Charles “Baba Chuck” Davis was a colussus in the world of modern dance.
André Leon Talley, a trailblazing fashion icon dubbed a “pharaoh of fabulosity” by a colleague, died last month at the age of 73.
Seemingly larger than life in both stature and personality, Davis and Talley were the Triangle’s twin titans.
Born nearly a decade apart, there’s no public record or private recollections that Davis and Talley were acquainted with one another. Still, they shared a number of commonalities.
They both graduated from all-Black high schools during the civil rights era: Davis matriculated from Raleigh’s J.W. Ligon High in 1955, one year after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawed segregation in the nation’s public schools. Talley graduated from Durham’s Hillside High School in 1966, one year after Malcolm X was murdered and two years before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
Both attended historically Black colleges. Davis enrolled at Howard University, where he studied Latin dance and took classes in ballet, jazz, and tap. Talley walked across the street from his high school’s former location on Fayetteville Street and enrolled at NC Central University, where he earned a degree in French.
“Both of them were artists, but in different mediums,” Minnie Forte-Brown, a lifelong Durham resident and former school board member who knew both Davis and Talley, told the INDY.
“They were both bilingual,” she adds. “André was fluent in French, and Chuck knew African languages.”
At the height of their careers, both men cast global shadows. Davis’s research took him to many West African countries, where he would learn the choreography and rhythms of traditional dance forms to share with communities across the United States.
Talley later earned a graduate degree in French from Brown University. His fluency in the language undoubtedly served him well after he became the first African American to serve as creative director of Vogue magazine, the fashion industry’s bible, and was in the front row of the world’s most influential fashion events.
Before their deaths, both Davis and Talley were honored with Legacy Awards from Hillside High School’s Department of Drama.
Wendell Tabb, Hillside’s drama department director, well remembers both men and the similarities, as well as the differences, in their seemingly bigger-than-life personalities.
“Chuck Davis was always willing to help anyone, regardless of their background,” Tabb says. “André, when he talked to our kids, told them to always be prepared because no one in the fashion industry was going to give you anything. You had to work and prove yourself.”
Tabb thinks for a few seconds and then adds: “André Leon Talley reminded you of no one but André Leon Talley.”
Tabb says when Davis wanted his students’ attention, he would clap his bands and beckon them over with a graceful wave.
Talley, in contrast, would drum his fingers on a desk like an impatient potentate before asking, “Where’s my drink?”
“Mr. Tabb, what time should my tea arrive? Make sure it’s warm, not hot. It should not burn my lips.”
Both men stood well over six feet tall and cast a formidable, regal presence that belied their humble, working-class beginnings. Davis was a graceful, disarmingly charming man. He loved wearing African robes that flowed in synchronicity with his physical movements, certainly when he danced, and even when he walked or merely gestured.
Talley, too, was a sweeping, majestic man often seen in luxurious capes, caftans, and gloves while making “grand pronouncements” in “design studios from New York to Paris—Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford, Diane von Furstenberg, Karl Lagerfeld,” according to a Vogue obituary.
And although neither man made it a front-and-center issue of his identity, Davis and Talley were both gay.
Forte-Brown, a high school classmate of Talley’s, said his being gay “was no big thing.”
“He was accepted like everybody else,” she explains. “It was just who he was. There were gay people in my community. It wasn’t an anomaly, and it wasn’t like it is today with people talking about gay rights. It wasn’t like that. We were groomed to respect differences.”
Normadien Woolbright, a retired dancer and arts administrator, first met Davis in 1971 when she was in high school. She describes Davis as “asexual.”
“He was very, very private,” Woolbright told the INDY. “People would ask me [if he was gay]. I would tell them, ‘He’s married to the arts,’ and that’s how I left it.”
Davis and Talley each had their own unique way of dealing with racism.
In 2015, Davis told me that in the 1960s, while dancing with the Nigerian percussionist Babatunde Olatunji, he learned an enduring lesson about the absurdity of racism and the beauty of the human spirit.
The dance troupe, he explained, had performed in Texas, and Davis, who also was their advance man, was traveling on a Trailways bus with the drums to their next performance. The bus stopped at a store in Macon, Georgia, and Davis went inside for a pack of Nabs and a bottle of milk.
“I had a weakness for Nabs and milk,” said Davis, who sauntered up to the store counter and asked for the treat. The lady behind the counter told him in a slow Southern twang, “I can sell you chocolate milk, but I can’t sell you no white milk.” Davis walked back to the bus, a sound akin to a vacuum whirring inside his head. He was sitting, staring out the window, when an older woman who had witnessed the exchange walked over.
“She looked like Granny from The Beverly Hillbillies,” Davis said. “She gave me a bottle of milk and two packs of Nabs and she said, ‘Young man, everybody is not a fool.’ That helped me to form the philosophy that we needed peace and blessings for the earth.”
In the fastidious and often persnickety world of high fashion, Talley at times confronted a brand of racism rife with stereotypes in an industry that was for the first time encountering a Black man in a position of authority.
“You don’t make a lot of noise,” Talley explained in the 2017 documentary about his life, The Gospel According to André. You don’t scream, ‘I’m Black and I’m proud.’ You just do it, and it somehow impacts the culture.”
But Talley was an anomaly, a big, Black gay man who was raised in the segregated South, calling the shots in the then overwhelmingly white, elitist world of high fashion.
“They used to call me ‘Queen Kong,’” he says matter of factly in the documentary. “I was like an ape. King Kong, Queen Kong. They were saying I was a gay ape, Queen Kong.”
Charles Rudolph Davis was born on New Year’s Day in 1937 and grew up in Raleigh. His birth mother died when he was still a child, and his father Tony, a laborer, married Annie, a domestic worker.
“His dad said he needed to find someone to take care of Little Chuckie,” Woolbright says. “Dad married Miss Annie.”
After graduating from Ligon, Davis enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served as a hospital corpsman at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. While off-duty on weekends, he would visit the Dunbar Hotel in Washington, DC, the city’s leading elite Black hotel during segregation. It was at the Dunbar that Davis first listened to the live Afro-Cuban mambo and salsa music that were all the rage. For Davis, it was love at first dance.
“I was carrying on because I was cute,” Davis told me back in 2015. “I had a waist of about 30 [inches], and I just loved to dance.” Davis still had no formal dance training, but he had a boundless enthusiasm, heart, and most of all, guts. He caught the eye of the hotel’s booking manager and was asked to join its night club revue.
Young Davis eventually joined a dance trio that wore what he described as “costumes cut so low, what it didn’t show, it pointed at.”
Two years before he died, Davis was named one of America’s 100 “irreplaceable dance treasures” by the Dance Heritage Coalition.
Seven years ago, I noted that it is almost impossible to overestimate Davis’s influence in the world of dance, both internationally and in the Triangle. Davis had no biological children, but those who know him say he has well over 150 children who have gone on to make their mark in the world of dance.
He and members of his company, the African American Dance Ensemble, introduced the African dance and drum tradition to adults from all walks of life and to thousands of schoolchildren, who grew up and still remember the company’s motto, “Peace, love, and respect for everybody,” and Davis’s enduring reminder, “The only time I look down on somebody is when I am helping them up.”
The story of Talley’s upbringing has been recently chronicled in many of the nation’s top newspapers and magazines. He was born on October 16, 1948, in Washington, DC. His parents were Alma and William Carroll Talley, but he was raised by his grandmother Bennie Frances Davis, who worked as a maid at Duke University.
Forte-Brown said she first met Talley when they were students at Hillside High.
“He was living in the West End,” she says. “I’m not saying we were close, but everyone knew André. He was over six feet tall and he dressed differently from everyone else. He wore white shirts and ascots. Nobody was wearing ascots.”
Forte-Brown says Talley was never flamboyant, and described him as a quiet presence.
“You just knew he had a presence when he walked into a room,” she explains. “His speech was impeccable. He spoke perfect English. That’s who he was. I don’t ever remember seeing him in jeans, or dungarees, is what we used to call them.”
In his documentary, Talley recalls walking over to Duke to purchase copies of Vogue magazine. He would often share the latest editions of the magazine with a classmate, Doris Howard, who was one of the best-dressed students on campus.
“We were both into Vogue magazine,” Howard, who now lives in Washington, DC, recalls. “We would sit in the cafeteria at school and go through them.”
Talley asked Howard, who was a junior, to be his date at his senior prom.
“André loved women who dressed well,” Howard explains. “He knew I would be fashionably dressed.”
Howard says they did not take pictures and she can’t remember what she wore.
“I think it was a long green dress and a coat,” she says. “That was over 50 years ago!”
In his 2003 memoir, ALT, Talley says that now-retired Hillside High English instructor Wanda Garrett was his favorite teacher. Garrett told the INDY that she would tease him about that assertion and remind him that his favorite teacher was his French teacher, Cynthia Pearson Smith.
“He told me, ‘I ought to know who my favorite teachers were,’” she says.
Talley was in the 11th grade when he took Garrett’s English, Speech, and Drama class.
“He was a good student,” Garrett says while chuckling. “He liked to keep something going. Also, he enjoyed being himself. He had a sense of humor and sometimes it might be slightly esoteric. In other words, you had to have a higher intellect to appreciate it.”
Garrett says Talley stayed in touch with her. He called every few months and while in Paris would send fashion magazines that were written in French. Talley mailed the magazines to Garrett’s neighbor, his former French teacher, Smith.
“He did not think that I knew enough French [to read them], and he was right,” Garrett says with another warm chuckle.
Garrett says that Talley was “like a string bean” when he was a student at Hillside. “He was so slender. He grew exponentially.” She also notes that his weight led him to Duke, where he participated in a diet program. Garrett says she thinks that Talley’s issue with being overweight was a factor in his death.
“I’m sure it had quite a bit to do with it,” she says.
Garrett says she spoke with Talley two days before he died.
“We talked about donuts,” she says. “He loved donuts. I’m not as slender as I was and we talked about how we needed to gather the willpower. I still have time, but he didn’t.”
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