The Real Mr Bojangles, Bill Robinson

Bill RobinsonForgive me for repeating myself to some extent, I’m having an anxiety attack. But last year on this day, I celebrated the birthday of Igor Sikorsky, inventor of the modern helicopter. And as a man who spent years professionally riding in airplanes and helicopters (to test remote sensing equipment I designed), I can tell you that helicopters are totally cool. It’s like riding on the back of a hummingbird. It is a thousand times cooler than riding in a plane.

But today, we celebrate the famed acting dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson who was born on this day in 1878. He is best know for his work with Shirley Temple. Those films are sweet, but I don’t much like them. But he lived a fascinating life. Both his parents died by the time he was seven. But even before that, at the age of five, he was busking in bars for pennies. Eventually, he made it to Vaudeville, although not before a stint in the Spanish–American War where he was accidentally shot when an officer was cleaning his gun.

At first, he paired up with fellow dancer George Cooper for a tap dancing act. They broke up in 1914, when Robinson went solo. That’s when his career really took off. At that time, under new management, he was making over $3,000 per week—in 1914! But it was also a big deal because there was a sort of rule that blacks didn’t do solo acts. Now, it’s so easy to think, “Black solo performer: no big deal.” But it was a big deal. A very big deal.

And to show you the kind of guy he was, during World War I, he gave free performances to the troops. This was at a time when the Vaudeville industry was giving reduced cost performances. He was known throughout his career and life to be a generous man with money as well as credit to those who had helped and inspired him.

Next up was Broadway where again he was not only successful but a trailblazer. He starred as the first black man in an otherwise all white production, All in Fun (which was a flop, but Robinson got rave reviews). But as demand for black reviews waned, Robinson went into the films. He started with a minor role in Dixiana and then a starring role in the all-black Harlem is Heaven. And that led (thought a surprising assist by D W Griffith) to his work with Shirley Temple. The two of them hit it off immediately. She later recounted their first meeting. She asked him, “Can I call you Uncle Billy?” And he replied, “Why sure you can, but then I get to call you darlin’.”

He went on to make films with Fredi Washington, Will Rogers (the two were good friends), and Cab Calloway. Then he moved into radio and television. The man certainly understood the flow of entertainment—a talent even the most successful people usually lack. Here he is doing the “Sand Dance” in his last film, Stormy Weather:

He died at the age of 71, long past the peak of his fame. Still, over 30,000 people came to pay their respects to the great man.

My initial interest in Robinson was Jerry Jeff Walker’s song “Mr. Bojangles.” It appears that it was based upon a true story. But the dancer he describes was not Bill Robinson. It couldn’t have been him since Robinson had died in 1949, when Walker was just 7 years old. It is just that Robinson (like Robert Johnson) was so popular that people made entire careers out of impersonating him. So the song tells the story of one of these men, probably at the end of a downhill slide. Here is my favorite version of it by David Bromberg:

Happy birthday to the real Bill Robinson!

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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