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Famous jazz tap dancer from Detroit, based in Leigh-on-Sea.
Interview by Mark ‘Snowboy’ Cotgrove.
C = Chris Parry. Will's manager.
This is…what’s my name [laughter]! My name is Royce Edward Gaines, that’s about one thing I can spell! How did I get started? Actually I grew up in Detroit, Motown as you know it, at amateur shows in the theatres. Me and Bill Johnson, we had roller skates, a roller skate hall, rink, and we used to go there and he was actually a real skater but me I just slid on some skates and went skating. Now how we got together, to this day I do not know but we got together and we started tap dancing together.
Were you children then? How old were you?
I was going to school, so I must have been what, 12, 15, something like that. Because I know it wasn't allowed in nightclubs because you've got to be 21, in those days. But I was under 21. So the thing was, me and Bill Johnson we got started, we did a couple of gigs in a nightclub doing whatever we were supposed to be doing and we would just get out there and they would play some music and we would move our feet if you know what I'm saying, no choreography.
You didn't have any training at all, you weren't influenced by anyone at all, tap-dancing? Did you make it up?
Yeah, you're right, we just made it up, as I said me and Bill Johnson, he was a roller skater, actually he danced on roller skates. I can see his face now. And the thing is how we got started and got into a nightclub I do not know to this day because we met at the skating rink you see and the next thing you know we was dancing two dances, he’s on roller skates and I'm on taps which was odd in the first place. And then as I was involved in it, because my father had a car, he worked for General Motors, but he didn't build cars he was like a watchman and a guard and whatnot when the steel came in and all that. So like I said, in the morning, if you can picture me out with the car dancing somewhere and then me got to rush back for my father who gets up at 8 o’clock and he’s already up at 7 and he’s out there waiting to get the car to go to work you see. Next thing I know he's in the car and I'm walking in the house to go to sleep. It was bits and pieces like that, and then before I knew it I was on my own, tap dancing, and like I said, no routine, no repeating something – if I did I didn't know I did it! And I got a job in a night club, Hymie I think his name was, two Jewish owners, one was The Flame and I can't think of the other night club name at the moment. Two lads came in, and if you can picture a bar when you go in the club, that’s the bar, and there’s a round part of the bar there and they put a platform between these shelves and the bar so you didn't fall in the hole if you know what I'm saying. That was the tap dancing. And I'm tap dancing away and these two fools walked in and said “Why aren't you in the Army?” I said “John Wayne is winning the war” and the band just fell about, the public went berserk, like it was one tall and one short and I'm up on the platform dancing away! I wasn't allowed in the night club, you gotta be 21! I fell about, but they made me so mad because I'm dancing away and I ain't even supposed to be in that club! And then I would dance at the Flame Bar, that was in the corner, and the band and then the stage and that was all one piece. For some reason the owner there had seen me at the other club which was sort of, not posh, but the Flame was posher, see? And the next thing I know I'm on the stage dancing with the stars that was coming in from New York. I was like the opening act you know, and singers whatever, big names.
Do you remember any of the big names you were on the bill with?
I wish I could – that's what I'm so mad about. I can't remember the…I can see their faces but I can't remember their names! And like I said, if I get a chance to look through the books and see, because a lot of them came to England as well you see and I was like I said, the opening act. The thing was the people that I grew up with, neighbours and everything, they would come to the club to see me tap dance, they just couldn't believe I was a tap dancing dancer because I wasn’t tap dancing when I was on the streets you know, but I got this job in a night club and all of a sudden they’s sitting there like, and I gotta be 21 and I'm not 21, and it was amazing. I didn't think about it at the time but now that I think back about it going on for 90 years I'm still tap dancing with no routine! And the dancers that I saw, all those famous dancers they had a routine and that’s what they was booked on, to do that routine, but me I just moved me feet.
Yes. Moved to the music, that's the way I learned because I could never…Chris could probably teach me something but I wouldn't know. Two days later and I wouldn't remember it. That’s the drag part about a Jazz tap dancer. I guess that's why they called me a Jazz tap dancer.
Were you influenced more by musicians than you were by dancers?
Musicians, yeah, yeah. That’s true, yeah, because I'm listening to horns, trumpets, saxophones, the drums and I wanted to be a drummer but that didn't work.
But you were a drummer, you were drumming with your feet.
Yeah that's amazing, I'm glad you came now! I always wanted to be, I think, because of Fred Astaire in the movies, you know, and a couple of other dancers, oh I can see his face. Dancing in the Rain….Gene Kelly. And these are the dancers that I saw in the movies that I remember, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, but there was other dancers, I mean good, good, white dancers.
Donald O’Connor was fantastic wasn't he?
Yeah, oh a hell of a dancer. I'm so mad I was never in his company because I would have said “Look can you do this man?” It would have been an insult but I would have said it just to talk to him, just to say something to him, yeah. And a few others around then, because like I said, the movies was the thing, especially after the war. Brought the people back to thinking not killing one another. Yeah the musicians I worked with and a few of them – Dizzy Gillespie, I think I was in Scotland, I don't know where I was, but he came over the shake my hand. Dizzy Gillespie coming to see me, you know! And if I can find it I will make a copy of it for you and get all this stuff to you. It’s a drag because the musicians that I worked in front of, they do what I couldn't do, so they played for me, they had a sound that I thought I wanted to tap to and I'm trying to do movement or whatever because each musician was a different style like. But actually when they say routine I don't have a routine. I can't go out and do the same thing over. I probably can but I don’t even know about it, you know what I'm saying, it's just not in my brain to repeat myself. You name it, I probably danced it!
So there you are dancing at The Flame and you're underage.
The Frolic Showbar, it was like, one was on the corner, one was in the block if you know what I'm saying, it was just about from here across the road, the distance.
And where did you go from there?
That’s what I'm saying, now when I left the Frolic and the Flame I come back to Detroit and Hymie came over and says “Do you remember me?”, I says “Do I ever remember you. If I hadn't been dancing for you I wouldn't be in New York”.
And the Frolic was in New York?
No, that was in Detroit. But like I said you’d gotta be 21 to work in a club in America. And like I said they’d out me on the stage and I wouldn't even audition, where they saw me, whatever I was doing and then like I said I was doing two big night clubs in Detroit on the main drag, it really was amazing.
Then you did the Catskill Mountains and then the Cotton Club.
Yeah, Catskill Mountains, yeah.
Yes I'm interested in the Catskill Mountains, very much like the holiday camps over here aren't they, the Jewish holiday resorts the Catskills. Amazing. So you did the Catskills then, so what was the 2nd World War around about that time?
It would be after that.
So I'm trying to get it chronologically, I'm trying to find out where Will went from the Flame, from Detroit, you know so what happened after Detroit?
New York, The Apollo, the theatre, the famous, where all the…
Were you still underage at that?
No, no, I was almost 21.
So you were gigging around, after the Flame and the Frolic you were just gigging around from venue to venue then, and what happened after that?
From place to place, from city to city, you name it I've been there. Like I think I said, I had a car, a Buick, and like I said, my father, evidently he knew what I was doing. I didn't know what I was doing so I had the car. Now an interesting story, you went around Canada and you did your first television and in those days they used to powder/white them up!
They powdered you up and you rang your Mother up to see if she saw it and she thought you were sick! Because you looked so pale. And then some of those of Nat King Cole, we've got a video of Nat King Cole and in the beginning of the video he's all whitened up.
Was this television and Nat King Cole after the Catskills?
So when did you go to the Catskills?
When did I go to the Catskills?
C - I can’t give you the dates because I think going back to when you started this conversation he was not 12 or 14 when he first started in the night clubs, he was about 18. Yes he was still underage but he was about 18 or 19.
Yeah because you had to be 21 to work in American night clubs which was a drag but…
C - But when you left Detroit where did you go? I think he was going all over the country from what I gather.
I was yeah, but where did I go? Like I say, I worked in Canada, I'm trying to picture where I was working….then New York…
C - He was gigging all over America.
I was yeah.
Were you at the Catskills for a season or did you just go to….you must have been staying in New York I guess if you were gigging in the Catskills? Because the Catskills obviously is New York State.
Yeah, I can almost see them, like I said, that was sort of a regular routine, it became a regular place to go and work, that and New York and, like I said, the Palace, was it the Palace, was that there? Yeah I worked the Palace, that was in New York yeah.
And The Apollo of course.
C - I think he just can't put it in order.
I'll put it in order later, as long as I know more or less you know. were you…
C - When he was really gigging at the Catskill Mountains and the Palace and the Apollo, that was after…
After the war?
The Apollo yeah, but the Palace was downtown New York.
C - Late 40's I would think. I would think going into the 50’s.
Because, like I said, there were quite a few night clubs there, some of them didn't even have a stage, so really I was on a level with the people, so really tap dancing wasn't…
C - I mean all that time he was working with people like Eartha Kitt, Duke Ellington…
In the 50’s?
C - Yeah, early 50’s.
Early 50’s you were working with Duke Ellington, that’s incredible!
Most dancers opened the show anyhow, you always had a tap dancer to open the show. I must try and find a list, there must be a book in a library with all the nightclubs that was in New York and the big cities, Pittsburgh. Because like I said, Shorts Davis, that was a dancer, I forget…was he driving a Buick? Anyhow he had a car, Shorts Davis was his name, you could time him, you could do routine, he did every same step every time, Shorts Davis.
Sonny Stitt, yes, holy cow Sonny Stitt.
He was an amazing Saxophonist – that was in the 50’s?
C - I mean I don't actually know the dates as such, it's only what he's talked about for 30 years over the years what he’s done and where he's been, I know most certainly he was travelling all over America.
You name it – I've been to California and back to New York.
When was this television appearance when you had to white yourself up?
C - That would have been early 50’s wouldn't it.
And would that be the same time as Nat King Cole?
C - No, he worked with Nat King Cole after that.
Yeah. It's amazing because Nat King Cole come over to me and I should have been going over to him! The thing is I've got that relationship because I didn't get involved because I was the opening act, you follow? That’s the way my brain was working see, and evidently they watched me while I was dancing you see and I can't remember doing the routine, I mean if we did two shows the music played and I tap danced, that's the end of that, like I say if it wasn't filmed it wasn’t going to be the same, that's all I'm saying. The acts that I worked with, opened the show for, and like I said in various night clubs I went to see them and a lot of them actually knew me because like I say when I started working Buffalo New York one place called the Moonglow, Jake Schaeffer was the owner. He took a liking to me so I had a gig there whenever. Because I started to see the routine dancers why I didn't see me trying to do a routine, it just didn't appeal.
C - You were more interested in musicians and music. I mean you keep on about this listening to the sound. It's the musicians that have taught you really.
I must have done a thing about this, I'm glad you came now! Holy cow, like I said, I can almost picture them from what I'm talking to you about, I can almost picture it, go back that far, me and my brain and see the night club and see the musicians I worked in front of. Now Dizzy Gillespie coming to see, he’s got his hand stuck out and I'm coming out of the tent, or whatever I was in, and I'm trying to reach for him.
C - Crystal Palace.
So you must have worked with Dizzy Gillespie in America? That's amazing.
That's what I'm saying, yeah! It is, it really is amazing. I come all the way to England to work and Dizzy Gillespie come over to shake my hand!
Before you came to the UK what other acts do you recall working with?
This is the drag part about it, at 89 going on 100, the acts that I have worked with.
So Duke Ellington, Eartha Kitt, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan …
Holy cows…Louis Armstrong. What about Louis…we worked in Miami and there were some big night clubs there you see and I… Louis, after the show will come over to a small club, which is like on the other side of town, and work for anybody. Anybody would come and see him in a small club and this was like almost 2 o’clock in the morning right. So he was selling Epsom Salts, supposed to be famous for it you see. He had given it some name you see, so I got to go with him and he's sitting on the floor and he’s telling these kids what Epsom Salts will do for you but it wasn't Epsom Salts, it was his brand if you know what I'm saying. He had a name for them. And how they would look pretty, how they would grow up to do things and so on…
And that was Louis Armstrong?
This is Louis Armstrong, after the show. 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning and I'm sitting there, I'm supposed to get up and give it to them. I think they was paying him for it, I don't know. Now I'm in England, I'm in Rotherham and the club owner goes to Las Vegas and he wants Frank Sinatra to come and work this big club in Rotherham right? And so I says to him, “Can I go see you see?” and he said “Yes” so I get one of the daughters or sons car and drive there. I'm up in the balcony you see looking down, and all of a sudden I look and I see Louis Armstrong. This man went to Las Vegas to book Frank Sinatra and Frank Sinatra sent Louis Armstrong. Well I just fell about, I'm up on the balcony and I'm down there and he said “You little black mother fucker, where have you been?”, well I fell about, and he got a singer, I can't think of her name, she's British, black girl, and he’s sitting in a chair and she singing one of his songs. Then I had to go down and talk to Louis and that's the last I saw of him.
So Louis Armstrong was playing at this club in Rotherham?
Yes because the band had been in Las Vegas you see, a big club owner.
What and he thought he was getting Frank Sinatra?
He actually ordered Frank Sinatra and put his name down, booked Frank Sinatra to come to Rotherham to this big night club and…
And it turned out it was Louis Armstrong.
And Louis Armstrong showed up! But Frank Sinatra put Louis Armstrong on a plane to come to England, and Louis got a girl singer sitting in a chair, so he got nobody!
He didn't even play? Whenabouts was that – was that 60’s?
C - About 1970.
Because I'd been living in Park Lane, in the flats there.
C - Because he came over here in ’63.
Right ok. Before we go to when you moved over here, when, you say you performed at the Apollo, that's a big deal isn't it. Who was backing you at the Apollo?
I can't remember – everybody – you name them…because like I say I became a regular tap dancer you see, there was about 3 or 4 tap dancers…
C - Wasn't that when Sonny Stitt was in the band? Was at the Apollo?
C - It's what they termed as the house band but they're just musicians that are gigging aren't they.
Because the Apollo was known for that because, like I said, Detroit where I first saw Sonny Stitt because he was like me, he was young, he was just getting started as well you see, but he could play something else man.
So why did you move to England in ’63?
C - They sent you over didn't they, the USO.
What’s USO, is that the entertainment?
C - Yes, they were like exchange things. Americans came over here and the British would go over there.
I think a night club I was working at, across the street. The Pigalle, yes. And Churchill’s – you remember Churchill’s, the club? It's a night club down from the Pigalle. Al Barnett was that the club owner?
This was ’63?
C - Yes, he came over to do the Pigalle, erm he ended up doing some of the Sunday Night at the Palladiums, and I don't know whether you can quote me but I think he holds the record because he did nine Sunday Night at the Palladiums and I don't know what other solo artist has done. I mean obviously Bruce Forsyth because he was compering, but the actual invite to a solo artist I think Will holds the record because that’s a lot of Sunday Night at the Palladiums.
C - I know he did nine, so…
The Pigalle, that was something else. Al Barnett that’s his name. He was the club owner.
C - The Pigalle.
Pigalle, yes. And he sent me to Churchill’s and I had to go about 10 miles up these stairs to the back of the club and you come out, because I'm doubling, I'm going to the Pigalle then I'm going to Churchill’s and they had a stage that folded up so I think it was about that thick so if you could picture me out there on this damn stage and I'm bouncing up and down, well I'm tap dancing and I'm going up the stage and coming down, going up and coming down, and I never will forget that.
C - Churchill’s had a lot of the American tap dancers. The Clark brothers used to do it.
Yes that was one of the night clubs. What club was you working at at the time?
C - No, not when you were at Churchill’s. I was at Winston’s.
And the one across the street that the Pigalle was on, because that…now Judy Garland. Judy Garland…now I can't remember but I was in America for some reason I…in the club and she was the star and I can't remember now but what happened was she came to England and she was working the Pigalle wasn't she and Churchill’s was a little club across the road from the Pigalle. Up a little archway like, I can't remember the name of the club.
C - The Blue Angel?
The Blue Angel, yeah. And I…between shows I would go over there for some reason, and Judy Garland was walking ahead of me talking to the maitre d and I'm standing behind her – Judy Garland! I'm actually standing behind her, and I wanted to say something so bad, but I thought, you know, superstar…
C - My little story, when I was working Winston’s and Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin…
Yes, they all was in the neighbourhood.
C - …Peter Lawford all came, and I went out to the back passage to wait to see Sinatra walk out and he said goodnight to me!
Yeah, Judy Garland, I actually was closer, I was standing behind her.
C - I worked with her.
Yes, she was in England for quite a while.
C - Yes at the Palladium.
Yeah the Pigalle, like I said I come to England, I damn near been from one end of it to the other end!
If you came over as part of the USO were you in the Army then at that point?
C - No, no, he was never in the military.
So you've come over, you're now living in London. At what point did you come down to Essex?
C - That was my husband’s fault.
Yes, I remember your husband, lovely man, great singer.
Yeah because for some reason I was living in Park Lane. I don't know, I was walking down the street, because I wasn't living comfortable and a man shorter than me was walking behind me and he eventually walked over and tapped me on the shoulder and said “I saw you at the Palladium”. I said “Oh yeah, are you in the business?”, he said “No”................... what do you call a person that rents apartments?
Yeah, it’s an agency, right, and he said “No I'm a landlord, renting flats”. Well you know Park Lane and you know there’s a bunch of flats there? You remember the Playboy Club that was on the corner, well I said “I'm looking for a place to live” and he said ‘ so and so’ when I got there I couldn't believe what this man had booked me in to, you got all these big people, retired people, and down the road there was this other bunch of flats, big stars were staying, and I fell about. Now the Playboy Club was on the corner and Slappy White had come over to do this Playboy Club. He was a comedian, American. And he come over to do the Playboy Club and he evidently wasn’t pleased with it so I think he did about 3 or 4, maybe 5 nights, and he knew I was up living in the flats, the Bunny Club was in the flats, and he said “Would you take my place?”. I said yes, he said “I'm going home!” So you got to picture me with my tuxedo on and everything walking up from here to there to the backstage door you know. And now I'm walking into the Bunny Club – how do you like that! I followed my heart! And the next thing I know somebody said “The Queen is over there” and I says “Where?” The Palace is just there! And I just couldn't believe that where I was, they was there.
Is The Blue Angel a club then?
C - Yeah, in the 60’s and 70’s it was just rife with night clubs. Because who was the…it’ll come to me in a minute…the black…band leader, Edmundo Ros.
Across from the park – those flats there, I can see them but I can't remember what they were called. And like I said this man, I don't know his name to this day, he had seen me at the Palladium and he was walking behind me and he tapped me on the shoulder and I thought he was in the business but he said he was in the real estate business, I thought “Great can I have a flat?” And I never asked where he had put me I wasn't going to turn it down, it was just famous flats there and, like I said, if you walked straight across the street you go into the next street is the Palace.
C - But then when he was living…he went to Rotherham.
Why did you move to Rotherham?
C - Because he was down and out, literally. There was no work going.
I was out.
C – The owner who ran a hotel then in Rotherham was very much mixed up with cricket and artists, musicians, so they all used to sort of accumulate and stay there, Roy Castle and my husband’s group, the Square Pegs, and all the artists were staying there and Will; well they were looking after Will actually.
So you had a bit of a bad time did you?
Yeah, the bottom fell out. And the thing is, because I'd worked in Rotherham, what’s the big working man’s club there. The hotel owner saw me and I stayed at the hotel and the next thing I know I was living in Rotherham and one of his in-laws had a car, a lovely old car, and as a matter of fact it had a hole underneath the shifting pedal and they’d put a bowl there. And the thing is I got that through Ethel [?] and the next thing I got some work through Ethel and I got back on my feet.
C - To come back to your original question of how he moved down here, he was working the Caledonian and he was actually staying with us.
Caledonian in London?
Yeah. On the corner of Trafalgar Square.
So you’d gone from Rotherham…
C - He’d just come down for I think it was a week.
A week to do the Caledonian?
C - Yes and he was staying with us.
And were you still in Leigh?
C - Yes we were in Woodfield Road. But then Will wanted me to manage him. I was saying “I don't know anything about management, I'm just a dancer like you”.
When was this?
C - That was beginning of the 80’s.
Oh – as late as that – so what happened in the 70’s then, just more work?
C - Well he wasn't doing much at all. He was odd-jobbing in Rotherham through sort of friends of us or through the hotel.
Doing any work?
C - More doing people favours really, I don't think he was getting paid, they were just looking after him. But then when he wanted me to manage him because he hadn’t got a phone number, I was phoning because by that time he'd moved out of the hotel into a council house and he'd got no phone. In Rotherham. So if I wanted to contact him I had to go through some corner shop or something, it was ridiculous. And then John said “Well why don't you come and live here?”, which was disastrous! So he moved in with us.
That was the early 80’s?
C – Yeah. And then we got a lot of work through the Arts Council then, he was doing Arts Council tours so he had quite a lot of work, quite a lot of tele.
I remember when Will moved down here because there was a really big buzz around this area when you were here. Because people were saying “Have you seen this tap dancer?”, you know, that was…
C - Yeah, he started to get bookings, as I say, for the Arts Councils and that included Leytonstone. And then the festivals, Edinburgh Festival he did, Ireland, Cork, and a lot of teles and stuff.
Is this still early 80’s?
C - Yes.
Why did things change when he moved down here? Was it just because of your management?
C - I don't think so, I think because he was a one off. There were no tap dancers around really. We've got youngsters coming up, well they're getting towards 30 now, but there’s much more of a buzz with tap dancing now than there was then, there was nobody around and with the Clark Brothers, there was Will, George Hands who was really only doing night clubs and things. So there was nobody else actually doing what will was doing. So he was getting, you know, a lot of bookings.
Rent Party started about then didn't it, in the early 80's, so did Rent Party incorporate you within their shows?
C - He did do some gigs with Jackson, yes. And that was about the time Laurence joined that as well, because Graham had just left, Graham Hunter. Because he was the first trumpeter and then Laurence took over when he left and then the same thing with Rent Party and of course Jackson came knocking on the door looking for Will. And then John got Laurence into the band so you did do, well half a dozen gigs, you did the Queen’s, Railway, Maritime Rooms, did you do Maritime Rooms?
So where do we go with the Square Pegs and me in the middle – took a picture of me in the middle.
C - That is Wales.
Wales, yeah. I've got the picture somewhere, I'll find it. The Square Pegs with me in the middle with my cap on and what not.
You performed with the Square Pegs.
Yeah because like I said…
C - Four voices and a pair of feet! Roy Castle wrote it, because the Square Pegs did that…they did the Roy Castle television series and Roy Castle wrote this piece ‘four voices and a pair of feet’. So when he worked with the Square Pegs they always put that number in.
Yeah then I come back up off of my feet. Because, like I say, London was alright but I'm not manager material so I'm glad I was able to come to Rotherham and like I said and meet the people who was stars as well you see, and Chris and them looked after me. Afterwards I got a car.
C - It’s amazing how these tap dancers find somebody to look after them. They can’t live on their own and look after themselves! He must be the only black person I've ever come across that can't cook!
[laughter] But it's true!
So it's the early 80's and you're based here, now, in Leigh on Sea. Were you doing…was most of the work you were doing down here, was most of your work in the early 80’s was it more in Essex or were you starting to branch out?
Branch out – Rotherham, Manchester, you name it, yes, yes. And like I said, with somebody who can read and write, I can't spell but things with Chris m ade it much easier for me to just go in and tap dance and that, what I did, what I do and all that. I think I would have been back home by now if it hadn't been for the Square Pegs and Chris who was working the Latin Quarters and I was working…and I only saw her in between shows when we would come out on the street because the weather was fantastic at the time. I haven't been back home because, like I said, I was working. From Rotherham until she came here, and with the Square Pegs working and doing television and what not and the background that I already had in London which made my name. Are you Will Gaines? Oh yeah, I know Will Gaines which like I said, most of the people that I worked for in London was the club owners that knew me. Doing the Palladium, doing the various gigs and one-nighters, whatever, I didn't really want to deal in money, see, because dancing and doing a gig and then counting their money is you know, I'm not gonna work for that, I probably would have lost all the work so thank heaven I met somebody who could actually wheel and deal.
Even though Will was based here, obviously in Leigh on Sea, was this really just kind of a base for Will to work all over the country or did you get more involved in what was happening in Essex?
C - Well we did get more involved in Essex I suppose because of Ray Ward, I was trying to think…
What even in those days?
C - When I spoke to you a couple of days ago I was trying to think when we first met Ray and I can't remember. But obviously it was down here because Ray was very difficult to get out, we did drag him out to a couple of radio things and the 100 Club, but other than that, as you know, Ray wanted to stick here. He was a big fish in a small pool, which was tragic I think because he had so much talent. But I mean he was a real Essex boy so we did, you know, a fair amount with Ray on and off.
So was Ray your regular keyboard player?
C - He was at one time.
Yeah because I got a picture of me and Ray Ward at a golf club – is there a famous golf club in London?
C - No…
It was something famous, because this lady’s son had a birthday party and a whole lot of kids were there and…what's the famous golf club?
C - In London?
Is it in London? I'm going to go find that picture now and see that you get it. Me and Ray Ward looking up in the sky. And all this lovely grass is all around us.
C - That was Lords Cricket Ground!
Yeah, Lords!! Thought it was a golf club! Lovely green grass.
C - We did the Maritime with him, we took him to Edinburgh Festival, we did BBC Glasgow television up there, so we were dragging him around a bit. We took him to Ireland.
That's right, yeah, didn't I!
C - So we worked with him quite a lot actually, on and off, and then…
30 years really, talking about 80’s to now.
C - Less in the last few years because he moved to Clacton.
I've got some pictures of me at the first gig where….with the girl dancers and all these beer kegs behind us, that was Edinburgh Festival wasn't it. I must dig out all this and get it off to you, yes.
Did you do anything regularly here in Essex, did you have a residency or…?
No I don’t think so.
You just played just about everywhere – anywhere.
C - Yes because Ray Ward was running the Belvedere in Basildon. So we did a few over there with Ray, we also did Will’s 75th I think over there. We had a big sort of do with lots of guests and that.
Yeah because like I said I really can't complain, England has been very, very good to me. I mean the places I've been out from, you know if I'd been back home I probably would have retired early but the thing is when you go to some places I can't even remember now, but you look back on the map, where have you been? You know, complete…you know places that names pop up in books, you know, in magazines, these are places and, like I said, a lot of them I saw in the movies, you know, they made a movie about something it was in a certain country, in a certain town, certain city. Yes.
It seems to me Will, it was when you moved down to Essex that you were finally getting recognised as a star in your own right, which is right of course.
Yeah because now I'm coming out to go back. Where I came in!
C - And what was so beautiful with the Arts Council tours was that it was Will Gaines name plus musicians, so you know…
Yes, Will was the star, not backing anyone, yeah.
C - It wasn't an opening act, he kept on and on about that and ‘I'm just an opening act’ – no you're not, it's your name out front!
Once an opening act always an opening act!
C - But he took it hard to take that on his shoulders you know, because we used to…
Will didn't want the responsibility of being the star.
C - We used to have a row about 4 o’clock every afternoon and it was about 6 weeks later that I understood what it was all about, it was pure nerves that ‘Will I fill the house?’, ‘Will my name bring them in?’ and he always did, but it was the suddenness, he's not just on the bill. “It's my name out front, it's all my responsibility now” and it took him a while to get his head around that.
Well I was the opening act wasn't I, I come over as the opening act.
C - That’s what I'm saying – that’s what he said pretty well all the time.
Because the dancers in America really was the opening act, it was the band, if the band generally played a number or a few numbers til the show started.
C - It was a big transition really to take that responsibility on your own shoulders.
And of course, and rightly so, that you were a star because you've got a massive personality when you're dancing and talking to the audience.
I really had no routine, like I said earlier, I was a dancer and I was the opening act, end of story.
C - Also what I love about watching Will and over the years is I know we did one of the Arts Council tours we did a gig at Battersea Arts Centre and within about 15 minutes there was a child yelling it's head off, very young, about 2 years old, and it was on and on and on and on. It was a real pain and instead of anybody making a fuss about it, unfortunately the mother didn't take it out but he just went over to this child and took him on stage and got him moving on stage and it was just brilliant and it's little things like that you think, that's the true artist and how to handle something like that.
No barrier between the artist and the audience.
C – Absolutely. He’s worked with Digby Fairweather.
Yes, I know Digby very well.
C - It was the 100 Club, the first time we worked with Digby.
He's just down the road.
Is he? Oh!
I bet you wish you had £1 for every time you've played the 100 Club?
C - And came out broke! He almost always did it on the door. You've got to pay for the place, you've got to pay for the equipment.
What at the 100 Club, do you? Oh dear. That’s terrible. What I mean to say is, I imagine Will, you must have lost count the amount of times you've played at the 100 Club, which is really the true home of Jazz in this country, more so than Ronnie Scott's in a way. Have you tapped at Ronnie Scott’s as well Will?
Yeah because the 100 Club had the stage that come out didn't it, the stage was underneath the bandstand?
I don't know whether you remember – it’s nothing to do with Essex but it's a story someone told me – that in London about mid-80’s at a club in Camden called the Electric Ballroom, upstairs it was 100% black crowd, Jazz dancers and someone brought Will along.
C - And he nearly killed himself!
And there was circle where Will was dancing against the young black guys doing the Jazz dancing.
C - Yeah he nearly killed himself because he tried to out-do them! He was in his 70’s and these kids were about 18-20 years old and they were doing all these head spins and tricks and he tried to out-do them! And I'm standing there going ‘oh no…’
A friend of mine that was there said it made complete sense, you were seeing one of the originals and one of the youngsters dancing together, battling, and it made complete cultural sense, you know, and I've got a video of you dancing for a band called Working Week, in the video for Venceremos and you're dancing…
C - With IDJ
IDJ’s first appearance that… do you remember IDJ? The young black dancers? You did the video for Venceremos it was called, a pop video and you're dancing against a young black guy, you're doing some taps and then he's trading. I've got that somewhere, amazing, amazing. That was in the 80’s. Did you see the Electric Ballroom thing, with Will? Did you? That’s a legendary story that, first time original legendary tap dancer against the young Jazz dancer.
I got to say England has been good to me!
C - Rent Party did one with Slim Gaillard as well.
Of course, you danced with Slim Gaillard as well didn't you, yes. Where is Slim Gaillard from? I mean obviously he moved to London in the 80’s.
C - He was originally from Cuba.
Yes that's right, because he spoke Spanish as well didn’t he.
C - He spoke about eight languages and played about eight instruments as well.
That was amazing. So we had Slim Gaillard in London in the 80’s one of the great Jazz legends.
C - Well I'll tell you who introduced us was Jackson. We went to the canteen one night, John, Laurence, me, Jackson. I think Rent Party had done a gig or something.
Was that 80’s?
C - Yeah.
Slim Gaillard used to perform a lot at the Wag. Do you remember the Wag in Wardour Street?
C - Yes, he did that.
You know who I saw before it was taken over by the Jazz dancers I saw Carmen McCrae there with Tubby Hayes.
Wow, when it was called Whisky-a-Go-Go, yeah.
I worked with Ronnie Scott when he was still living, worked it again downstairs, yeah. Because a dancer called Teddy Hale he was over here. He was a complete, complete junkie, complete dope addict and I don't think he took his top coat off whether it was snowing or the sun was 180! He's in a film, coming down from Ronnie Scott’s club and how he got to England as the junkie he was, but a hell of a dancer. He would do the routine, flip, off. No messing about. Same steps, same steps.
Was he American?
Yeah, black American. I think he was just, oh maybe 2 inches shorter than me, but hell of a dancer, him and Baby Laurence and there was another one in there. They worked the Apollo period. And they had a routine and if you saw it once you saw it again, and it was something else the routine they had put together. I came to England and I never saw him in person, what was the street that Ronnie’s was on, I never walked up on him in person.
C - It wouldn't have been in Frith Street then, it was the 50’s he came over. It must have been the old club. Teddy Hale.
No, that club that's there now, I'm talking about that club there now, that was in a film. That street was in a film because Teddy Hale, when I saw it I fell about, I just flipped, I didn't realise he had been over here. Because like I said he wore his…it could be 200 in the shade and he would still be wearing that top coat. And I think it was because of the habit he had. He was a hell of a dancer, I mean I could never do nothing that Teddy Hale did, at the speed he did it at and he was short anyhow so he looked like a little bunny rabbit dancing away! I think he did a flip, I'm not sure, I think he did a flip-split and he was off. Same routine, same routine. Baby Laurence, Teddy Hale.
So at the time of interviewing you it’s April 3rd 2013, you're going to be 85 years old on Saturday, April 6th and you're still working all over.
C - Yeah the work’s slowed up, some of that is because we’ve been moving around and selling a house I've sort of lost my head actually, it's been quite a fraught…
Will – you're not wanting to be working 5 days a week are you?
I'm not young looking!
You are! I think finally Will, we mentioned it briefly earlier but I never got the full story about working with Nat King Cole.
C - Nat King Cole in South Africa. I shouldn't mention that, I never forgave him for going to South Africa at that time.
When was this? When did you work in South Africa?
C - In the 70’s. Early 70’s.
I didn't even know Nat King Cole was still alive in the early 70's.
I know because like I said they sent they dancers, and I can't think of his name, it's a pain in the arse, most blacks are, they want to be the chief and all that crap – and they picked me up in England to go to be the compere, announce facts and what not.
What was the idea of the concert in South Africa, any idea?
To this day I don't really know but I must have been politics involved in it.
C - It's amazing because his agent then was Asian, she was Indian wasn't she yet she sent him to South Africa. I didn't believe that and I remember standing on the corner of Leicester Square saying “You can't do that!”
Yeah, that's right!
C - I'm sitting in the street protesting and he's going to South Africa. It was crazy. It’s not funny!
I'm a tap dancer in New York and they said “You're going to South Africa”.
C - It wasn't in New York, you were here in England.
No, no I'm saying New York had said I'm going, and the dancer…no a singer, I can see his face but I can't think…anyway he was in charge and he was a pain in the arse, he kept telling me what to do. Now New York manager, William Morris, said pick up Will Gaines, put him on a plane and send him to South Africa. Was it Cape Town?
C - I don't know.
What's the big city there? Anyway so I was on a plane coming from England, they was on a plane coming from New York and we all landed in Africa and I was the compere, that was what they wanted me for – and tap dancing – but mainly the compere.
C - Peaches and Herb you were with in South Africa.
So that must have been late 70’s then, because Peaches and Herb had disco hits in the late 70’s didn't they, ‘Shake Your Groove Thing’…
C – No, well I left working in London in ’76, it was before that.
Peaches and Herb, Nat King Cole, who else was on the bill?
Oh…it'll probably come back to me when you go. I can't remember.
Did you actually dance with Nat King Cole in South Africa?
No, just on the same bill. Like I said because most of the acts, the star acts, I knew from America, right, and then all of a sudden we all over the place. We were running into one another and then William Morris, the big agency in America, who sent the group over, and if I can find it I’ll give it to you it's very simple about Will Gaines and William Morris so and so and so and so. The thing was, now I am a star opening act all over the place if you know what I'm saying – I'm working for one of the biggest companies in Manhattan for booking acts.
In the world actually!
Yeah, and I just…like I said, I got on the plane or I got on the bus or whatever and I went there and did my act. Yes because like I said it was mostly…I was trying to think how many times did I work a club or a theatre, I think it was a theatre, big big stage….yeah, yeah…how old am I? 25?! [laughter]
C - Well in the 60’s we were doing the American camps in Germany.
I forgot about the American camps, while living in Parkland, because…
C - You had the working men's clubs here first and then…
Then went over to the American bases, because I was driving…
So you did American air bases all around the world?
Yeah they sent me over there to do the bases, yeah. Because like I said it wasn't really my cup of tea but the thing was the American bands, the soldiers, the band was there you see, there were soldiers there, it wasn't like they sent the bands over.
Was that why…you said that Will came over to dance for the USO. Was that to dance at American air bases over here?
C – No, it was just an exchange.
Working the bases in Germany, yeah.
C - I was going to say, I did my first summer season down here, on the pier. When the theatre was this end and the tide used to come lapping in up with windows of the dressing room!
Who’s the resident orchestra on the pier at the time?
C - There's wasn't, it was just a piano and bass. And occasionally a drummer, it was called Out of the Blue, it was very famous, she did quite a lot of the summer seasons in Essex.
When was that?
Late 50’s, ’57 – ’58.
I think from an Essex point of view I can't think of anything else.