Music and Musings

“The artist is the creator of beautiful things.  To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim.”
~ Oscar Wilde ~

Mr. Bojangles

“Bojangles is special because I hated the song.  Because I was afraid to do it.  Because that was my fear, that I would wind up like Bojangles.”
~ Sammy Davis Jr. ~

            There are times when adjectives fail; this is one of those times.  My father gave me and my sisters the “Clan” as they called themselves, or for the pedestrian, the “Rat Pack”, long before their renewed popularity, of the last ten years.  (I actually still have those albums, though The Goodwill recently inherited our record player.)  They were all consummate performers, who mastered their art and lived their lives without hesitation – for better and for worse.  Dean Martin has always been my favorite, and my father taking me to see Martin perform, in Las Vegas, will always be one of my fondest memories.  Without a doubt, Frank Sinatra soared, and what he did with a song will still make the hardest heart flutter.  But at the moment, it is Sammy Davis Jr. who sings to me.

            My love affair with YouTube continues, and looking for something to clean house to, I ended up sitting, in front of my computer, with Sammy and “Mr. Bojangles”.  I do not think I had ever before truly heard the words of this song, which was written by Jerry Jeff Walker, after he was arrested, for public intoxication, in New Orleans.  He says that he was thrown into the “Drunk Tank” where he met a man, a street performer, who told the story of Mr. Bojangles.  Mr. Walker, a country music star, has also stated that the song is not in fact about Bill “Mr. Bojangles” Robinson, the famous black, dancer and entertainer, who you may remember from his famous “stair dance” which he performed with Shirley Temple, but created to receive an honor from the King of England, who was standing at the top of a staircase.  Mr. Robinson, staring up at the King, decided to dance up the steps, to receive his honor.

            Mr. Robinson, who had started out as a street performer, was the first black performer to cross the color barrier, being accepted by both black and white audiences, in the United States.  At the height of his career, he was earning 5000 dollars a month.  Years later, Sammy would reflect in his book, Why Me?, how he had been told no black performer would ever surpass Robinson’s earnings, which Sammy of course did.  Robinson had great success, but unfortunately, as so often happens, though he made over two million dollars in his life time, he died penniless, having struggled with an addiction to gambling.  His funeral, paid for by his friend, Ed Sullivan, was attended by over 500,000 people.  In his last public appearance, he said: “It is not what you do on the stage, it is what you do when you leave the stage.  And you hear a lot of people say that our country is wrong.  I think America is the greatest country in the world.” 

            Sammy Davis Jr., who struggled with his own issues, did live a remarkable life, and left behind an amazing entertainment and political legacy.  As I watched him perform “Mr. Bojangles”, I was mesmerized.  I could not help but feel that he was singing those words, as if he had lived them.  I take nothing away from Mr. Walker and his rendition of “Mr. Bojangles” but this song belongs to Sammy. 

             You must watch this as well as listen.  His movement and facial expressions add as much to the performance as a single expertly delivered note.
I think Sammy’s best redention of the song.
Sammy speaking about how he felt about this song.
Sammy dancing at seven years of age!
“I knew a man Bojangles and he danced for you
In worn out shoes;
With silver hair, a ragged shirt, and baggy pants,
The old soft shoe.
He jumped so high, he jumped so high,
Then he’d lightly touch down
Mr. Bojangles, Mr. Bojangles, Mr. Bojangles,
I met him in a cell in New Orleans, I was
Down and out.
He looked to me to be the eyes of age
As he spoke right out
He talked of life, he talked of life,
He laugh-slapped his leg a step.
He said the name, Bojangles, and he danced a lick
Across the cell.
He grabbed his pants, a better stance, he jumped up high,
He clicked his heels.
He let go a laugh, he let go a laugh,
Shook back his clothes all around.
Mr. Bojangles, Mr. Bojangles, Mr. Bojangles,
He danced for those at minstrel shows and county fairs
Throughout the South.
He spoke with tears of fifteen years how his dog and him
Had traveled about.
His dog up and died, he up and died,
After 20 years he still grieves.
Mr. Bojangles, Mr. Bojangles, Mr. Bojangles,
He said “I dance now at ev’ry chance in honky tonks
For drinks and tips.
But most of the time I spend behind these county bars
‘Cause ‘I drinks a bit.”
He shook his head, and as he shook his head I heard someone ask “Please,
Mr. Bojangles, Mr. Bojangles, Mr. Bojangles,
~ Jeffery Jerry Walker ~

Information from Wikipedia and YouTube, as well as the following books, all of which I recommend:

The Sammy Davis Jr. Story, Why Me? By Sammy Davis, Jr. and Jane and Burt Boyar

Dino, Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams, by Nick Tosches

My Lucky Stars, a Hollywood Memoir, by Shirley MaClaine

My Father’s Daughter, A Memoir, by Tina Sinatra with Jeff Coplon

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One Response to Music and Musings

  1. CJMG on July 2, 2010 at 8:32 am

    Sammy Davis, Jr. was amazing. I had the same experience, rediscovering him on YouTube and really just seeing him for the first time.

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