So, the inspiration for the song, Mr. Bojangles, was not the famous stage and movie dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.
Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (May 25, 1878 – November 25, 1949) was an American tap dancer and actor of stage and film. Audiences enjoyed his understated style, which eschewed the frenetic manner of the jitterbug in favor of cool and reserve; rarely did he use his upper body, relying instead on busy, inventive feet, and an expressive face.
A figure in both the black and white entertainment worlds of his era, he is best known today for his dancing with Shirley Temple in a series of films during the 1930s, and for starring in the 1943 musical Stormy Weather, loosely based on Robinson's own life.
The name Bojangles
Bill Robinson lost both parents when he was a young boy, and by the time he was six Robinson was dancing in beer gardens and on neighborhood street corners. All his life he carried the nickname “Bojangles,” but he could never be quite sure why. One story was that some of his friends had stolen a hat from a
haberdasher named Boujasson. He inherited the hat, along with the name
youthfully mispronounced “Bojangles.”
Another story is that he, as young man, earned the nickname "Bojangles" for his contentious tendencies.
"African-American writer Donald Bogle called him “the quintessential Tom” because of his cheerful and shameless subservience to whites in film. But in real life, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, was the sort of man who, when refused service at an all-white luncheonette, would lay his pearl-handled revolver on the counter and demand to be served.
Bojangles life and dead
Bill Robinson began dancing in local saloons at the age of six. He soon dropped out of school to pursue dancing as a career. He became a popular fixture on the vaudeville circuit just two years after that. His first professional gig was the part of a “pickaninny” role in the show “The South Before the War” which toured the northeast. By 1900, he had made his way to
and Robinson rapidly rose to become one of New York ’s
best loved nightclub and musical comedy performers. America
In 1908, Robinson met Marty Forkins, who became his manager. Forkins urged Robinson to develop his solo act in nightclubs. Robinson took a break from performance to serve as a rifleman in World War I. Along with fighting in the trenches, Robinson was also a drum major who led the regimental band up
upon the regiment's return from Europe.
In 1928, he starred on Broadway in the hugely successful musical revue Blackbirds of 1928, which featured his famous "stair dance." Blackbirds was a revue starring African-American performers, intended for white audiences. The show was a breakthrough for Robinson. He became well known as "Bojangles," which connoted a cheerful and happy-go-lucky demeanor for his white fans, despite the nearly polar-opposite meaning of the nickname in the black community. His catchphrase, "Everything's copasetic," reinforced Robinson's sunny disposition. Although he worked regularly as an actor, Robinson was best known for his tap-dance routines. He pioneered a new form of tap, shifting from a flat-footed style to a light, swinging style that focused on elegant footwork.
Robinson’s was not the conventional shuffling flat-footed style, but instead he danced with a light, swaying style on the balls of his feet. He refined the “stair dance” in the 1928 Broadway review Blackbirds and then with Shirley Temple in the 1935 movie The Little Colonel.
Rarely did he depart from the stereotype imposed by Hollywood writers. In a small vignette in Hooray for Love he played a mayor of Harlem modeled after his own ceremonial honor; in One Mile from Heaven, he played a romantic lead opposite African-American actress Fredi Washington after Hollywood had relaxed its taboo against such roles for blacks. He only appeared in one film intended for black audiences, Harlem is Heaven, a financial failure that turned him away from independent production.
In 1939, he returned to the stage in The Hot Mikado, a jazz version of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta produced at the 1939 New York World's Fair, which was one of the greatest hits of the fair. His next performance, in All in Fun (1940), failed to attract audiences. His last theatrical project was to have been Two Gentlemen from the South, with James Barton, in which the black and white roles reverse and eventually come together as equals, but the show did not open. Thereafter, he confined himself to occasional performances, but he could still dance well in his late sixties, to the continual astonishment of his admirers. He explained this extraordinary versatility—he once danced for more than an hour before a dancing class without repeating a step—by insisting that his feet responded directly to the music without his head having nothing to do with it
Robinson continued to dance into his 60s; however, due to a penchant for gambling and a generous spirit, he died penniless in New York in 1949 at the age of seventy-one. He was mourned by many fans, tens of thousands of whom attended his funeral which was said to be one of New York’s largest up to that time.