Famous from Canning Town: Josie Woods – Jitterbug Queen.
Josie Woods was a London sensation in 1940 when she starred in the Jitterbug Jamboree at The Astoria. Crowds flocked to the Old Kent Road to watch her dance and take lessons in this new import from the USA. Josie played on her exotic background to introduce this dance from Harlem, but rumour has it, she really learnt the moves after watching the Marx Brothers Film, A Day at the Races”, in which the dance was featured.
Josie Woods was born in Canning Town on May 16th 1912, a mix-raced daughter of a Dominican merchant seaman and a white ‘gypsy’ mother. In those days Canning Town was commonly known as Sailor Town, where a close community and a common struggle against poverty often overcame racial difference, but Josie remembered race-riots when times got tough, although she grew up not too troubled by prejudice.
In 1927, her first big break came when she danced with a famous group, the Eight Lancashire Lads, a troop, with whom, in the past, Charlie Chaplin had learnt to dance. Josie was soon talent spotted and taken to Paris to join a group of dancers the Magnolia Blossoms, performing in the Revenue Negre. In that era, groups of black dancers, singers and musicians were very popular and in 1932 Josie returned to London as part of the Eight Black Streaks, who toured continually until the out-break of the Second World War.
After the war, Josie escaped from an abusive marriage and joined up with a young Nigerian actor Wille Payne. They toured the night clubs as Ken Ross and Lucille accompanied by the Jamaica’s Leslie ‘Jiver” Hutchinson Band. She moved from that set-up to the Cab Kaye Jazz Septet and sung at the London Palladium. Later with Kaye she changed their act and they performed as the Two Brown Birds of Rhythm.
Josie Woods was also an actor appearing in 1931 in the Kentucky Minstrels, with a young Max Bygraves in Nitwits on Parade (1949) and finally in Jungle Treasure (1951).
She died in the USA on the 28th June 1998 and left, as well as memories, a talented saxophonist son, Ralf. who has played with many jazz greats and in Jay Leno’s Tonight Show Band.