The old Sammy Davis Jr song, ?Mr Bojangles?, has been going around in my head the past few days.
For many years I thought this was an extremely old song?perhaps something from the 1920s or 1930s? but it turns out it was only written in the late 1960s by a country artist, Jerry Jeff Walker.
Now, I may not have been completely off-base imagining the song was much older than that.
There is a much earlier song from the 1930s called ?Bojangles of Harlem? about a famous song-and-dance man of the time called Bill ?Bojangles? Robinson.
That very different song was recorded by Fred Astaire (you can have a listen here?you?ll just have to imagine Fred Astaire tap dancing in the background, I?m afraid? https://youtu.be/1DxlYgAqjmw ).
Fred Astaire was a great admirer of Bill ?Bojangles? Robinson and performed another tribute to Bojangles in his 1936 film ?Swing Time?.
As a kid I watched a lot of black and while Fred Astaire movies with my grandad on a Saturday afternoon?they were usually on when the sports programmes were on the other main channels, and I was never a sporty person?so I may well have picked up something about the original Bojangles from one of those old Saturday afternoon films.
However, Jerry Jeff Walker has said ?Mr Bojangles? was not about the original song-and-dance man Fred Astaire idolised. Rather, it was about an old man he met during a night in the police cells after he?d been arrested for public intoxication.
Walker?s fellow inmate, the story goes, didn?t want to give the police his real name and so he called himself ?Mr Bojangles? instead.
I?m sure being arrested wasn?t the highlight of either of their lives, but after a night together, Jerry Jeff Walker had all the material he needed to write a song about some of the stories his cellmate ?Mr Bojangles? had told and the little dance he did to cheer up his fellow inmates.
I?m sorry to report that Jerry Jeff Walker made virtually no impression at all on the charts with his original 1968 version of ?Mr Bojangles?.
Its first encounter with chart success wasn?t until the early 1970s when the imaginatively-named Nitty Gritty Dirt Band took their version to Number Nine in the Billboard charts.
However, the best-known version of this song nowadays wasn?t the biggest hit version of it.
Indeed, the record company didn?t even make what is now regarded as the iconic performance of ?Mr Bojangles? the A-side on its original release in 1972. It was the B-side of a Sammy Davis Jr song called ?The People Tree? which only just squeezed into the Billboard Hot 100 that year.
Despite that somewhat underwhelming start, legendary vaudeville song-and-dance man, film actor, Rat Pack member, impressionist and Vegas headline act, Sammy Davis Jr delivered the performance of a lifetime and ?Mr Bojangles? would become Sammy Davis Jr?s theme song over the next 20 years.
Sammy Davis Jr?s version of ?Mr Bojangles? was recorded around the same time as the other great songs Sammy Davis Jr is still remembered for today?songs like ?Candy Man? and ?Rhythm of Life?.
But there?s something particularly special about ?Mr Bojangles? in Sammy Davis Jr?s hands.
The song itself really meant something to him and it connected with so many of his own experiences growing up in the world of show businesses, from starting out in his dad?s vaudeville act at just three years old.
Sammy Davis Jr worried constantly that he would end up just like the Mr Bojangles in Jerry Jeff Walker?s song?alone and alcoholic, a faded version of his former self?
He said ? I dance at every chance in honky tonksFor my drinks and tipsBut most time I spend behind these county barsYou see, son, I drinks a bitThen he shook his head, shook his headI heard someone say pleaseThat?s Mr Bojangles, call him Mr BojanglesMr Bojangles, come back and dance
Given Sammy Davis Jr?s success in Hollywood and Las Vegas, his anxiety might be considered a little overdone. But there was some justification for it.
In 1954 a car accident resulted in Sammy Davis Jr losing his left eye and led to an enforced absence from show business just at the time his career as a solo performer was really building.
He undoubtedly faced some challenges getting back in the game as a leading man during the six months he spent having to wear an eye patch. And being a black headline act in 1950s and 60s America, when deep racial divisions held sway, can?t have been easy either.
On the positive side, though, he also had some of the best endorsements a man could ask for.
Frank Sinatra was a big fan and supported Sammy Davis Jr strongly. For all his other well-documented failings, one thing Sinatra wasn?t was racist. When he said Sammy Davis Jr was a great act, influential people listened.
But despite his powerful friends, and evident talent, Sammy Davis Jr was insecure for most of his adult life. Perhaps it?s no surprise he found so much in the character of Mr Bojangles in Jerry Jeff Walker?s song to resonate with his own experiences?
I met him in a cell in New Orleans while I was down and outHe looked to me to be the very eyes of ageAs he spoke right outHe talked of life, talked of life, laughed, slapped his leg and stepped
Whether or not he was a ?Mr Bojangles? himself, or ever likely to become one, Sammy Davis Jr knew plenty of people who had ended up that way after success early in their career.
I?m sure he was also channelling a bit of the original Bill ?Bojangles? Robinson as he sung. The original ?Mr Bojangles? died penniless despite being one of the biggest stars of his generation?a salutary tale that wasn?t lost on Sammy Davis Jr.
So, one way or another, Sammy Davis Jr had a lot of inspiration to draw on for his performance. It?s no wonder Jerry Jeff Walker?s ?Mr Bojangles? meant so much to him and why, in turn, he created the definitive performance of it.
Jerry Jeff Walker?s original version of ?Mr Bojangles? is a lovely song in its own right. (You can find his version here?https://youtu.be/7t-2GeZFDdc )
By the time Sammy Davis Jr gave ?Mr Bojangles? the full ?Las Vegas treatment?, though, it was an entirely different song with, somehow, an even more melancholy vibe.
That said, I read a great line recently?sorry I can?t remember where to give the author due credit?which went something like ?all you need for a great song is an acoustic guitar and a helluva story?.
Jerry Jeff Walker?s version is pretty much exactly that. ?Mr Bojangles? is one of the most beautiful and poignant stories ever told in popular music. And even in the full Vegas version, this song still tells a helluva story?one which is only amplified by Sammy Davis Jr playing the part of the song and dance man in the song itself.
Sammy Davis Jr drew on everything he?d heard, seen and experienced from his early days as a kid in vaudeville, through to his great successes in the competitive world of show business?and his more-than-fair share of challenging times along the way?when he sung?
I knew a man, Bojangles, and he?d dance for youIn worn out shoesWith silver hair, a ragged shirt and baggy pantsHe would do the old soft shoeHe would jump so high, jump so highThen he?d lightly touched down
I hope you enjoy this definitive version of a very touching song, by someone who felt every word of Jerry Jeff Walker?s lyrics.
It?s Sammy Davis Jr with ?Mr Bojangles??
If you?ve read this far, thank you for spending a few moments in the company of one of my favourite songs. The video is below, but if you prefer listening to your music on Spotify, you can find today?s track here? https://open.spotify.com/track/2ijbmEf2JIjJ256lNZD60N