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Nipsey Russell was best known for his comic rhymes and his appearances on TV game shows.
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Nipsey Russell was a comedian who appeared as a guest panelist on several game shows throughout the 1960s, '70s, '80s and '90s. Russell also played a leading role in the 1978 film The Wiz as the Scarecrow. His comedic routines were landmark in that he refused to use stereotypical dialects or play stereotypical roles in his acts. His work as a comedian who defied stereotypes broke barriers for rising comedians of all backgrounds. He died on October 2, 2005.
Nipsey Russell was born as Julius Russell on what was believed to be October 13, 1924, in Atlanta, Georgia. Because his birth certificate has been lost, his precise birth date remains unknown, but upon his death in 2005 friends said that he was 80 years old. Russell received the nickname "Nipsey" as a baby—"My mother just liked the way the name Nipsey sounded," he explained. Russell began performing when he was only a toddler, and at the age of 3 he joined a children's dance team called "The Ragamuffins of Rhythm."
By the age of 6, he had become the singing and dancing master of ceremonies for a local Atlanta children's troupe run by the jazz musician Eddie Heywood, Sr. Russell traced his interest in comedy back to seeing a performance by the African-American performer Jack Wiggins around the age of 9. Russell recalled, "He came out immaculately attired in a well-dressed street suit and he tap-danced. As he danced, he told little jokes in between. He was so clean in his language and was lacking in any drawl, he just inspired me. I wanted to do that."
In addition to his knack for performing, the young Russell was also a precocious scholar with literary inclinations. By age 10, he was devouring the works of English poets such as Chaucer, Shelley and Keats as well as working through Homer's epics in the original Greek. He graduated early from high school at the age of 15, having spent his senior year living with an aunt in Cincinnati so that he could attend the University of Cincinnati tuition-free. However, Russell's studies were interrupted by the outbreak of World War II. He served a four-year enlistment in the Army and was commissioned as a captain in the field. Upon the conclusion of the war, he returned to the University of Cincinnati and graduated with a degree in classical literature in 1946.
After graduating from college, Russell decided to forgo academic pursuits to try his luck as a standup comedian. At the time Russell embarked on his show business career in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the United States remained deeply segregated, and he performed in exclusively black comedy clubs on the East Coast, in the Midwest and in Canada. However, by the late 1950s, Russell was booking shows at the top Catskills resorts as well as at the Apollo in Harlem.
Around the same time, he began a seven-year tenure—the longest in the club's history—at the Baby Grand, a Manhattan nightclub that, largely due to Russell's act, began to attract white crowds as well as black.
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From the early comedy of Nipsey Russell, Richard Pryor and Bill Cosby to the contemporary routines of Steve Harvey, Mo'Nique, Chris Rock, Wanda Sykes and Dave Chappelle, black comedians have often used their wit to become the voice and face of the African-American experience. These legendary comedians have also set a very high bar—not only for African Americans, but for all comics trying to make it in show business. Learn more about these famous jokesters, from their early days to their comic beginnings, to their side-splitting performances and more.
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