HE’S danced with people whose names you imagine up in lights rather than scribbled in your address book – Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Sammy Davis Junior.

So I’m more than a little excited about meeting tap-dancing legend Will Gaines and having a little lesson ahead of his gig at the Smack, in Old Leigh tonight.

When he shuffles in he’s dwarfed by a huge leather jacket, face obscured by a baseball cap, bearing the classic Ronnie Scott’s logo, and he needs an extra 10p for the car park.

“What do you have in mind?” he says, when he returns.

I suggest he takes me through a couple of steps.

“I never had a lesson in my life!” he explains, but obligingly dons his famous shoes and slowly begins to tap his feet.

I try and keep up and for a few minutes it’s brilliant fun as we tap together on the hard stone floor of the Smack.

But the 82-year-old soon leaves me behind as his feet click and rap, and it’s not long before I’ve given up and watch in awe as he demonstrates the craft he’s honed over the years.

It all began in downtown Detroit when a young Will began appearing with a friend at amateur talent shows. He says has no idea why he chose the career he did as he was self-taught and there were no dancers in the Gaines family.

“On Sundays my family would go to gatherings, which were upstairs,” remembers Will.

“I had a suit on. I must have been about five, and there was a man there. He must have been about 10ft tall, or it seemed like it to me. He had a string tied to a square cardboard box, which he would hit with drumsticks.

“I remember this man and he’splaying this box because there’s no one in my family who was musical. My aunt played the piano and, apparently, I had an uncle who played the guitar, but I never knew that he did.

“I didn’t know anyone in my family who knew how to tap dance. Someone in Mississippi in the slave trade who came up on the train must have been a tap dancer.”

But Will’s first introduction to a life on stage was less inspiring, although he laughs as he recounts the tale.

“I was in kindergarten and Mrs Appleby was putting on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” he says.

“I was seven and there were five white kids and two black kids. You’ve got to picture me and him at the edge of the stage about to go on in a line with these five white kids and as we came to the stage they came to put white on our faces.

“I think that was the beginning of my showbiz experience.”

It didn’t take long for Will’s career to take off. Tap dancers were the regular openers for big names and he was soon sharing a bill with Sammy Davis Junior at a special concert for injured soldiers at a hospital in Buffalo, New York state.

“It was so hot that all the beds had been brought outside,” he explains. “We were in this field and there were beds of soldiers, people with no limbs. They were all wheeled out into this lovely green field.

“There was me tap dancing and then Sammy Davis Junior and his uncle and his father – they were the stars. Sammy was a hell of a tap dancer. I don’t know if people know that, but there’s a video of him about seven or eight years old tap dancing like you wouldn’t believe.

“He still had a big nose and big hair, he grew up with that, but it was something else to hear his feet.”

In 1963 Will came to England and ended up staying. As well as dancing at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club he made a series of nine prestigious appearances on Sunday Night at the Paladium.

It wasn’t long before Duke Ellington was on the phone, wanting Will to appear on his UK tour.

He says: “Duke Ellington came to town and the phone rang and I picked the phone up and said, ‘Yeah Duke?’ I had no idea he was going to call me. He said, ‘I want you to come to Coventry’, and I said ‘I’m on my way’. ”

The show was at Coventry Cathedral and Will recalls: “A guy came in and said, ‘Duke, I have five of these cassocks in different colours’. Duke said, ‘I don’t care what you wear as long as you don’t look prettier than me’! Well common as I was I just fell in the middle of the floor and I couldn’t stop laughing.”

Will, who moved to Leigh in 1980, also struck up a friendship with English comedian Tommy Cooper, who he toured with.

His career carried on with appearances on Top of the Pops in the Eighties, and he still dances now, despite suffering with arthritis.

He says: “As long as I’m dancing I’m fine. I can hardly walk to the door now I get the pains, but as long as I’m tap dancing I don’t think about it.”

l Will is making a special appearance with Southend jump-jive band the Zoltans tonight. The Zoltans Christmas Party takes place at the Smack, High Street, Old Leigh at 8.30pm. Entrance is free.