Monday, May 25, 2009

This Day in African-American History (Bojangles Taps Down Broadway on His Birthday)

May 25, 1939—To celebrate his 61st birthday, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson displayed, to the joy of astonished onlookers, the tap-dancing skills that made him a Harlem legend, capering down Broadway from Columbus Circle to 44th Street.

The same year, he demonstrated that age had hardly diminished his versatility when he appeared on Broadway and in the World’s Fair in Hot Mikado, a jazzed-up version of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. His solo turn amid an all-black cast in the Michael Todd production led a Theatre Arts critic to exult, “Never … has one note been made to sing and soar, to whisper and to laugh, in such astonishingly complex rhythm.”

Baby boomers are likely to associate Robinson with the Jerry Jeff Walker-penned song “Mr. Bojangles,” which zoomed up the pop charts in a cover version by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band—then became a Las Vegas staple in the performances by the likes of Sammy Davis Jr., Neil Diamond and Tom Jones.

It might come as a surprise, then—including, as it happens, to me—that the song has nothing to do with the ground-breaking African-American entertainer. Walker wrote the poignant tune after being jailed for drunkenness in a rowdy Fourth of July celebration in the 1960s, where he met a homeless man who, at one point, demonstrated his soft-shoe instincts to his cellmate.

Those points are pertinent because a) the jail where this encounter occurred was segregated, so the homeless man/dancer was white, and b) the real Bill Robinson had died in 1949, well before this incident. The “Bojangles” of the song, then, is not a reference to the Harlem entertainer of stage and screen, but rather to an unfortunate street person whose nickname represented a tip of the hat to the late celebrity.

I just referred to “the real Bill Robinson,” but, in a sense, even that was elusive, for neither Bill nor William was his given first name at birth. “Luther”—a name he loathed—was it, so, like most entertainers, he simply reinvented himself, borrowing “William” from his younger brother.

I also called him “a Harlem legend.” He was all of that, and yet the truth was more complicated there, too.

The description that novelist Dawn Powell came up with for herself—a “permanent visitor” who made Manhattan her adopted home after coming from the Midwest—could apply equally well to Robinson. He started out in Richmond, Va., where he defied the grandmother who raised him by dancing for nickels and dimes on street corners, then proceeded to Washington, D.C., and only ended up permanently in Harlem in 1928.

If you want to start with the actuality of Bill Robinson, then turn to one of the films he made in the 1930s as Hollywood, exploiting the full possibilities of talking pictures, began to develop the movie musical. Robinson’s partner in several of these dance sequences was child star Shirley Temple, and you can see one of these in this clip from Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938).

Much of Robinson’s best work, however, was done for vaudeville, an entertainment form already disappearing by the 1930s, thereby necessitating his foray into Hollywood. While plying his trade on this circuit featuring lightning-fast songs, skits, jokes and dances, the dancer impressed a future white superstar, Fred Astaire.

One of my professors at Columbia University, Ann Douglas, discusses in her book Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s (1995) how Astaire borrowed and transformed elements of Robinson’s elegant tap style (Robinson, for instance, kept his torso rigid, while Astaire used virtually every muscle in his body). Astaire’s “Bojangles of Harlem” solo in the film Swingtime—done, admittedly, in a blackface fashion that will inevitably set off the P.C. alarms of many of today’s viewers—was meant as a sincere tribute to Robinson.

Admired by blacks and whites alike, Robinson made a great deal of money, but he probably could have made much more but for the pervasively racist age in which he lived. The compromises he had to make probably made this proud man grit his teeth.

Like Frank Sinatra, he was a fireball of an entertainer, universally acclaimed for his artistry but unnerving those who weren’t sure if they were about to encounter him at his worst (a gambling addiction, a fierce temper, and a habit of leaving his gold-plated pistol obtrusively out on a table while playing pool) or his best (an extraordinary generosity that led him to perform in 3,000 benefits).

When Robinson passed away, a decade after his delighted jaunt down Broadway, the line for the funeral procession for the “honorary mayor” of Harlem stretched for blocks.

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