Longtime entertainer, community leader Al Stiles has died

Song-and-dance man and community leader Al Stiles has performed his swan song.Stiles, who was declared a living legend in 2002 by the Apollo Theater in Harlem and performed with some of the nation’s best-known entertainers, died Jan. 2. He was 91.bildeBorn in 1924 and raised in Tampa, Fla., Stiles started his entertainment career as a child performer in a five-member jug band. At age 12, he took a bus to New York City with a 9-year-old jug band partner, Nathaniel Reese. Without their parents’ knowledge, they auditioned and played on CBS Radio’s “Major Bowes Amateur Hour.” They won the show’s talent contest.

He performed with a vaudeville novelty and comedy act before touring with a song-and-dance team. In 1939, he and Reese played at the Apollo as well as at the New York World’s Fair with stars such as Josephine Baker, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald and Sammy Davis Jr.

While Stiles has enjoyed sharing his showbiz tales of yesteryear, he was most proud of his work with the Talent Factory, a program he started in the 1980s to teach inner-city youth the theater arts.

“A lot of them have gone on to bigger and better things, and I’m glad for them,” Stiles said in 2002. “It was a goal that I set up to accomplish, and I feel real good about it.”

The program was housed in the back of his shoeshine shop, Al Stiles’ World’s Best Shoe Shine on East Wayne Street. The nonprofit organization went on hiatus in the late 1990s, but performing was still in his heart, even if his body couldn’t take his old song-and-dance routines. He showed Gregory Hines dance moves of his own when Hines performed at the Embassy Theatre in 1996.

In 2002, Stiles released “We Can Fly,” a nine-track blues-and-jazz CD he produced with his jazz-drummer son, Ronald Stiles. Two songs are Stiles’ original compositions.

Stiles, a tap-dance prodigy even as a child, was drafted after the outbreak of World War II and was sent to Baer Field (now Fort Wayne International Airport) in Fort Wayne. He liked the city so much that he decided to stay and raise his family after marrying in 1944. Over the years he worked at International Harvester and Flashfold Box Co.

The community and nation embraced him as well. In 2002 he was among the prominent local African-Americans interviewed included in a national oral history compiled by the nonprofit organization History Makers of Chicago. And in 2007, Stiles received the Ove W. Jorgensen Spirit of Leadership Award from Junior Achievement of Northern Indiana for his service to area youth.

“I have accomplished everything I wanted in life,” he said at the time. “The Lord has blessed me, and I give him the credit. It makes me feel like he has kept me around so I could help others.”

News-Sentinel staff reports
Thursday, January 9, 2014 – 10:12 am
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