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Peg Leg Bates honored in SC

E. RICHARD WALTON | 9/19/2013, 5:08 p.m.

Legendary tap dancer Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates had an unmistakable wow factor. This month, a sculpture honoring Bates was unveiled in South Carolina.

“He was a tough act to follow,” said Ruth Brown, a singer, writer and actress.

The late Gregory Hines, a notable hoofer himself, once said of Bates: “He was always trying things, reaching for things and pushing himself so he could be a a real tap dancer.”

Before he became a world-famous dancer, Bates had his humble beginnings in Fountain Inn, S.C., where he lost his left leg in a farming accident when he was 12. He performed for nickels on street corners and at the Liberty Theatre in Greenville, S.C., where he was discovered by a New York City producer in the early 1920s. Bates appeared with a host of luminaries, such as Nat King Cole, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Mel Tormé and Louis Armstrong.

There is an existing life-size statute of Bates erected in Fountain Inn, where he died during a visit at age 91 in 1998. 

On Sept. 14, a committee raised the funds and unveiled the new statue, which serves as a nod to the performer’s achievements in Greenville, which is located a few miles from where he grew up. 

The piece was created by sculptor Joseph B. Thompson, who knew Bates and recognized his all-around brilliance long before Hines was born.

“He took adversity and celebrated it,” Thompson said of his subject.

An educator at South Carolina’s Governor’s School of the Arts, Thompson said he welded together “nuts and bolts” normally used for bridges to make the sculpture, which imagines Bates as “a dancer doing a spin.” Bates, Thompson said, “liked movement and rhythm,” which he used in his rendering of the dancer.

Bates moved smoothly and charmed on stage and on television. He performed in cities such as Nashville, Tenn., Philadelphia and New York City, appeared a record number of times on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and appeared twice before the king and queen of England in the 1930s. 

Mary Duckett, the spirit behind the Bates project, said that she’d seen him dance at the Liberty Theatre. The sculpture and plaque were installed near where the Liberty Theatre once stood.

“Thank God I saw him perform,” Duckett said.

Greenville’s Mayor Knox White said he encouraged the city’s Art in Public Places Commission to continue developing projects like this one.

He said there are 61 similar art pieces scattered in the downtown areas of this city of about 60,000 residents. White said the art projects help to educate the public about Greenville’s history. The city was founded by Native Americans along the Reedy River, which still runs not far from the Bates sculpture.

The area boasts two BMW vehicle manufacturing plants and the Michelin Tires North American headquarters. Last fall, Amazon opened a $50 million shipment plant 30 miles away in nearby Spartanburg, S.C.

While Bates’ daughter, Melodie Bates-Holden, and her husband, Preston Holden, didn’t make the unveiling ceremony, Bates’ cousins Vivian Bates and Camille Johnson and nephew Veldon Bates attended.