A Tribute to Comedian Nipsey Russell

Comedian Nipsey Russell died Sunday at age 80 from cancer. Russell's one-liners and impromptu rhymes made him one of television's popular talk-show guests and game-show panelists during the 1970s. We hear some of his earlier material, and learn about his passion for classic poetry.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The comedian Nipsey Russell was always ready with a rhyme.

(Soundbite of vintage recording)

Mr. NIPSEY RUSSELL: The streetcar hit a cow one day; knocked all the little milk squirts off the cow, they say. One milk squirt landed in an old maid's hand; she says, `God, they've killed the motor man.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: Nipsey Russell died this weekend in New York City after battling cancer for about a year. Russell was a stand-up comic, an emcee, an actor and a singer. But some Americans might remember him for his frequent appearances on daytime TV quiz shows.

(Soundbite of "What's My Line?")

Mr. RUSSELL: All right. Number two, do you do all abstracts, or do you do some representationals? Let's see, who was your favorite...

NORRIS: He was a regular on "Hollywood Squares," and by then he was also a household name. His high-voltage smile was widely recognized.

He began in the segregated South in Atlanta. He graduated from high school at age 15, and in college he studied classic literature and Old English. After service in World War II, he pursued his comedy career. Friars Club President Freddy Roman, a friend of Nipsey Russell, explains what he faced.

Mr. FREDDY ROMAN (President, Friars Club): In early show business in America, the Negro--as he was then called--was primarily the tap dancer. The comedians? Oh, there was never an African-American comedian. White-faced Americans would put blackface on to do comedy and vaudeville.

NORRIS: So he started his career in black clubs, but leapt over the color barrier, beginning in the 1950s.

Mr. ROMAN: A lot of white people would go to Harlem to be entertained, and there would be the Club Baby Grand and there would be Nipsey Russell as the headline comedian. And he was there for years; not for a week or two, but he would stay there for year after year and built up a tremendous draw. Crowds would run there to see him, white and black.

(Soundbite of vintage recording)

Mr. RUSSELL: Here we are at the Bang Bang Club, so come right in. We're glad you brought your beautiful wife. No? Not your wife, huh? Your sweetheart? Well, we don't care whose wife it is, come in and sit down. We all do a little light housekeeping here every now and then.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: His stint at the Baby Grand led to TV appearances. He was one of the first black performers with a steady role in a sitcom. He played Officer Anderson in the show "Car 54, Where Are You?" Later, he broke another barrier when he became the first African-American game show panelist. Joe Rapp was Nipsey Russell's manager and close friend for 37 years. He says the breakthrough was on a show called "Missing Links" in 1964

Mr. JOE RAPP (Former Manager for Nipsey Russell): One day at the show's end, Ed McMahon said, `Say something to the audience for good night,' and off the top of his head, he came up with a poem. The next night, Ed McMahon--`Hey, let's hear from our poet laureate of television, Nipsey Russell. Another poem.' Well, Nipsey didn't have another poem. He had to come up with it off the top of his head, and then he realized this was his hook. Like Rodney Dangerfield had `I don't get any respect,' he would have the poems. A lot of the people used to call him the original rapper.

NORRIS: Russell's manager and friend Joe Rapp.

Nipsey Russell died Sunday. Friends say he was 80 years old, but his birth certificate has been lost. Oh, and Nipsey Russell had another starring role, that of The Tin Man in the film "The Wiz."

(Soundbite of "The Wiz")

Mr. RUSSELL: (Singing) Sock some oil to me. Let it trickle down my spine. If you don't have STP, Crisco will do just fine. Slide some to my elbows and to my fingers, if you would. Slide some oil to me, girl. Whoo! Don't that feel real good. Slide some oil to my feet. Lookit there, I got toes again. Come on, slide some oil to my knee and let...

NORRIS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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