Kansas City's McFadden Brothers On Making Tap Dancing Cool Again

Feb 1, 2018

Lonnie and Ronnie McFadden, of Kansas City's McFadden Brothers, grew up at 19th and Euclid, on Kansas City's east side. They've been a tap-dancing duo for as long as they can remember. But it wasn't until long after the art form went out of style that they made it their own — and made it cool

"We grew up in a household that was probably about as close to Norman Rockwell as I've seen to this day," says Lonnie, remembering the elaborate hot meals his mom used to make before working evenings at a country club.

Ronnie remembers the time they spent with their dad after their mom went to work. They played baseball with the neighborhood kids, listened to music — and started tap-dancing.

Their dad, Jimmy McFadden, was a professional tap dancer, from back in the days when tap-dancing was still popular. As a kid, he'd learned to tap at a barbecue stand near 12th and Highland. Before long, he was part of a traveling tap dancing crew out of Kansas City called The Three Chocolate Drops. He went on to perform with Count Basie, Jay McShann and their ilk.

Teaching his sons how to tap was more like a game than a lesson.

"He had us tap dancing before we even realized what we were doing," says Ronnie, the younger and softer McFadden brother. "We were just hanging out with Daddy, you know? He'd come up and say 'try this' and he'd show us a step and then we'd try it. And when we'd get it, he'd say, 'Oh man, I knew you could do it!'" 

From a young age, they played gigs with their dad, even doing after-hours jamming at the Mutual Musicians Foundation. But by the time they got to high school, tap dancing was on the way out. 

"We actually stopped tap dancing because it was not cool." 

This was the era of funk and soul: James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone. So in search of something cool to replace tap-dancing, the brothers learned to play horns. 

When the McFadden Brothers first got started (after Ronnie spent a few years touring with a local funk band called Clyde, N'em and Her), they didn't tap. They were just a band. But they had trouble getting gigs in the Kansas City venues where people paid enough at the door for the band to make money. 

"We mainly were only able to play in the inner city," says Lonnie.

This is the 1980s he's talking about, long past the era of formal segregation, but he says racism had a big impact on his musical career here — not to mention his life in general.

"When I walked into a store on the Plaza, I would be followed, and not discreetly," he recalls. "From the time I walk in the door, if I pick up a pair of socks, the guy next to me is picking up a pair of socks, and he's steady looking at me."

So they toured wherever they could, including Japan. They spent four months at a time in Japan, but their popularity in that country was hard-won. And it was all thanks to the tap-dancing lessons from their dad. 

"The Japanese people didn't really like our band at first because all of our music was rearranged," says Ronnie. In Japan, they quickly discovered that audiences wanted live music performances to sound like the recordings they'd heard. Desperate to find a way to connect with Japanese audiences, the McFadden Brothers busted out their old tap-dancing moves.

"So we started entertaining them. We started doing steps on our songs. We started tap dancing again."

And it worked. In fact, it was so successful that they kept on doing it when they came back home. In the disco era — think "Saturday Night Fever" — these two guys start doing tap routines in the middle of their shows, and everyone goes wild.

"So we got the reverse reaction from when we were kids and it wasn't cool."

Now, they're in their 60s, or thereabouts — they won't state their exact age. They just got a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Tapology Music Institute, and they're still dancing, though a few crazy moves involving splits-in-the-air have had to be cut from their routines. But for the most part, they haven't slowed down. Lonnie has gigs four nights a week, he just put out a well-received album, and the brothers still perform as a duo on special occasions.

"I do everything that I do because I can," says Lonnie. "It's a celebration that I can." 

Portrait Sessions are in-depth conversations with some of the most interesting people in Kansas City. Each conversational portrait is paired with photographic portraits by Paul Andrews

Gina Kaufmann is the host of KCUR's Central Standard and Midwesternish. You can reach her on Twitter.