Late this summer, Perry Kanlan had an especially good week. On Monday, August 29, Michael Jackson's birthday, the 68-year-old showman was at the Jackson family home in Gary, Indiana, reminiscing with Papa Joseph about the stages he'd shared with the Jackson Five in the 60s; as part of a city-sponsored event, Michael's grandparents had brought the late star's children to the house for the first time, and Kanlan got an invitation inside. Saturday night at the African Festival of the Arts, he hung out backstage with Bootsy Collins, whom he's known since they were both working with James Brown in 1970—and the two men wore identical spangled space-pimp hats. And on Sunday, at a Gene Siskel Film Center screening to celebrate Soul Train's 40th anniversary, he cornered Don Cornelius, who recalled Kanlan's duo Night and Day appearing on an early episode of the local version of the show (it began in 1970, a year before the national version). "People always remember me," Kanlan says. "Everywhere I go, there's someone I know. When I went to west Africa, someone from 47th Street recognized me."
It's not that Kanlan needs validation from celebrities to boost his ego—though he's had plenty of it, having met and worked with a long list of African-American stars, including not just James Brown, Bootsy Collins, and the Jacksons but also Rudy Ray Moore, Lola Falana, Martha Reeves, and Chaka Khan. He seeks out events like these because they give him opportunities to do his favorite things: meet stars, flirt with pretty women, show off his outrageous outfits, and groove to black music. He's been a fixture in south-side lounges since the mid-60s, where he's better known as "Dancin' Man" (in the 90s he upgraded from his old nickname, "Dancin' Boy"), and he's quite convinced that he's a celebrity himself. "Sister Sledge's 'He's the Greatest Dancer,' that's about me," Kanlan insists. "You should have seen us—we were fantastic, the number one act of that type in the world!"
If you've seen Kanlan, you probably remember him too. Practically every time the five-foot-seven-inch dandy leaves the house, he's decked out in one of hundreds of glittering outfits that combine pimp couture, western wear, and hip-hop fashion with his own personal flair—in Gary, for instance, he wore a maroon kimono-inspired jacket decorated with gold lamé dragons, a matching silk shirt, a dragon-themed baseball cap, and an oversize cowboy-style belt buckle encrusted with faux diamonds. You can't help but wonder about him—who he is, where he comes from, what he's doing—and it's not exactly hard to ask him questions, since he'll talk the ears off anybody who comes into his orbit. Good luck sorting out a coherent story, though. No matter how simple the request ("Tell me about that hat"), he'll hit you with a flood of anecdotes, puns, boasts, reminiscences, dirty jokes, music trivia, grand plans, and name dropping.
"Anytime I'm going to talk to him," says Fletcher Witherspoon, a legendary south-side promoter who's known Kanlan for more than 40 years, "I have to make sure I schedule a lot of time to talk." Given Kanlan's fondness for self-aggrandizing stories, arriving at a version of his biography that I could stand behind—especially from the years before he became Dancin' Boy—was a challenge. Fortunately, though, I was able to talk to his sister, Laurel Phillips, who confirmed almost everything I'd heard. As best as I can figure, the story goes something like this.
Born into a Jewish household in Rogers Park on February 28, 1943, Kanlan had an eventful childhood—illness, his parents' divorce in '52, and a habit of running away and hitchhiking made for lots of disruptions and relocations. When he was about eight his family sent him to the southwest for health reasons, and he was hooked—he returned repeatedly throughout his teen and college years, becoming adept at ranching, rodeo, and horseback riding. "I tell everyone I used to be a kosher cowboy," he says.
Though Kanlan had been surrounded by dancing since childhood—his parents were avid nightclubbers in the big-band era—his commitment to it arose in the early 60s, when he hooked up with an all-female Filipino dance troupe in Los Angeles and dated a ranchera singer in Mexico. He fell in love with the stage by watching the singer perform in the red-light districts of San Luis Rio Colorado, where he also enjoyed frequent freebies in the brothels. ("I was teacher's pet," he says. "I didn't have to pay for nothin'.") In the stories of his romantic dalliances, the young ladies always seem to be 17, and their parents invariably approve.
Kanlan also became a fan of R&B during these years, and when he returned to Chicago from the west in 1965 he took the el to the south side, intent on presenting himself at the first club he could find. He stumbled across a lounge called the Place at 63rd and St. Lawrence, where by an extraordinary stroke of luck he met R&B singer Alvin Cash (most famous for the hit "Twine Time," which had come out the year before). He talked his way into a spot as a backup dancer, and soon began developing his own act.
Kanlan's dance style was inspired by James Brown as well as by his own long, strange journey through private schools (where he studied fencing and gymnastics), southwestern cattle ranches, and Mexican vice dens. He developed an over-the-top act that featured a relentless series of flips, splits, and slides. He'd drop into a full split while doing a 360-degree spin, or flip off the stage into the audience. And he could dance on his hands, not just his feet—not only could he stand and hop around that way, he could also do palm spins and stops. Even folks who weren't impressed with his wild showmanship appreciated his originality. "It wasn't my style of dancing," recalls Clinton Ghent, who coordinated performers on Soul Train. "I didn't like his sense of rhythm. But I'll tell you this: He was way ahead of his time . . . all that hip-hop, breakdancing stuff, he was doing that years before anyone else even thought of it."
Over the next few years Kanlan danced in any show he could, working with black partners or solo. He performed in small lounges, dancing as DJs spun 45s, and he talked his way onto bigger stages to dance behind such soul legends as James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Joe Tex, and the Chi-Lites. For a 1966 concert at Gilroy Stadium in Gary, Indiana, Dancin' Boy recruited an up-and-coming local act to cover songs by the Godfather of Soul: "The Jackson Five backed me up, all of them, even Michael doing vocals!" Kanlan says. "I didn't know at the time Michael was a James Brown fanatic, but they were great! How many people can say they were backed up by Michael Jackson?"
Dancin' Boy's most successful act came together in 1970, when he partnered with a man in his early 20s named Phillip Weaver, better known as Blue. Weaver had been hustling dance contests with his impressive James Brown imitation, and together they became Night and Day. They developed a distinctive routine: They told the DJ to wait 30 seconds to drop the needle on the first record, and as they waited, frozen and awkward onstage and staring at the DJ as if there had been some kind of technical snafu, conversation in the joint inevitably ceased. When they had the crowd's full attention, the music kicked in and Dancin' Boy and Blue performed a number together, showcasing their skills but saving their most dynamic stunts. The show's second half (the whole thing was anywhere from six to 15 minutes long) relied on a gimmick that made it especially popular—a brilliant manipulation of the unspoken racial tensions inherent in Kanlan's co-opting of black culture. As the duo traded moves, Weaver would hold back. "He'd do flips and splits and gymnastic moves," Weaver remembers, "and because of the way I carried myself, cool and laid-back, it looked like I was really fixing to bring it on . . . but I didn't, which made the crowd start yelling, 'You gonna let this white boy kick your butt?' Then I'd come out and really do the James Brown and that would just tear the place apart." Night and Day would wrap up their high-energy set together, both dancing like crazy.
That said, Kanlan's gregarious personality and white skin—a novelty where the duo performed—opened doors that skill and savvy might not have. Once Night and Day were established they could hit several clubs a night and earn maybe $50 a pop (a combination of money from the venue and dollars thrown onstage by the crowd). But even in a joint where no one had heard of them, Kanlan would attract attention, make friends, and talk the owner into giving them stage time. "Because he was the only white guy in the club and because of how he was dressed, people wanted to see what he did," Weaver says. "And people liked him—he could go anywhere in any neighborhood, and I didn't ever know him to be jumped on. He got stuck up one time, but they wouldn't hurt him. He said they were being nice to him. I said, 'Yeah, but they took your money.'"
In 1970 Night and Day were invited to perform on the local, daily version of Soul Train, which Don Cornelius presided over as he prepared to take the show national in 1971. Their routine excited teens (a demographic they rarely encountered) and apparently impressed their parents. After Cornelius asked on-air where they would be performing that weekend, Night and Day found themselves hoofing for mobs of new fans at the Brass Rail (Harrison and Cicero) and Jazzville (Madison and Pulaski).