During the first few decades of the twentieth century rows of tenement houses radiated west from the Mississippi River and north from the garment district of Downtown St. Louis. The city contained more than two and a half times its current population. A near constant fog of coal smoke darkened the sky, assassin gunfire of feuding mobsters and bootleggers riddled the air against the brassy melodies of Bauer’s Band or Sirli’s Band in the crowded neighborhood parks, and youngsters smoked cigars on street corners while selling Post Dispatches and Globe Democrats. Newly arrived African-American migrants from Mississippi, Russian Jews from New York, immigrants from Poland, Greece, Ireland, and Sicily clustered in an entrepreneurial ground zero packed with food markets, barbershops, restaurants, and saloons. Here, near the intersection of 8th and Carr Streets, is where the story of swing dancer Tommy Russo begins.
In 1908 Russo’s future neighborhood was the most densely populated of any seven contiguous blocks in the city and the Civic League of St. Louis decried its squalid living conditions and overcrowding, comparing it to the tenements of New York City in 1860. Most buildings were only two or three stories tall, each lot consisting of a front-facing house, a rear house–sometimes a converted stable–making the alley “practically another street,” and often a third “middle house” between the front and rear addresses. The neighborhood was referred to variously as the heart of the foreign section, the poverty district, and the Lung Block, referring to the prevalence of tuberculosis deaths.
“That’s what I thought life was. I thought that was it,” Russo, born in 1916, recalled. He was the second oldest of nine children to Vincenzo and Antonina Russo (née Lamantia), who immigrated from around Palermo, Sicily at some point in the early 1910s, and whose names appear as James and Lena in U.S. census records. According to the 1920 census the Russos lived at 818 Carr Street and James was a peddler of a fruit bus, which Tommy explained was common for Italian immigrants:
“Let’s say out of ten persons persons—the Italian people—nine of them . . . they sell fruit and vegetables. They had a stand. My dad had a pushcart; he’d push it from North St. Louis to South St. Louis, around the neighborhood, hollering ‘tomatoes’ and all that. There was quite a few of those, you know, pushing . . . with two wheels, just pushing ’em . . .”
African Americans who danced nightly on their porches (which for six or seven months out of the year was the best living space of a cold water flat) near Jefferson and Washington Avenues caught the eye of adolescent Russo who wandered the city streets freely. This intersection, just around the corner from Scott Joplin’s first permanent residence in St. Louis, was mere blocks from the junction of Chestnut Valley and Mill Creek Valley, an epicenter of Black business and the cradle of ragtime and blues music in St. Louis’ Central Corridor. Chestnut Valley stretched west from the Booker T. Washington Theater where Josephine Baker won a Charleston contest and, as a street dancer with the Jones Family Band, ascended to Shuffle Along in New York City. Dancers in this neighborhood taught Russo his first steps, the Charleston and rubber legs, in the mid-1920s, which would form the basis of his repertoire in Shag, Lindy Hop, and, later, the all-encompassing Big Apple.
Such transmission of dance and music idioms from Black Americans to white European immigrants was commonplace at places like the legendary integrated Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, New York, where a young Jewish dancer named Sol Rudusky emulated pioneers such as Shorty George Snowdown before changing his name to Dean Collins and moving to Los Angeles. Early exchanges like this lay outside prescribed social channels like dance academies, and in many cases white dancers would go on to gain recognition in spaces that barred Black people from entry.
“I’m tellin’ ya, I used to dance every night, twice on Sundays.”
As Russo’s dance recognition swelled he befriended tap dancer Rufus McDonald, who aided Russo by installing taps on his shoes, taught him tap basics and the Shim Sham, a wildly popular stage routine, which swing dancers adopted as a social line dance akin to the later Electric Slide. McDonald, known generally as “Flash,” and “Snow White” in local advertisements, went on to great success in 1943 as a long-time member of the Four Step Brothers, the first dance group, and the first Black tap dance troupe, to be honored on a commemorative star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Throughout the 1950s and 60s the Four Step Brothers performed on the Ed Sullivan Show, and in televised performances with Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, Perry Como, and others. McDonald was a life-long St. Louisan until his death in 1991.
Roughly between 1938 and 1941 Russo and McDonald performed floor shows together in clubs like Steve Cady’s, located at the present-day KDHX 88.1 FM radio station in Grand Center. As a professional entertainer Russo sang, danced, trained chorus line dancers, and held dance tournaments. He emceed floor shows that packaged popular music, trending dances, and comedy for dining audiences. Along with his older brother, singer-comedian “Jumpin’ Joe” Russo, wife-to-be Helen “Dixie” McGrane, and Rufus McDonald, Russo performed in the “Prevues of 1941” at the Empire Ca-ber-et at Delmar and Taylor. He performed also at Club Boulevard, located under the left field bleachers of Sportsman’s Park at North Grand and Dodier, the original home to the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
In 1941 Russo was enlisted into the Army during World War II and worked at bases in California, Washington, and Alaska. By the end of his service in 1945, he had married Dixie and they were expecting their first child. Although the couple continued to perform sporadically in the late 1940s, raising a family had replaced jitterbugging. Russo briefly owned and operated a music nightclub called the Beachcomber on South Kingshighway in the 1950s, and then worked for the Local 520 as a cement finisher.
I met and interviewed Tommy in 2010 when he was a spry 94 years old. In addition to his incredible anecdotes from bygone neighborhoods and ballrooms, he taught me about the wide breadth of rhythmic and spatial variations he and his peers employed. In his demonstrations he widened my perception of St. Louis Shag as being a core of side-by-side basics, kick aways, and fall-off-the-logs to include back-to-back figures, added foot taps to elongate basics, and consistent on-beat running steps or kicks that could support any variety of dynamic shapes. Perhaps even more importantly he taught me about the unfixed nature of dances-as-named. “They may have called it Shag. All I cared about was that they liked it,” was his response to my insistent questions about the names of steps.
In 2011 Tommy Russo graced the Nevermore Jazz Ball & St. Louis Swing Dance Festival, where he social danced, sang “All of Me,” with Meschiya Lake’s band and performed the Shim Sham at the Casa Loma Ballroom. He noted wistfully how these were his stomping grounds close to 80 years earlier.
Big thanks to Gayle Werner, Tommy Russo’s daughter for facilitating interviews and sharing her father’s scrapbook with me.
Sources and Further Reading
Mormino, Gary Ross. Immigrants on the Hill: Italian-Americans in St. Louis, 1882-1982. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.
Miyatsu, Rose. “Rediscovering St. Louis’ Lung Block” https://history.wustl.edu/news/rediscovering-st-louis’s-lung-block. Washington University Department of African-American Studies. May 8, 2019.
Prince, Vida “Sister” Goldman. That’s the Way It Was: Stories of Struggle, Survival and Self-Respect in Twentieth-Century Black St. Louis. History Press, February 5, 2013.
Rumbold, Charlotte. Housing Conditions in St. Louis: Report of the Housing Committee of the Civic League of St. Louis. The Civic League of St. Louis, 1908.
Russo, Tommy. Interview. Conducted by Christian Frommelt. 1 December 2010.
Russo, Tommy. Interview. Conducted by Christian Frommelt. 7 December 2010.
Russo, Tommy. Interview. Conducted by Christian Frommelt. 18 February 2011.