Talent on Tap
KC icons, musicians and hoofers The McFadden Brothers will be honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Jazz Museum this month.
Lonnie and Ronald McFadden
photo by Dan White
The Oak Bar in the lobby of the InterContinental Hotel is grand, with luxurious leather couches, a massive fireplace and high ceilings. It’s enough to make you feel underdressed unless you’re in a three-piece suit — although, on the Thursday evening when I stop in to see Lonnie McFadden, most guests are in jeans. Lonnie, a handsome gentleman in thick black-frame glasses and a dapper jacket, is the only person in the room who seems to belong.
There is no stage at the InterContinental, no spotlight. Lonnie stands against the wall in the center of the lobby, next to a piano, where an accompanist sits. He has a microphone stand in front of him and a trumpet by his side.
It’s clear that he is merely meant to be the background music for the night — but Lonnie, the consummate entertainer, is radiant. His smile is magnetic; his energy is contagious. When he sings “My Girl,” a well-dressed couple assumes the clear floor in front of Lonnie for a dance. Even if you wanted to ignore him, Lonnie has a way of diverting your attention.
“A lot of venues I play these days, there’s no stage, no place for a show or presentation,” Lonnie admits a few days later, back at the InterContinental for our interview — this time in daylight. “At Plaza III [where he has a residency on Saturday nights], I’m in the corner, literally, and here at the InterContinental, I’m basically just by the window. I’m part of the ambiance of the evening at most places I perform.”
It wasn’t always this way. When Lonnie and his younger brother, Ronald, were in their late teens and early 20s, they toured with a band throughout Japan as a jazz and R&B act. Their performances featured rearranged tunes, which didn’t always go over well with an audience full of limited-English-speakers, who only wanted to sing along. It was during that period that the brothers found another way to connect: through tap dancing.
Tapping — “hoofing,” as the brothers call it — was a talent they picked up early in their childhood from their father, the legendary Smilin’ Jimmy McFadden and his own lauded tap-dancing group, the Three Chocolate Drops.
“Before we knew it, we were good,” Ronald says. “A lot of the tap routines that we learned when we were 5 and 6 or younger, we still do today, because they were on a professional level at that time.”
From that point on, hoofing became an integral part of the brothers’ exuberant show. Throughout the ’70s and until the early ’80s, Lonnie — who politely declines to reveal his age, though research would put him somewhere around 60 years old — performed with an act he called Lonnie and the Band. When that ended, his brother, Ronald, who played the alto sax, joined him as a co-headliner, and their act became the McFadden Brothers.
“The McFadden Brothers is basically an act that Ronald and I put together as a Las Vegas type of show,” Lonnie says. “It’s tuxedos and a full band, and we tap. We’re hoofers. Ronald and I are old-school, Las Vegas showroom kind of entertainers. That’s how we started. That’s what we still love.”
For a long time, the brothers enjoyed a certain celebrity: they performed with the Count Basie Orchestra and in major jazz festivals across North America and Europe. They shared bills with Miles Davis and George Benson; they performed on a Variety Club Telethon hosted by Sammy Davis Jr. in 1985, which the brothers remember as a highlight of their career. They were Wayne Newton’s featured act at his Vegas show at the MGM Grand from 1995 to 1998.
After that gig ended, Lonnie says, everything started to change. The demand for the McFadden Brothers’ style of showbiz — synchronized, detaild tap choreography backed by an expansive, expert band — began to fade. From 2007 to 2012, the brothers had a once-monthly gig at the Blue Room; when management changed, their booking was cut. Now, the McFadden Brothers as they were first fashioned perform rarely — on special occasions, such as the annual Prairie Village Jazz Festival, or for private or corporate events.
Lonnie, minus his brother, has reinvented his act. Today, his calendar is filled with bookings — although, he admits, they are not the glamorous affairs they once were — where you can find him singing standards, blowing his horn and joyfully tapping out his life.
“Now, when I do my solo act, I tailor it to the nightclub scene here in Kansas City,” he says. “Most places don’t have a stage, and no place has a budget that will allow us to do the full band we had at the Blue Room for five years. So I’m not intrusive, and I tailor it to where I can still make it affordable to the venue, but where I can still pay my musicians.”
Often, Lonnie will provide a rearranged electronic tracking of a familiar tune: “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine” was cued up on speakers at the InterContinental Hotel, and Lonnie, sounding like a rather convincing Lou Rawls, charmed the dozen or so guests who sat around the lounge area, rapt.
It might not be the action-packed, Vegas-style shows the McFadden Brothers are known for, but Lonnie isn’t bothered.
“This is what makes me happy. If I get fired, you all will see me on the corner with my hat out. As long as I can perform, I’m happy.”
I consider Lonnie’s brilliant version of “Love On The Rocks,” his deep voice filling the air between the gusto of his trumpet notes, the woeful lyrics totally at odds with his joyful face. I cannot imagine this man in any other role; he seems a born entertainer.
“I’m lucky,” he says. “I worked retail for a long time, selling clothes and selling cars, and one day I quit. I realized I would rather be happy than be successful. I’m doing better now than I ever did, and it’s interesting the way that happened. I guess God was waiting on me to truly commit.”
On Saturday, May 14, at the American Jazz Museum, Kansas City recognizes the commitment of the McFadden Brothers to their craft as well as their enduring legacy with a Lifetime Achievement Award. When news of the honor reached them, they were flabbergasted.
“It’s something I hadn’t thought about,” Ronald says. “I didn’t realize how long we had been performing — over 50 years. I still haven’t really comprehended it, and I probably won’t until that night. The thought of it is still a surprise to me.”
Lonnie laughs, agreeing with his brother.
“I couldn’t even talk about it until three weeks ago,” he says. “I always associated lifetime achievement awards with being over-the-hill and retired, and I am so not retired!” He laughs again, and the sound has music to it. “But I got choked up when the girl called me from the American Jazz Museum, asking me how I’d like to have my name printed on the award. It’s a great honor.”
On YouTube, there’s a clip of the McFadden Brothers tapping — in perfect, fluid synchronicity — their immaculate routine on the Variety Show Telethon in 1985, some months after Smilin’ Jimmy McFadden died. It’s a fuzzy few minutes, but at the end of it, you can watch Sammy Davis Jr. go up to each of the brothers, joke with them and shake their hands. The McFaddens, who are in their late 20s at the time, are clearly humbled by his presence, and they smile giddily.
“May you have all the health and good fortune,” Davis says, his arm slung around Ronald, “and may you have the kind of happiness that your dad had, because he loved what he did, and obviously you guys do, too.”
His blessing, it would seem, holds up just fine.
Lonnie McFadden at The Phoenix
The McFadden Brothers will perform and receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Jazz Museum on Saturday, May 14 at the Gem Theater. Fellow honoree Ida McBeth joins the bill. For tickets visit americanjazzmuseum.org.
You can also see Lonnie and his band perform on Thursdays at the Oak Bar at InterContinental Hotel Kansas City; at his Friday night residency at The Phoenix (he’s even been known to hop on top of the bar); at his Saturday night residency at the club level of Plaza III The Steakhouse; or Sunday nights in the lounge at Sullivan’s Steakhouse in Leawood.