It’s the one hundred and forty first anniversary of the birth of Bill Robinson. Born in Richmond, Virginia on 25th May 1878, he became one of the world’s most famous tap dancers. As a dancer and a Hollywood film star, he appeared alongside Shirley Temple in 1935, and Fats Waller in 1945. Bill Robinson was a major figure. The song “Ain’t Misbehavin” was sung by Fats Waller in Bill Robinson’s film, “Stormy Weather.” It was a surprise to discover that was Bill Robinson’s nickname was “Bojangles.”
Bojangles was the name from a song sung by Sammy Davis Junior. Jerry Jeff Walker’s 1968 song “Mr Bojangles” tells of his prison cell encounter with a homeless man three years previously, a song and dance man who used Bojangles as his nickname.
The original Bojangles, Bill Robinson, had died in 1949. The man whom Jerry Jeff Walker met in 1965 was recalling memories of someone who had been a star when the homeless man in the prison cell had enjoyed happier times.
The discovery of the story of the real Bojangles adds an additional sense of pathos to Sammy Davis Junior’s classic song. Bill Robinson’s life would have been a struggle against racist prejudice and bigotry, even the films in which he starred were edited for screening in the American South so as not to offend the sensibilities of the bigots who might have been at the cinema. Bill Robinson’s dance with Shirley Temple in 1935 is said to be the first inter-racial dance to appear on a Hollywood film; it would not have been an appearance that would have passed unremarked by those opposed to integration and equal rights.
Until reading Bill Robinson’s story today, the name Bojangles had always conjured thoughts of a song and dance man who, I had imagined, had been the real Bojangles and who had gone down on his luck and who had fallen on bad times. Knowing the story of Bill Robinson, who was the real Bojangles, there is a sadness in recalling the lyrics of the song, in imagining the itinerant man for whom the screen star had been an inspiration to the point that he had appropriated his name. It is hard to imagine fates more different than those of the Hollywood film star and the homeless man in the prison cell. Perhaps in the name Bojangles there was a connection with a world that could only have been imagined, to thoughts of a life that had turned out entirely differently.