"The poet laureate of television," comedian Nipsey Russell became a fixture of pop culture landscape during the 1970s after a successful nightclub career with a series of indelible appearances on the talk shows and game shows that, in large part, defined the Me Decade. Nipsey Russell was born October 13, 1924 in Atlanta, Georgia. "My mother just liked the way the name 'Nipsey' sounded," he later said of his unusual moniker. He began his professional performing career at age six as the song-and-dance master of ceremonies for the Ragamuffins of Rhythm, an Atlanta children's troupe organized by Eddie Heywood, Sr., father of the noted jazz pianist. After studying classical literature and foreign languages at the University of Cincinnati, Russell served with the U.S. Army in World War II before he settled in Montreal in 1946. In 1950, he made his television debut on the Robert Q. Lewis-hosted CBS talent showcase The Show Goes On. The exposure boosted his burgeoning stand-up career and resulted in headlining gigs at chitlin-circuit clubs across the U.S. Russell was nevertheless unique among the African-American comics of his generation. He shunned the stereotypical baggy-pants image and raunchy riffs in favor of a conservative suit and tie, trademark porkpie hat and sophisticated, topical wit couched in aphorisms and rhymes.
By the mid-1950s, Russell was headlining New York's legendary Apollo Theater as well as popular Catskills resorts like the Concord. During a long residency at the fashionable Harlem cabaret, the Baby Grand, he captured the attention of Jack Paar, host of NBC television's popular Tonight Show, and his appearances on the late-night gabfest launched the comedian to national prominence. In 1960 Russell signed to the Borderline label and released a series of comedy LPs including Confucius Told Me, Things They Never Taught at School, The Birds and the Bees and All That Jazz, and Sing Along with Nipsey Russell. In 1961, he was cast in NBC's Car 54, Where Are You? and became one of the first African-American actors with a regular sitcom gig. But, as more politically-charged black comedians like Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor became a cause célèbre among white liberals, Russell's genial, earthy approach rapidly fell out of favor with audiences on both sides of the color line. He nevertheless deserves recognition as a television pioneer. In 1964 Russell became the first black performer to serve as a regular panelist on ABC's game show Missing Links and a year later became co-host of the network's late-night Les Crane Show.
During the 1970s, Russell maintained a tireless touring schedule. He became a nightclub staple in both Las Vegas and Atlantic City, a frequent guest on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, and also a popular panelist on daytime game shows including Match Game, Hollywood Squares and The $25,000 Pyramid, where he always arrived prepared with a topical verse. In 1978, Russell made his feature film debut in the Hollywood musical bomb The Wiz. He earned glowing reviews for his portrayal of the Tin Man but did not resurface on the big screen until 1986 when he appeared opposite Goldie Hawn in Wildcats. Russell remained a television constant during the 1980s. In 1983, he starred in the BET cable network's Juvenile Jury, and two years later, hosted the short-lived daytime game show Your Number's Up for NBC. The demise of celeb-driven daytime game shows conspired to restrict Russell to the nightclub circuit in the decade to follow, however, although his popularity among a younger generation of comedians resulted in regular appearances on NBC's Late Night with Conan O'Brien and HBO's The Chris Rock Show. After a lengthy battle with cancer, Russell died in Manhattan on October 2, 2005, just 11 days shy of his 81st birthday. ~ Jason Ankeny