Dateline May 25, 1878 - Bill "Mr. Bojangles" Robinson was born. It hardly matters that the Jerry Jeff Walker song was written about a White guy in jail in New Orleans. It will always be associated with the renowned star of stage and movies who managed to break thru' the colour barriers of his time. In the day Black musical performances in movies were filmed in such a way so that they could be cut later when the movie played in the south. Bill Robinson's dance with Shirley Temple in The Little Colonel was the first time audiences saw a Black man dancing with a White girl, with Robinson reprising his famous stair dance.
It hardly seems radical today, but it was groundbreaking in 1935. Yet, he will always be known more for his for his dancing than being the first this or that...which is the way it should be. Here's his sand dance from "Stormy Weather."
He just makes it look so easy:
Bill Robinson's last public appearance was on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour in 1949, just weeks before he died:
As for the song itself? Here's Jerry Jeff Walker performing it live:
The person who popularized the song, and made it synonymous with Bill Robinson -- more than anyone else -- was Sammy Davis, Jr., who made it a signature part of act for years.
However, in montage, here's Sammy describing why emotionally it was such a difficult song for him to perform:
However, this post wouldn't be complete without Harry Nilsson's version of Mr. Bojangles. Enjoy: