Mr. Bojangles, Dance
The song, Jerry Jeff Walker tells us, is about an old street performer he met while in jail in New Orleans. Walker was in for the night after drinking too much, and the performer — a homeless white man — was a dancer, who had taken his name from one of the most celebrated entertainers of another era, Luther Robinson.
Robinson was born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1878, and grew up in what was once called, right after the Civil War, the “Black Wall Street” of America, that part of the city called Jackson Ward. It is full of churches and theaters. There’s Ebenezer Baptist Church and Sixth Mount Zion Baptist (where Reverend John Jasper delivered his sermon “The Sun Do Move”), both of which share the area with the Hippodrome, where Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Bill Robinson — a local boy made very good — all performed.
In those Reconstruction days, Luther Robinson’s first job was as a “pick,” a pickaninny dancer in minstrel shows. He danced from the time he was a small child, swiping his brother’s name and calling himself Bill. During the 1890s, he traveled and performed up and down the East Coast, served in the Spanish-American War, and settled in Brooklyn around the turn of the last century. His star, and his fees, rose and rose as he did vaudeville shows on the traveling circuit, as well as major city venues in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Harlem.
In the Broadway musical revue Blackbirds of 1928, Robinson spun his tap-dancing magic — light and elegant, on the tips of his toes instead of slapping down flat-footed — up and down a flight of stairs and stopped the show. It remains the longest running show with an all-black cast in Broadway history. As a New Yorker, Robinson became and remained all his life a Yankees fan, refusing to do shows during the World Series, as the Yankees were often in it, and traveling with the team to Chicago where they beat the Cubs to win the Series in 1932. He bet $2,000, and got back $12,000, on the Yanks, and tap-danced in the aisle of their returning train.
Robinson is best remembered today for his movie roles from 1934 to 1943, beginning with The Little Colonel (1935) and ending with Stormy Weather (1943). Most of those movies he made with Shirley Temple.
The Little Colonel‘s standout scene is that in which Robinson shares his “stair dance” with the seven-year-old. In her autobiography, Child Star, Temple spoke of her affection for Robinson, and their friendship, which lasted throughout his life. “Robinson walked a step ahead of us,” she wrote, “but when he noticed me hurrying to catch up, he shortened his stride to accommodate mine. I kept reaching up for his hand, but he hadn’t looked down and seemed unaware. … When he took my hand in his, it felt large and cool. For a few moments, we continued walking in silence. ‘Can I call you Uncle Billy?’ I asked. ‘Why sure you can, he replied. … ‘But then I get to call you darlin’.’ It was a deal. From then on, whenever we walked together it was hand in hand, and I was always his ‘darlin’.”
When the movie was released in the South, the portion in which Robinson and Temple held hands as they danced was cut.
In 1939, Robinson starred on Broadway in The Hot Mikado, a jazzed-up remake of Gilbert and Sullivan. On May 25 of that year, he celebrated his 61st birthday by dancing 61 blocks along Broadway.
When he died in 1949, Robinson was nearly broke, thanks to decades of gambling. Ed Sullivan arranged and paid for his funeral at Evergreen Cemetery in Brooklyn. The entire New York sports and entertainment world, from Jackie and Rachel Robinson to Milton Berle and Jimmy Durante, joined Mayor William O’Dwyer — who gave the eulogy — at the funeral. Thousands of people lined, and followed, the funeral procession’s route from Harlem through Times Square to the graveside.
At his last City Winery residency, David Bromberg had his set list all ready. “Sharon,” someone kept calling, but Bromberg shook his head. They had played “Sharon” the night before; the band preferred not to repeat, this time around. But someone kept calling “Mr. Bojangles,” too. Finally Bromberg smiled. “All right,” he said. “This is as close to a request as I’ll do.” And quietly, he began:
“I knew a man, Bojangles, and he danced for you….”
His letter-perfect, heartbreaking version left a full house silent, thoughtful, sad. It made me go back to learn more of the original man who lay such a rich foundation for not only a hit song, but who broke ground in Broadway and in Hollywood — and in the world of baseball, too — far more than I’d ever known or suspected.