Mr. Bojangles: Jerry Jeff Walker, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Sammy Davis Jr.

Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider the song Mr. Bojangles. This is a terrific country-rock song from the late 60s. We will start with the original version by singer-songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker, and then discuss covers of that song by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and also by Sammy Davis, Jr.

Jerry Jeff Walker and Mr. Bojangles:

Jerry Jeff Walker is an outlaw-country singer. He has been based just outside Austin, Texas for many years now, where he has a very loyal regional following.

Mr. Walker was born Ronald Crosby in the small city of Oneonta, New York in 1942. His maternal grandparents were both musicians and played for square dances in the Oneonta area.

In the mid-60s, he was performing folk music in Greenwich Village, where he adopted the stage name Jerry Jeff Walker. In 1968 he released his most famous single, Mr. Bojangles, on his album with the same name.

Below is a photo of Jerry Jeff Walker performing.

In the 1970s, Walker moved to Austin, Texas where he became part of the new ‘outlaw country’ movement, along with other artists like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.

Jerry Jeff Walker describes his musical style as “Cowjazz,” meaning that it is country music that also reveals the influence of jazz here and there. A number of his songs reference a love of trains and sadness at their recent decline in this country; one of his most famous train songs is Railroad Lady which Walker co-wrote with Jimmy Buffett.

The song Mr. Bojangles describes a real-life encounter experienced by Mr. Walker. Apparently while Jerry Jeff was in jail in New Orleans for public intoxication,
he met a homeless white man who called himself “Mr. Bojangles” … He had been arrested as part of a police sweep of indigent people that was carried out following a high-profile murder. The two men and others in the cell chatted about all manner of things, but when Mr. Bojangles told a story about his dog, the mood in the room turned heavy. Someone else in the cell asked for something to lighten the mood, and Mr. Bojangles obliged with a tap dance.

Jerry Jeff Walker then wrote his song about this experience. It tells the story of his meeting with the pseudonymous “Mr. Bojangles,” and the story that unfolded.

I met him in a cell in New Orleans I was
down and out
He looked to me to be the eyes of age
as he spoke right out
He talked of life, talked of life, he laughed
clicked his heels and stepped

He said his name “Bojangles” and he danced a lick
across the cell

So here is Jerry Jeff Walker in a live performance of Mr. Bojangles.

What a great song! It paints an unforgettable picture of this drifter, who dances at public events across the South “for drinks and tips … but most the time I spend behind these country bars, ‘cause I drinks a bit.”

The song gives a moving image of a man on the fringes of society who is still grieving 20 years after the death of his beloved dog, but who still dances in his cell upon request.

The accompaniment here is really enjoyable. The pedal steel guitar accompaniment is terrific. Also, the song features a honky-tonk piano and a brief guitar solo at the end.

Not surprisingly, this song has been covered by scores of artists. In addition to the two featured here, these have included artists as diverse as Harry Belafonte, Whitney Houston, Billy Joel, Nina Simone, Bob Dylan and Elton John.

Jerry Jeff Walker continues to be a popular figure in the Texas outlaw country music scene. He recorded several albums for MCA Records and Elektra, and then in 1986 he and his wife founded their own record company, Tried & True Music.

Because of his strong regional following, Walker has been called the “Jimmy Buffett of Texas.” This is an appropriate moniker, as Walker drove his buddy Buffett to Jimmy’s current home in Key West, Florida. Also, Walker and Buffett have co-written songs together.

Jerry Jeff Walker was immortalized in the Willie Nelson/Waylon Jennings song Luckenbach, Texas (“between Hank Williams’ pain songs and Jerry Jeff’s train songs”). Every year, Walker holds a birthday bash in Austin, TX. This event always features a number of performances by country artists, and has become exceptionally popular for musicians in that area.

Our wish is for Jerry Jeff Walker to keep on truckin’.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Mr. Bojangles:

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band began as an acoustic jug band in Long Beach, California in 1966. Founding members of the band were singers and guitarists Jeff Hanna and Bruce Kunkel. They were joined by other musicians including a very young Jackson Browne, and the group began performing in local clubs.

Browne left after a very short time, and Kunkel departed in 1967 over a dispute as to whether the group should include electric instruments and drums. At that time multi-instrumentalist John McEuen joined the group.

Below is a photo of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band performing in 1973.

After issuing a few unsuccessful albums, the Nitty Gritty group struck ‘pay-Dirt,’ so to speak, in 1970 with their album Uncle Charlie and His Dog Teddy. That song contained the single Mr. Bojangles, which became their greatest single hit.

Their cover of the Jerry Jeff Walker song made it to #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and stayed on the charts for 36 weeks. At that point, the band gained a reputation as an influential country-folk group.

Here are the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band with a live performance of Mr. Bojangles.

Isn’t this fun? The mandolin is a great touch for this song, and the group produces a memorable version of this tune. The group’s harmony singing is really enjoyable.

Following their chart success with this song, the Dirt Band then joined forces with a number of country and bluegrass legends, such as Earl Scruggs, Mother Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff, Doc Watson and Merle Travis. In 1972, they released a very influential ‘roots’ 3-record album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken.

The combination of the new-age Nitty Gritty Dirt Band with classic backwoods country singers was a powerful one. It introduced some wonderful country musicians to a new generation, and helped re-start the performing careers of several of the old-timers.

That album was nominated for a couple of Grammys, and in 1989 they released Volume Two of this collaboration. That effort was named Album of the Year by the Country Music Association.

Here are a few interesting factoids regarding the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. First, in 1992 then-President George H.W. Bush referred to the group as the “Nitty Ditty Nitty Gritty Great Bird” at a country music awards ceremony in Nashville.

A second interesting fact is that in 1977 the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was the first country ensemble to obtain permission to tour the Soviet Union. All of the group’s concerts on that tour were sold out.

Finally, performing under the pseudonym The Toot Uncommons, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band backed up Steve Martin on his smash hit comedy record, King Tut.

Sammy Davis, Jr. and Mr. Bojangles:

When I was younger, one thing I knew for sure was that I seriously disliked Sammy Davis, Jr. At the time, he seemed to be holed up in Las Vegas as a member of Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack.

Below is a photo of Sammy Davis Jr. from about 1960.

Since Sammy was in the Rat Pack, I assumed that he spent most of his time drinking and behaving boorishly, like Sinatra and his cohorts. From time to time Sammy would co-star in one of Sinatra’s cheesy vanity-project movies such as Ocean’s 11 or Robin and the Seven Hoods.

As a rock and roll devotee, I had little patience for Sammy Davis’ Broadway-style show tunes. I thought his signature song, Candy Man, was mawkish and sentimental, and his aging-hipster persona held little appeal for me.

Sammy Davis Jr hugs Richard Nixon at a campaign rally in Miami in 1972.

Sammy Davis Jr hugs Richard Nixon at a campaign rally in Miami in 1972.

Furthermore, I vividly remembered Davis campaigning on behalf of Richard Nixon, the inventor of the “Southern strategy,” which openly courted white racist voters in the American South. After watching him embracing Nixon (in the image at left), I wrote Sammy Davis off as just another sell-out.

So it was quite an eye-opener when I decided to include his version of Mr. Bojangles here, and when I read up on Sammy’s history.

Sammy Davis, Jr. was the son of vaudeville performers. His father was African-American and his mother was of Afro-Cuban heritage. When he was three, his parents separated, so his father took Junior along on tour.

Soon, young Sammy was also dancing in vaudeville revues with his father and his uncle Will Mastin, performing as the Will Mastin Trio.

Sammy’s career took off in 1951 when the Will Mastin Trio performed at Ciro’s nightclub in Hollywood, following the Oscar ceremony. The trio was a smash hit, and Sammy in particular was singled out because of his many impressions of Hollywood stars.

From that point on, Sammy Davis, Jr. was in great demand as a singer and entertainer. He enjoyed hit records, and starred on Broadway.

Now, since we criticized Sammy Davis’ appearances in some of Frank Sinatra’s low-brow movies, it is only fair that we single out his unforgettable, chilling performance as the evil ‘Sportin’ Life’ in the 1959 movie musical Porgy and Bess.

As a result of his success, Sammy was chosen as one of the founding members of Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack. At that time, Sammy Davis became a headliner at Las Vegas’ Frontier Casino.

But like so many African-American entertainers, Sammy Davis Jr. experienced racial discrimination and segregation. And this persisted, even after he became a charter member of the Rat Pack. While white entertainers were put up in suites in the hotels where they performed, Sammy had to find rooms on the west side of the city.

And this was just one of many indignities that Davis suffered.
No dressing rooms were provided for black performers, and they had to wait outside by the swimming pool between acts. Davis and other black artists could entertain, but could not … gamble in the casinos, or dine or drink in the hotel restaurants and bars.

Sammy Davis was keenly aware of the toxic effects of segregation on society, and he became quite active in the civil rights movement. Davis took part in the 1963 March on Washington, the site of Martin Luther King’s unforgettable “I Have a Dream” speech, and other civil rights actions.

At some point, Sammy Davis refused to appear at racially segregated venues. He is given considerable credit for personally helping to integrate clubs in cities like Las Vegas and Miami Beach.

Here is Sammy Davis, Jr. performing Mr. Bojangles in 1989.

This was one of Sammy’s favorite tunes, and he frequently included it in his stage performances. He turns the song from a country-rock classic into something closer to a Broadway ballad, or even a call-back to his vaudeville days – Sammy even throws in a little soft-shoe routine to illustrate Mr. Bojangles’ dancing.

You have to admit, Sammy has a terrific voice, and he is clearly sincere in conveying the atmosphere between the singer and the jailbird Mr. Bojangles. So, despite my initial dislike for Sammy Davis, I am impressed with his cover of this song.

In November 1954, Sammy Davis was gravely injured in a horrific auto accident while traveling from Las Vegas back to Los Angeles. He lost his left eye in the collision, because of the bullet-shaped horn button on his Cadillac.

Following his convalescence from the accident, Sammy had a glass eye installed. While he was in the hospital, his good friend Eddie Cantor discussed with him the similarities that Cantor perceived existed between Jews and Negroes. As a result of their conversations, Sammy Davis converted to Judaism in 1961.

In 1957, Sammy Davis began a relationship with Kim Novak. This caused Harry Cohn, the head of Novak’s studio Columbia Pictures, to worry about possible negative publicity resulting from an inter-racial affair. So Cohn arranged for a mobster to threaten Davis with bodily harm or even death if he continued the relationship.

Davis broke off the relationship with Novak, but in 1960 he married Swedish actress May Britt. Their relationship became quite controversial. Davis apparently received hate mail and death threats as a result of his marriage. Also, until 1967 interracial marriage was illegal in 31 states, although it was legal in New York where Davis and Britt were married.

Imagine the changes that occurred during Sammy Davis, Jr.’s life. He was born and raised in the vaudeville days, then performed in the “Big Band” era, and his career stretched into the age of rock and roll. His personal experiences with racial discrimination led him to join in the struggle against segregation.

Sammy Davis was keenly aware of the hurdles faced by minorities.  He frequently pointed out that, as a black Jewish entertainer with one eye who was married to a white woman, he was a minority in many different areas! What an interesting guy and an extremely talented performer.

Sammy Davis, Jr. died in May, 1990 of complications from throat cancer. He was survived by his wife Altovise Davis, a daughter and two adopted sons. Sammy Davis, Jr. had a pretty amazing career, and he experienced dramatic changes in both society and the music business during his lifetime.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Mr. Bojangles (song)
Wikipedia, Jerry Jeff Walker
Wikipedia, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
Wikipedia, Sammy Davis Jr.

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. He and his wife share their college-town life with two delightful cats. He is also interested in tennis and ornithology.
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