CLAYTON "PEG LEG" Bates was a one-legged tap dancer who became an unlikely but highly popular star of vaudeville shows and night-clubs, stage musicals, and film and television productions in a career that stretched from the 1920s to the late 1980s. He mastered an extraordinary variety of styles and flourishes, reinventing everything for a leg whose half- rubber, half-leather tip gave his tapping a distinctive sound.
At the height of his career, in the 1930s, Bates topped all other two- legged tap dancers. He danced for King George V and Queen Mary in a Royal Command Performance; he danced with the bands of Jimmy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Erskine Hawkins, Louis Armstrong and Billy Eckstine; and he gained a reputation as an irrepressible performer acclaimed as much by his fellow dancers as by his audiences. "Well, I'm into rhythm and I'm into novelty," he once said. "I'm into doing things that it looks almost impossible to do."
Born in Fountain Hill, South Carolina, in 1906, Bates started tap-dancing for pennies at the age of five, but his venture seemed doomed when, seven years later, he lost his leg in an accident at the cotton gin mill where he worked.
"After losing the leg, for some unknown reason, I still wanted to dance," he told Rusty E. Frank for her 1990 book Tap!. "At first, I was walking around on crutches, and I started making musical rhythm with them." When an uncle fashioned him a wooden leg he began dancing again. "See, I did not realise the importance of losing a leg," he recalled. "I thought it was just like stubbing my toe and knocking off a toenail that was going to grow back."
Within three years of his accident, Bates had begun to enter amateur shows, and often won first prize. During segregation, he performed in minstrel shows and carnivals, and later joined a circuit that took black performers to black theatres across the United States. At one of the stops, the Lafayette Theater in Harlem, Bates was spotted by Lew Leslie, the producer of the "Blackbirds" musical theatre revues.
Leslie signed him to perform on Broadway in Blackbirds of 1928 and Bates went on to travel to Paris with the revue in 1929. After the show closed, he performed on the vaudeville circuit, appearing in top New York theatres like the Paramount, the Roxy and the Capitol, and Harlem clubs like the Cotton Club and Club Zanzibar.
In 1938, Bates played the Tivoli circuit in Australia, the only black performer to do so. Around the same time, he met Ed Sullivan, then a newspaper columnist, and danced as the opening act for the touring Ed Sullivan Revue. When Sullivan went on to become the most important television presenter of the 1950s and 1960s, he did not forget Bates. He was invited to perform on The Ed Sullivan Show 21 times, more than any other tap dancer.
In the 1960s, Bates opened a resort, the Peg Leg Bates Country Club, in the Catskills, New York. The resort catered to a black clientele, a novelty in an area that was primarily for white, Jewish holidaymakers. "At first the natives were resentful," Bates said in a 1969 article in The New York Times. "But now everything is kosher, beautiful." Following the death of his wife, Alice, in 1987, he leased the club out.
Bates never forgot those similarly afflicted by missing limbs and throughout the Second World War performed frequently in army and navy hospitals. He would imitate a dive bomber, leaping high into the air and coming down on his wooden leg, and then tell the applauding soldiers and sailors that with that kind of encouragement he would be happy to break his other leg. After all, he would say, he had more legs in his dressing-room. In fact he had 13, one to match each of his suits.
After his retirement from the stage in 1989, Bates continued to perform for the handicapped, as well as children and the elderly. Indeed, he danced in Fountain Inn the day before his death, at an event staged to raise money for a life-size sculpture of Bates to be erected in the town's square and to award him the Order of the Palmetto, South Carolina's highest honour.
Clayton "Peg Leg" Bates, tap dancer: born Fountain Inn, South Carolina 11 October 1906; married (one daughter); died Fountain Inn 6 December 1998.
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