Billed in their prime as "eight feet of rhythm," the Four Step Brothers began in the mid-1920s as a trio of unrelated teens at the famed Cotton Club in New York City and became a quartet in 1938, performing successfully for some 30 years under Maceo Anderson's leadership. The name was changed to "The Step Brothers" when the fourth dancer was added. Founding members included Al Williams and Maceo Anderson, who were mainstays of the group throughout its existence. The group specialized in "flash" tap - fast footwork including acrobatic stunts, and the act often had the form of a street 'challenge', with each dancer in turn taking a solo and trying to outdo the others.
They were the first black act to perform at Radio City Music Hall in New York, the first at the Chez Paris Club in Chicago and the first to break television's color bar, becoming, as a result, the best-known dance act in the nation.
"We opened doors and paved the way for black artists who came later," Anderson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1994. "We were to tap dancing what Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway were to music."
Anderson started dancing at age 3 in Charleston, S.C., and three years later came to Harlem with his mother on a cotton boat, heading straight for the Hoofers' Club under the Lafayette Theatre: tap heaven in those days. "I used to sneak up into the balcony [of the Lafayette] to see all the shows," he recalled in an interview for the book "Tap!" and later met the dancers who would become part of his first performing group at an amateur night there.
Hanging out at the Cotton Club, the group kept pestering Ellington for a chance to perform, and he finally put them on--at intermission, Anderson remembered. "We stayed in the Cotton Club four years!" he said. "And that's where the Step Brothers was made."
The group later toured on the Keith-Orpheum circuit, danced annually at Radio City Music Hall for 10 years, went around the world four times, and appeared in such Hollywood features as "It Ain't Hay" (1943), "Rhythm of the Islands" (1943), "Greenwich Village" (1944), "That's My Gal" (1947), "Here Come the Girls" (1953) and "The Patsy" (1964).
In 1949, comedian Milton Berle refused to appear on a live NBC telecast of "The Texaco Star Theater" unless Texaco agreed to let the Four Step Brothers perform. The impasse lasted until minutes before air-time, when Texaco relented. Afterward, they danced on "The Ed Sullivan Show," Bob Hope specials and telecasts featuring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Perry Como and Steve Allen.
The group continued working through the mid 1960s. The personnel changed over the years, sometimes including singers; among the dancers that joined the group were Sunshine Sammy, Red Gordon, Sherman Robinson, Happy ?, Sylvester Johnson, Freddie James, and in the final years Prince C. Spencer, "Flash" Rufus L. McDonald, Al Williams and Maceo Anderson. Considered by many to be one of the best dance acts of all time, the group was active on stage and screen for nearly 50 years from the mid 1930s to the mid 1980s
The Four Step Brothers were awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Live Theatre at 7000 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, California, in 1988.