Mr Bojangles is a beautiful, bittersweet modern classic, still in regular rotation by folk and jazz singers alike.
But the homeless character in the song was not the original Bojangles. In fact, the history of Mr Bojangles stretches back a century or so, and sheds light on some of the most important figures in American entertainment.
Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson
Most of us have largely forgotten the ‘original’ Mr Bojangles, Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson.
Robinson was one of the biggest stars of the early 20th century, arguably the best dancer in the world at the time, and one of the most important African American performers…ever.
It’s hard to overstate how important he was, especially in the New York scene. He regularly performed alongside Duke Ellington, Fred Astaire, and Cab Calloway, and was friends with Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Bob Hope, Jackie Robinson, and Joe DiMaggio (the last two being star baseball players).
While Robinson is best known for his early cinema tap dancing, he made his name on the Vaudeville circuits before the first world war. He was one of the first minstrel performers who, on account of being black, didn’t wear blackface.
His signature stair dance featured in one of Robinson’s four films with Shirley Temple, marking the first on-screen interracial dance couple – which was surprisingly controversial at the time.
The Bojangles nickname apparently came from his childhood in Richmond Virginia, after he and a friend stole a beaver hat (the colloquial name for a beaver-skin top hat) from a hat maker named Lion Boujasson – which the children mispronounced as ‘Bojangles’.
The name was transferred to Robinson to make fun of him for stealing such an obnoxious hat.
It’s also around this time that Bill Robinson claims to have invented the term ‘copasetic’, meaning in excellent order – which he’d later popularise in his shows.
Despite his place in history, the song Mr Bojangles was not written about Bill Robinson.
The ‘Real’ Bojangles (from the song)
The song, Mr Bojangles, is a waltzy cowboy ballad, written and recorded by country singer Jeff Walker in 1968, almost twenty years after Bill Robinson’s death.
The song was covered by country-adjacent acts like Neil Diamond and John Denver before the breakthrough hit was released by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
Walker wrote the song about a homeless street performer he met in a New Orleans jail who went by Mr Bojangles, to hide his true identity from the police.
They got to talking to the other inmates, and at one point Mr Bojangles told a story about his pet dog – who had died. To lighten the mood, Mr Bojangles started tap dancing around the cell. From that interaction, Walker got his lyrics.
Being a dancer, it’s likely this street performer did in fact take his name from Bill Robinson.
The link between Bojanges: Sammy Davis Jr
That’s the core story, but besides a nickname and a flair for the dramatic, there’s something else that links the real and original Mr Bojangles – that link is Sammy Davis Jr. Davis had a long and sometimes scandalous life, and is probably the most noted performer of the song Mr Bojangles.
Sammy wasn’t the first jazz-ish singer to record the tune – Nina Simone had done so a year earlier – but Sammy would make it a feature of his live show for decades.
As well as singing about the ‘real’ Mr Bojangles, Davis was a fan of and friend to the ‘original’ Mr Bojangles, Bill Robinson. Then later, Davis would sometimes be called Mr Bojangles himself.
So to summarize, we have three different Mr Bojangles to keep in our minds:
- The ‘original’ Bojangles, the tap dancer Bill Robinson
- The ‘real’ Bojangles, the dog-loving street performer from New Orleans
- The ‘modern’ Bojangles, Sammy Davis Jr
Three final numbers
Like the song, the story of all three Mr Bojangles ends with mixed emotions.
Despite earning millions in his career, Bill Robinson died penniless in 1949 – party due to a lifelong gambling habit, and for his habit of giving money to anyone in need. He was beloved by fellow performers – his Harlem funeral, organized by Ed Sullivan, was attended by a who’s who of Broadway.
But he copped flack from the black community, sometimes accused of being an Uncle Tom, an old term used to criticise African Americans who pandered to white audiences.
As for Sammy Davis Jr, his life was possibly even more complicated. Also labeled an Uncle Tom early on, he later got slammed for his endorsement of Richard Nixon (despite Davis having been a friend and benefactor to Martin Luther King). Davis did come to regret the Nixon situation, for what it’s worth.
But Davis also received vitriol from the white community, largely due to his marriages to white women. His marriage to Swedish-born actress May Britt reportedly led John F Kennedy – of all people – to refuse to have Sammy sing at his inauguration.
As for the Mr Bojangles Jeff Walker wrote about – he was a nameless street performer in 1960s New Orleans, which probably didn’t set him up for a long and prosperous life.
But the song doesn’t hit like an emotional tonne of bricks because of who it was written about. At its core, Mr Bojangles is a story of joy and hope in the face of tragedy and unfairness. Both Sammy Davis Jr and Bill Robinson had lives filled with that, but it’s also a universally human thing.