Leslie Uggams on going that extra mile

▶ Watch Video: In Conversation: Leslie Uggams

Correspondent Mo Rocca asked, “You ever heard of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon? It should be Two Degrees of Leslie Uggams. I mean, you have worked with everyone. It seems that way.”

“Everybody!” Uggams agreed.

From singing on television’s earliest variety shows, to starring in the blockbuster miniseries “Roots,” to rooming with Ryan Reynolds in the “Deadpool” superhero movies, Leslie Uggams’ career in showbiz spans generations. “It’s been seven decades. I’ve been working since I was six years old,” she said.

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Tony Award-winning actress Leslie Uggams. (CBS News)

In 1950, the pioneering singer and actress Ethel Waters starred in her own sitcom, as Beulah. Uggams played her niece.

Uggams was born not long before in Upper Manhattan. Her mother, a waitress, had danced at the Cotton Club. Her father, an elevator operator and maintenance man, sang with a famous African American choir.

“They were happy to keep me busy,” Uggams said. “Because we lived in a tough neighborhood. And they were trying to keep me safe and motivated. So, I took every kind of lesson you can imagine.”

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Child star Leslie Uggams. (CBS News)

Her mother took her on auditions. “People used to say, ‘Your mother’s always with you.’ My mother would say, ‘That’s right!'”

Singing and dancing lessons were one thing. But after winning a spot at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theatre at age nine, Uggams began learning from the masters, performing on the same bill as Ella Fitzgerald (“She thought I was too skinny”), Dinah Washington (“She loved to play cards”), and Louis Armstrong (“I called him Pops”).

Rocca asked, “Were you like a sponge?”

“Oh, I watched every single show. It was the best school, because you were seeing everything on and off the stage.”

At 16 she sang on the quiz show “Name That Tune.” The influential record producer Mitch Miller was watching, and hired her for his new variety show, “Sing Along With Mitch.”

“It was the first time that an African American was on every week on national television,” Uggams said. “The South wouldn’t take the show in the beginning because I was on it. And so, the sponsors and NBC kept saying to Mitch, ‘Well, just have her on a few times.’ And Mitch said, ‘No, she’s part of the family, she’s gonna be on.'”

Rocca said, “You had no idea these discussions … ?”

“Had no idea.”

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Singer Leslie Uggams performs at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, November 3, 1964. (William Lovelace/Getty Images)

“Were you aware of the significance at the time of being the first African American regular on a variety show?”

“Yes, I was. And it was a responsibility that I gladly took on. You couldn’t mess up. You couldn’t have any kind of scandal. But it was a lot of pressure, because I knew that I was carrying my race on my shoulders, which I gladly wanted to do.”

“Being good isn’t good enough?”

“Exactly! That’s why I love that song. I grew up, you had to be the best. And then you’d go that extra mile.”

Leslie Uggams performs “Being Good Isn’t Good Enough” on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1967:

That song, Uggams’ signature, came from the 1967 musical, “Hallelujah, Baby.” Uggams was the lead. It was her first Broadway show. “I’ll tell you how naïve I was. When they came into my dressing room and said, ‘You’ve been nominated for a Tony!’ I said, ‘What’s that?'”

She won the Tony! By then, Uggams was married to Grahame Pratt. The two met in his native Australia. “He had never dated a Black woman before,” Uggams said.

But Pratt told Rocca they had a lot of things in common. “Most of them you can’t say on television!” Pratt said.

“Stop!” Uggams laughed.

Before he’d brought her home to meet his family, he wrote them a letter: “Now I don’t wanna hear any problems, I’m gonna bring a Black woman home.”

But Pratt’s mother, it turned out, wasn’t concerned about race: “She said, ‘Is she Presbyterian?'” Uggams recalled. “And how ironic it was that I am Presbyterian!”

Rocca said, “But I have the feeling that, even if you were Methodist, you would have lied and said I’m Presbyterian.”

“Of course I would, because he would have clued me in!” she laughed.

They wed 55 years ago, at a time when interracial marriage was still illegal in some parts of the U.S. The couple has two children and one grandchild.

In 1969, CBS decided to replace the controversial Smothers Brothers with a variety show hosted by Uggams, who used her clout to help other people of color in the entertainment world. “I had a Black choreographer, Latino-Black dancers, Black cameraman, and a Black conductor. So, I maneuvered what I wanted to be done. That was a big deal.”

She also had a writer on staff, John Amos (“who I love and adore”), who would end up playing Uggams’ father in “Roots.”

But if you want to know what show business is really about, just watch Uggams’ very improvisational rendition of “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over,” which she performed on a very wet National Mall in Washington, D.C.

She recalled the soggy day: “Cue card guy is in front of me, and there I start. And all of a sudden, he slips and falls, the cards go flying in the other direction. Now I have no lyrics. So, I just made up anything that came out of my head.”

“June is bustin’ out all over,
the vah-deh duh dedda tedd.
And vriszha vidda dridda…”

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Leslie Uggams is a singular sensation performing “June Is Busting Out All Over.” (PBS)

 

“But the thing is, you sound great!” Rocca said.

“It’s live! You can’t say: ‘Cut!’ and we’ll do it all over. So, I just had to keep going.”

“And that, I’m guessing, is that Apollo training?”

“It was. It was. In my mind, I was scatting like Ella Fitzgerald. But what came out was not scatting like Ella Fitzgerald!” she laughed.

“And I bet ya’ nobody said anything to you after you finished?”

“No, not a word. Not even my husband!”

Among a group of especially devoted fans, June the 1st is now known as Leslie Uggams Day. “A friend of mine calls me on the phone. He says: ‘Darling, do you know you’re in every gay bar in America?’ And I said: ‘Doing what?’ He said: ‘June Is Busting Out All Over!'”


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Story produced by Jay Kernis. Editor: Ed Givnish. 

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