Will Gaines at Weston Park Museum Sheffield 1987
Will Gaines, the American “hoofer”, who has died aged 86, began his 70-year career in Detroit, went on to the Cotton Club in Harlem, but ended up settling in Rotherham. An unashamed entertainer, Gaines hated being described as a “tap dancer”. Instead he spiced up “hoofing”, a shuffling form of tap, with stories, reminiscences and gags. A reviewer in The Daily Telegraph described his mesmerising footwork as making a sound “like crumbling ice cream wafers”. Though principally he accompanied, or was accompanied by, jazz bands, Gaines was able to improvise steps to genres ranging from flamenco to the Baroque of JS Bach. In the course of his long career, he performed with Duke Ellington and graced the same stage as Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr and Louis Armstrong.
In 1963, when his agency, William Morris, told him that they had booked him a gig at the London Palladium, Gaines told them: “No way. I don’t want to go. It’s too cold over there.” But he relented, and recalled that when he got off the plane he was wearing “a suit, long johns, an overcoat, a scarf, gloves, and a hat – and you know what, they had a heatwave over there”.
In Britain he discovered that “white folks got rhythm after all. Jack Parnell’s band played with Count Basie and Duke Ellington when they were there”; he decided to stay. As well as appearing at London venues including the Pigalle and Ronnie Scott’s and touring extensively in Europe, he appeared at the Royal Festival Hall in a tribute to Honi Coles in 2001, and in 2008 celebrated his 80th birthday with a sell-out concert at the Purcell Room. He also stole the show at arts festivals, including the Edinburgh Festival where, in 1996, he tap-danced an accompaniment to poems read by John Dowie. He also danced for Princess Margaret in a command performance at Covent Garden and, in 2006, at St Paul’s Cathedral in a performance of Ellington’s Sacred Concerts.
When Gaines first came to Britain he lived in London, but later moved to Rotherham, explaining that he felt more at home there because it reminded him of Detroit. His final years were spent at Leigh-on-Sea.
Will Gaines’s marriage was dissolved, and he is survived by a daughter. A son predeceased him.
Will Gaines, born April 5 1928, died May 7 2014