The man who gave us “Mr. Bojangles” is gone. Jerry Jeff Walker died yesterday, October 23, 2020, in AUstin, a town he loved and made his home. He was 78.
To write a true standard in this day and age – one song recorded by many artists – is rare. But “Mr. Bojangles” is a real rarity even among standards. It quickly expanded beyond its pop/country roots to become a cultural artifact, recorded by the biggest stars in both music and show-biz.
Music icons including Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Harry Belafonte and Willie Nelson covered it, but so did show biz icons such as George Burns, Perry Como and, most famously, Sammy Davis, Jr.
Sammy, of course, was a beloved entertainer, member of Sinatra’s Rat Pack, and a traditional song & dance man. He transformed this mythic country ballad into a poignant performance piece, and it became his signature song.
Jerry Jeff was born in Oneonta, New York in 1942, named Ronald Clyde Crosby. He lived in New Orleans in the 60s, and it’s there that he became Jerry Jeff Walker. It’s also there that “Mr. Bojangles” was born, based on the drunk tank testimony of man he met there in 1965.
He recorded it in 1968. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had a hit with it, and a chain of great versions emerged, such as that by David Bromberg, who owned it as only he could.
So in honor on the man who brought us “Mr. Bojangles,” here are a choice collection of recordings of his classic song. Though the songwriter is gone, officially, from this world, the song is everywhere at once, and as alive as ever.