The Wild and Fabulous Career of Tony Winner Leslie Uggams

Seth Rudetsky   The Wild and Fabulous Career of Tony Winner Leslie Uggams
 
This week in the life of Seth Rudetsky, Seth shares stories from when Uggams started out in showbiz at age 6, through her teens years, starring in Broadway’s Hallelujah Baby!, and more.
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Leslie Uggams Joseph Marzullo/WENN

This week, in honor of June (if you don’t know why, it will be explained later), we had Leslie Uggams on Stars In The House. And in honor of Black Lives Matter, we’ve pivoted donations to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (with the blessing of The Actors Fund).

Leslie’s career is so amazing that we had to have her back for a second show and we still didn’t even get to highlights like replacing Patti LuPone in Anything Goes or playing that crazy-ass mother in Empire. She started her career so young—her first gig was at six years old!!! There was a TV show called Beulah and they were looking for a little girl. Her family heard about it, she auditioned, and she got to play opposite Ethel Walters (whose house she would then go to for soireés and Ethel would entertain everyone)!

Chita Rivera, Leslie Uggams, and Dorothy Loudon in <i>Jerry&#39;s Girls</i>
Chita Rivera, Leslie Uggams, and Dorothy Loudon in Jerry's Girls

She then started doing talent shows on TV (like Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts)….and winning. Here she is at only eight years old singing up a storm.

But, there was always racism around. On the Paul Whiteman show, she kept winning each week and the final prize was a car. Well, the winner was decided by an applause meter and Leslie saw a white man fixing the meter so it didn’t allow her to win! Apparently, a black person had already won the grand prize and the sponsor didn’t want a second one to win. Leslie remembers crying her eyes out, but her mom made her feel better by telling her, “Your father and I don’t drive anyway. What are we going to do with a car!?” It was a very sweet way to protect their daughter from the horrors of discrimination.

From ages nine to16, Leslie started playing the Apollo with people like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, and The Drifters. I asked her what she learned from these greats and immediately she told me what Dinah Washington taught her... how to curse! Dinah would have card games backstage between shows and the best locale happened to be right in front of Leslie’s dressing room. Dinah would tell Leslie’s mom to close the door because she “didn’t want the baby to hear these cuss words,” but Leslie had good hearing and her vocabulary greatly improved!

When she was a teen, she decided to enter a contest on Name That Tune where viewers could send a list of songs and if a contestant could guess each one, the viewer could team up with the contestant on the show. Well, she sent a list, they read Leslie's song choices, the contestant got them all right and they called and asked Leslie to join the show. Because she was a teenager, she knew a lot of pop songs and her partner (a kosher butcher) knew a lot of classical/legit ones so they were a great team and kept winning. The first week, the host asked Leslie what she did in her free time and she said she was a singer. He then asked her to sing something, and she sang “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands.” She came back and sang again (and won). The third week, she sang “The Lord’s Prayer” and Mitch Miller saw her and signed her to Columbia Records! Here she is singing on her first album The Eyes of God.

Mitch Miller had also been trying to get his show Sing Along With Mitch on the air for years, but no network was interested. Finally, it was picked up and he asked Leslie to be a regular singer. The show aired all over except in the South; they wouldn't carry it because it featured a black singer. The network was losing money from all those Southern networks and they asked Mitch to cut Leslie. He said no. Then they asked if he'd give her a week off. No. Then they asked him to just have her sing one song (so her segment could be removed in the Southern broadcast) and he still said no. I asked her if she felt stressed knowing that the network kept trying to get her off the show and she told me that Mitch kept it from her and her family! It wasn't until way later that she knew how strong he was in the face of all that pressure. It's doubly amazing because it took him four years to get the show on TV and yet he was still willing to stand up to the network.

Finally, the show was such a hit that the South couldn't take being left out so they started airing it! The fabulousness of the show trumped their racism. Brava! And Leslie said some of her best fan letters came from Southern viewers! Horrifically, she and her family also got death threats and they had to have the FBI watching them. Terrifying.

Back to the network: They also requested that she and the white men on the show not touch, but Mitch Miller ignored that, too. I showed this clip of her performing and she laughed about what a breakdown the network must have had because the men lift her up and put her down!

In the ’60s, there was a musical called Hallelujah, Baby! and Lena Horne was supposed to start in it. Well, Lena and writer-director Arthur Laurents had a falling out so the role wen to Leslie. (P.S. She ended up winning the Tony for it!) She was so thrilled to be working with legends like Betty Comden and Adolph Green and Jule Styne. One of her big songs was “My Own Morning,” but it’s her other song, “Being Good”, that resonated so much this week. Every black woman we interviewed on Stars in the House (including Mary Wilson from the Supremes and the fabulous Brenda Braxton) talked about how they were taught they had to work extra hard to just be accepted at the same level as their white counterparts. They were being judged at a much different level from anyone white and anything they did wrong would be attributed to their entire race. Leslie said it’s like if by accident you belched in public, there would be an outcry of “They all belch!!!” The lyrics in the song say it all. Side note: It’s also the song Vanessa Williams sang for all the preliminary pageants that got her into the Miss America pageant. Watch Leslie sing it here.

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Leslie Uggams and Cast Friedman-Abeles/New York Public Library

As for why we had Leslie on June 1, it’s because of the hilarious story behind her mangling/scatting the lyrics of “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over.” If you’ve never heard it, please watch this asap because her explanation is shocking and hilarious. And then peace out!

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