Bates had a desire to dance that persisted despite the loss of his leg. So, fitted with an artificial wooden limb—or “peg”—he adapted tap dancing steps to his own specifications.
Tap dancer. Born in Fountain Inn on October 11, 1907, Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates came from an extremely poor sharecropping family, whose father deserted them when Bates was only three years old. During World War I, Bates took a job in a cottonseed-oil mill. Soon after he began working there, the lights failed and the twelve-year-old accidentally stepped into the open auger conveyer. The equipment chewed up his leg so badly that an amputation was necessary. Since hospitals were segregated, the doctor performed the procedure on the family’s kitchen table.
Bates had a desire to dance that persisted despite the loss of his leg. So, fitted with an artificial wooden limb–or “peg”–he adapted tap dancing steps to his own specifications. By age fifteen he was entrenched in a professional career as a tap dancer. He worked his way up from minstrel shows to carnivals, from the African American vaudeville circuit TOBA (Theatre Owners Booking Association) to the white vaudeville circuits. Throughout the 1930s he played top Harlem nightclubs, including the Cotton Club, Connie’s Inn, and Club Zanzibar. In the late 1930s he was the opening act for the Ed Sullivan Revue, traveled the Keith and Loews circuits, and appeared to great acclaim on Australia’s Tivoli circuit. He performed throughout the 1940s, including dancing in the popular Los Angeles version of Ken Murray’s Blackouts. Bates had an active career in television, including twenty-one appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, the most by a tap dancer. In the 1960s he opened the Peg Leg Bates Country Club in Kerhonkson, New York, which catered to a primarily African American clientele. Bates retired from dancing in 1989 and died at Fountain Inn on December 6, 1998. He was buried in Palentown Cemetery, Ulster County, New York.
Frank, Rusty E. Tap! The Greatest Tap Dance Stars and Their Stories, 1900–1955. New York: Morrow, 1990.
Obituary. New York Times. December 8, 1998, p. B10.