With nearly all the eyewitnesses to a grand era of ‘20s and ‘30s black show business now gone, the stories live on only second-hand, through printed and recorded interviews. Now, out of a mist of forgotten history, leaps one of that period’s shrewdest, saltiest participants. Leonard Reed, who died in 2004 at the age of 97, was not a household word. A onetime tap-dancer and vaudevillian, Reed had segued into the role of impresario; he was probably best known as a longtime manager of the Apollo Theatre.

In 1985, pop-music historian Bill Reed (no relation) approached him with a tape recorder and some questions. Leonard saw the microphone as a spotlight, and he performed. Out tumbled the story that fills this exciting book—one that deserves a place alongside Chris Albertson’s Bessie, Ethel Waters’s His Eye Is on the Sparrow, and Bobby Short’s Black and White Baby. Like them, The Leonard Reed Story: Brains as Well as Feet is set in an age when black entertainers literally risked their lives to do what they loved to do. Reed saw it all: the tent shows down south; the brazen, beleaguered women of the blues; the gangsters, thugs, and speakeasies; the Chitlin’ Circuit; the carefree sexual hijinks. To add to the glitter, Reed’s book has an eye-popping array of star cameos, and portraits of obscure but delightful characters who are worth remembering.

Reed was eye-catching in his own right—an over-the-top natty dresser, slick, and light-skinned enough “to pass.” Certainly he knew the racial prejudice inside his own community as well as in the world beyond. But hard as it was for an African-American of his day to survive, Reed had an unstoppable flair for fun, and thrived on mayhem. Were the participants in his stories alive, they would no doubt recall some things differently. Reed was, after all, an entertainer, and knew how to spin a seductive (and self-aggrandizing) tale.
But whatever the exaggerations may be, he’s now getting the last word, and the spirit of his life and times comes through with indisputable vividness. Bill Reed has woven in his own valuable historical narrative. As you turn the pages, you’ll feel as though you were there.