Tony-winning choreographer Cholly Atkins, whose smooth dance steps helped give such Motown legends as the Supremes (think “Stop! In the Name of Love”), the Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, and Gladys Knight & the Pips their distinctive visual signature stage personalities, died in Las Vegas of pancreatic cancer Saturday April 17. He was 89.
Born Charles Atkinson in Pratt City, Ala., he grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., where he was inspired by a teacher and won a Charleston dance contest in 1923 in Buffalo, N.Y., and became a singing waiter and dancing bootblack, a tap dancer touring small black venues in the 1930, and formed the Rhythm Pals with William Porter.
In the 1940s, Atkins did a stint in the Army and later toured with Count Basie, Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton. Later he teamed with tap dance legend Charles “Honi” Coles with him he performed in Broadway’s “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”
After his divorce from his first wife, he married dance partner Dottie Saulters, and together they toured with such performers as Cab Calloway and the Mills Brothers before she died of a brain tumor in 1962. He then married Maye Harrison Anderson in 1963 and cemented his latter reputation two years later when he became choreographer for Motown Records, working with such acts as the Cadillacs, Shirelles, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye. Later he worked and lived in Las Vegas, where he continued to work with various acts.
In 1988 he returned to Broadway to choreograph “Black and Blue,” for which he won a Tony.
In 1993, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a three-year fellowship to record his memoirs and tour colleges to teach choreography and dance.
He continued to dance and teach until cancer was discovered earlier this year.
Besides wife of nearly 40 years, he is survived by grandchildren and others.