October 27, 2020
Walker, who has died aged 78, was a maverick of Americana whose best known song was recorded by Nina Simone, Sammy Davis Jr and Robbie Williams
Jerry Jeff Walker: the outlaw songwriter who gave Mr Bojangles to the world
Mr Bojangles become a standard as soon as it was first recorded in 1968. Nina Simone did a beautiful version. Bob Dylan did a dreadful version. Sammy Davis Jr built it into the centrepiece of his live show. Mr Bojangles appealed to cabaret, jazz and folk singers (even Robbie Williams sang it). This tale of a worn-out hoofer who the narrator encounters when both men are locked up in a New Orleans jail has a gentle melancholy and a wistful melody; it is reflective of time passing and hardships experienced. Less well known was its author, Jerry Jeff Walker, who has died in Texas at the age of 78. Walker never became a household name. Some would consider him a one-hit wonder. But to his legions of fans he was a maverick, a musician whose offbeat music and presence ensured their devotion.
Walker lived a thoroughly American life: born Ronald Clyde Crosby in Oneonta, New York, he played in rock’n’roll bands as a teenager then, impressed by Woody Guthrie and Jack Kerouac, lived an itinerant busker’s life hitching around the US. It was during this time that he spent the night in a New Orleans jail. Returning to New York City, he played the Greenwich Village folk clubs (adopting the stage name Jerry Jeff Walker in 1966) and co-founded the folk-rock group Circus Maximus with Bob Bruno. They released two albums that attracted some attention but Walker left the group to concentrate on his solo career. His debut album, 1968’s Mr Bojangles, won good reviews but sold slowly. But other artists started recording the title song: country-rock outfit the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band reached No 9 in the US charts in 1971 with their version.
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