“I met man, Bojangles, and he’d dance for you” go the lyrics of Jerry Jeff Walker’s most famous and covered song, Mr. Bojangles.
The first story I heard in New Orleans was that Jerry Jeff had met Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in an Orleans Parish drunk tank. I argued that it was not likely since our jails were segregated along color lines at that time. Further research showed that Jerry Jeff was born Ronald Clyde Crosby on March 16th, 1942. Bill Robinson died November 25th, 1949. I posited that it was highly unlikely that the 7-year-old Ronnie Crosy found his way into a drunk tank, particularly since he grew up in Oneida, New York.
Fortunately, Jerry Jeff heard the same story and clarified the fact that he wrote the song in tribute to the many that danced in the French Quarter “for drinks and tips” and that the drunk he met – who called himself Bojangles – was a white alcoholic.
Ron Crosby changed his name to Jerry Jeff Walker in 1966 because it sounded more folksy. He formed a band with Bob Bruno in 1967 called Lost Sea Dreamers and recorded an album released a pleasant, jazzy, nearly spoken word single, Wind. Vanguard Records insisted upon a name change because the band’s initials, LSD, were a blatant drug reference.
Circus Maximus (new name) released two albums. “Creative differences” broke up the band with Bob Bruno pursuing jazz and Jerry Jeff taking the folk route.
In 1968, Jerry Jeff released the album Mr. Bojangles along with the title song on 45 RPM, which became a minor hit in the South. It wasn’t until the Nitty Ditty Dirt Band covered the song in 1970 that it became a mega-hit. Since then, everybody has covered Mr. Bojangles. Artists from Neil Diamond to Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, Philip Glass, Bobby Cole, David Bromberg, Tom T. Hall, Jim Stafford, Sammy Davis Jr., Lulu (New Routes), Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Harry Belafonte and Robbie Williams, have covered the song. There wasn’t a bar band in the 70’s that didn’t include the song in their repertoire.
Jerry Jeff abandoned the West Coast for Austin, Texas, in the 1970’s where he lined up with the outlaw country scene that included artists such as Michael Martin Murphey, Willie Nelson, Guy Clark, Waylon Jennings, and Townes Van Zandt.
While in Austin, he recorded tunes by fellow songwriters: LA Freeway (Guy Clark), Up Against the Wall Red Neck Mother (Ray Wylie Hubbard), (Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night (Tom Waits) and London Homesick Blues (Gary P. Nunn).
My personal favorite JJW is a quirky tune titled Pissin’ In The Wind recorded with his Lost Gonzo Band. He ends the song with the Dylan homage, “The answer my friend is pissin’ in the wind. The answer is pissin’ in the sink.” I love it because if the stalls and urinals are all busy every musician pisses in the sink .
Jerry Jeff calls his style “Cowjazz”, which is allegedly demonstrated in his song Eastern Avenue River Railway Blues featuring piano (for a change). The song even has a short Hammond Organ solo, but inevitably a pedal string guitar takes prominence. I don’t get where the jazz comes in, but it is quite different that most of his hat-boy songs.
I’m not huge fan of Modern Country. I couldn’t name one song or artist from the past thirty years. I prefer the golden oldies like Hank Williams, Sr., Johnny Cash, and Buck Owens, but I’ve always got time for a little Jerry Jeff Walker.