(Author’s note: Much thanks to Scott Cain for the use of a great deal of the research and writing on Joe Taylor that he had previously done.)
We are sad to announce that the first person of color to join the IJA, Joe Taylor, passed away on December 20th, 2019. Joe had a successful career as a performer in the 1940s and 1950s.
Joe responded to a question in a pre-IJA issue of the “Juggler’s Bulletin” from 1947 asking if anyone was aware of any black jugglers performing. One of the replies was from Joe Taylor, who informed Bulletin editor Roger Montandon that he was in fact a “colored juggler” and added his name to the membership to receive the Juggler’s Bulletin. Joe officially joined the IJA in 1947, its first year of existence, becoming the organization’s first black member, and one of the first overall.
Joe was born on April 10, 1928 and grew up in Boston, the home of vaudeville. Joe used to play around with tossing rocks around when he was a teenager, and eventually learned how to juggle three. The athletic director at his local playground in Boston saw him and asked Joe to represent the playground in a makeshift talent show they had. Joe had seen Larry Weeks juggling in the film This Is The Army and copied his apple eating routine. When he performed the act, the crowd loved it. The crowd’s response spurred him to practice and learn more. He received some coaching from Ed Ellis, an African-American juggler who had performed on the black vaudeville circuit. Joe would later also be mentored by Francisco Alvarez, who recalled Joe as a true gentleman. Joe visited Bobby Jule backstage when Bobby was performing (as the only white act on the bill) at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, and Bobby likewise remembers Joe for being extremely kind and friendly. Joe was one of several jugglers who performed in some of the many segregated theaters and clubs which were pretty much unknown to the white jugglers of the period.
Joe also received encouragement and coaching from Lou Folds and Bobby May. May even gave Joe a set of four clubs at one point.
During stage shows, Joe would juggle with balls and clubs primarily, but also did routines with wooden bicycle hoop rolling and top hat juggling. He was a master at head rolls with a ball. He even performed a routine with head rolls with an egg, and at the end would crack it to show it was real and raw.
Joe Taylor’s highest profile performances were with some of the segregated sports teams of the era. The Indianapolis Clowns were one of the top teams in the Negro American League of baseball, winning the championships 4 out of 5 years at one point. In some cities, their games outdrew the Major League teams playing the same day. The Clowns were famous for having “players” who had special entertainment skills like clowning or juggling. These specialists would perform between innings, before the game, and sometimes (though rarely) be brought into the game play (similar to the Harlem Globetrotters and their antics). Juggling Joe Taylor was with the team during the 1948 and 1949 seasons, and was listed as a pitcher. However, he never played, instead performing routines with props such as baseballs, clubs, and other props.
Joe was drafted into the army and trained to go to Korea in the early 1950s. However, he was luckily deployed instead to post-WWII Germany. While in Germany, he visited with juggling historian Max Koch and reported back to the Juggler’s Bulletin and the IJA.
After returning from overseas, Juggling Joe Taylor took up where he left off, performing in association with sports teams. This time, he toured for two seasons with the Harlem Magicians basketball team, a rival of the Globetrotters, performing as the halftime entertainment. The Magicians featured Marques Haynes and Goose Tatum (who had previously been on the Indy Clowns baseball team with Taylor), who had both gained fame with the Globetrotters. At one point, he also performed with the Harlem Clowns basketball team as well.
Eventually, Joe Taylor gave up juggling as a career and instead had many years as a driver for Hertz. He never married or had a family of his own, but had nieces that helped him out in his advanced years. A few years ago, he reconnected with the juggling community through the efforts of Scott Cain. He was happy to know that he had not been forgotten. Our condolences go out to his family and friends.