck.

Like jazz, tap dancing commands artistic respect, if not the commercial clout each once had during the swing era. For both to survive, the masters must pass the tradition on, teaching young talents. Coles and Hayes both credit Bettye Lou Wood for just that sort of formative instruction early in their careers. It is that sense of living tradition and passion for one’s art that makes Been Rich such a rewarding film.