by Bill Friskics-Warren | New York Times
Published Oct. 24, 2020
Jerry Jeff Walker, the singer-songwriter who wrote the much-recorded standard “Mr. Bojangles” and later became a mainstay of the Texas outlaw movement that catapulted Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings to fame, died on Friday at a hospital in Austin, Texas. He was 78.
His former publicist John T. Davis said the cause was cancer. Mr. Walker learned he had throat cancer in 2017.
A native New Yorker, Mr. Walker began his career in the 1960s, hitchhiking and busking around the country before establishing himself in Greenwich Village and writing the song that would secure his reputation.
A waltzing ballad about an old street dancer Mr. Walker had met in a New Orleans drunk tank, “Mr. Bojangles” was first recorded by Mr. Walker for the Atco label in 1968. The song achieved its greatest success in a folk-rock version that reached the pop Top 10 in 1971 with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and went on to be covered by a wide range of artists, among them Nina Simone, Neil Diamond and even Bob Dylan.Sammy Davis Jr. included it in his stage show and performed it on television.
“At the time, I was reading a lot of Dylan Thomas, and I was really into the concept of internal rhyme,” Mr. Walker wrote of the song’s origin in his 1999 memoir, “Gypsy Songman.”
“The events of the past few months were still swirling inside, along with the memory of folks I’d met in jail cells in Columbus and New Orleans,” he went on.
“And it just came out: Knew a man Bojangles, and he danced for you. …”
The song was by far Mr. Walker’s best-known composition, the only original of his — he typically performed songs written by others — to become a major hit. But perhaps his most enduring contribution to popular culture was as an architect of the so-called cosmic cowboy music scene that coalesced around Armadillo World Headquarters, an iconoclastic nightclub in Austin.