Hand color tinted photo of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (May 25, 1878 – November 25, 1949) was an American tap dancer and actor of stage and film.
Life and career
Robinson was born in Richmond, Virginia to Maxwell, a machine-shop worker, and Maria Robinson, a choir singer. He was raised by his grandmother after both parents died when he was an infant—his father from chronic heart disease, and his mother from natural causes. Details of Robinson’s early life are known only through legend, much of it perpetuated by Bill Robinson himself. He claims he was christened “Luther”—a name he did not like. He suggested to his younger brother Bill that they should exchange names. When Bill objected, Luther applied his fists, and the exchange was made.
At the age of six, Robinson began dancing for a living, appearing as a “hoofer” or song-and-dance man in local beer gardens. He soon dropped out of school to pursue dancing as a career. In 1886, he joined Mayme Remington’s troupe in Washington, DC, and toured with them. In 1891, at the age of 12, he joined a travelling company in The South Before the War, and in 1905 worked with George Cooper as a vaudeville team. He gained great success as a nightclub and musical comedy performer, and during the next 25 years became one of the toasts of Broadway. Not until he was 50 did he dance for white audiences, having devoted his early career exclusively to appearances on the black theater circuit.
In 1908 in Chicago, he met Marty Forkins, who became his lifelong manager. Under Forkins’ tutelage, Robinson matured and began working as a solo act in nightclubs, increasing his earnings to an estimated $3500 per week. The publicity that gradually came to surround him included the creation of his famous “stair dance” (which he claimed to have invented on the spur of the moment when he was receiving an honor from the King of England, who was standing at the top of a flight of stairs; Bojangles’ feet just danced up to be honored), his successful gambling exploits, his bow ties of multiple colors, his prodigious charity, his ability to run backward (he set a world’s record of 8.2 seconds for the 75-yard backward dash) and to consume ice-cream by the quart, his argot—most notably the neologism copacetic, and such stunts as dancing down Broadway in 1939 from Columbus Circle to 44th St. in celebration of his 61st birthday.
Little is known of his first marriage to Fannie S. Clay in Chicago shortly after World War I, his divorce in 1943, or his marriage to Elaine Plaines on January 27, 1944, in Columbus, Ohio.
Robinson served as a rifleman in World War I with New York’s 15th Infantry Regiment, National Guard. The Regiment was renamed the 369th Infantry while serving under France’s Fourth Army and earned the nickname the “Harlem Hellfighters”. Along with serving in the trenches in WWI, Robinson was also the 369th “Hellfighters Band” drum major and led the regimental band up Fifth Avenue on the 369th’s return from overseas.
Toward the end of the vaudeville era, a white impresario, Lew Leslie, produced Blackbirds of 1928, a black revue for white audiences featuring Robinson and other black stars. From then on, his public role was that of a dapper, smiling, plaid-suited ambassador to the white world, maintaining a tenuous connection with the black show-business circles through his continuing patronage of the Hoofers Club, an entertainer’s haven in Harlem. Consequently, blacks and whites developed differing opinions of him. To whites, for example, his nickname “Bojangles” meant happy-go-lucky, while the black variety artist Tom Flatcher claimed it was slang for “squabbler.” Political figures and celebrities appointed him an honorary mayor of Harlem, a lifetime member of policemen’s associations and fraternal orders, and a mascot of the New York Giants major league baseball team. Robinson reciprocated with open handed generosity and frequently credited the white dancer James Barton for his contribution to Robinson’s dancing style.
After 1930, black revues waned in popularity, but Robinson remained in vogue with white audiences for more than a decade in some fourteen motion pictures produced by such companies as RKO, 20th Century Fox, and Paramount Pictures. Most of them had musical settings, in which he played old-fashioned roles in nostalgic romances. His most frequent role was that of an antebellum butler opposite Shirley Temple in such films as The Little Colonel, The Littlest Rebel, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Just Around the Corner, or Will Rogers in In Old Kentucky.
Rarely did he depart from the stereotype imposed by Hollywood writers. In a small vignette in Hooray for Love he played a mayor of Harlem modeled after his own ceremonial honor; in One Mile from Heaven, he played a romantic lead opposite African American actress Fredi Washington after Hollywood had relaxed its taboo against such roles for blacks. Audiences enjoyed his style, which eschewed the frenetic manner of the jitterbug. In contrast, Robinson always remained cool and reserved, rarely using his upper body and depending on his busy, inventive feet and his expressive face. He appeared in one film for black audiences, Harlem is Heaven, a financial failure that turned him away from independent production.
In 1939, he returned to the stage in The Hot Mikado, a jazz version of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta produced at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, which was one of the greatest hits of the fair. His next performance, in All in Fun (1940), failed to attract audiences. His last theatrical project was to have been Two Gentlemen from the South, with James Barton, in which the black and white roles reverse and eventually come together as equals, but the show did not open. Thereafter, he confined himself to occasional performances, but he could still dance well in his late sixties, to the continual astonishment of his admirers. He explained this extraordinary versatility—he once danced for more than an hour before a dancing class without repeating a step—by insisting that his feet responded directly to the music, his head having nothing to do with it.
Despite earning more than $2 million during his lifetime, Robinson died penniless in New York City in 1949 at the age of 71 from heart failure. His funeral, which was arranged by longtime friend and television host Ed Sullivan, was held at the 369th Infantry Regiment Armory near Harlem and attended by 32,000 people. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. gave the eulogy which was broadcast over the radio.
Robinson is buried in the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn, New York.
A statue of Bill Robinson sculpted by Jack Witt in Richmond, Virginia at the intersection of Adams and West Leigh Streets.
Robinson was dogged by lifelong personal demons, enhanced by having to endure the indignities of racism that, despite his great success, still limited his opportunities. A favorite Robinson anecdote is that he seated himself in a restaurant and a customer objected to his presence. When the manager suggested that it might be better if the entertainer left, Robinson smiled and asked, “Have you got a ten dollar bill?” Politely asking to borrow the note for a moment, Robinson added six $10 bills from his own wallet and mixed them up, then extended the seven bills together, adding, “Here, let’s see you pick out the colored one.” The restaurant manager served Robinson without further delay.
A man with a big heart, he was a soft touch for anyone down on their luck or with a good story. During his lifetime Robinson spent a fortune but his haunting memories of surviving on the streets as a child never left him, prompting many acts of generosity. In 1933, while in his hometown of Richmond, Virginia, he saw two children risk speeding traffic to cross a street because there was no stoplight at the intersection. Robinson went to the city and provided the money to have a safety traffic light installed. In 1973, a statue of “Bojangles” was erected in a small park at that intersection.
Bojangles co-founded the New York Black Yankees baseball team in Harlem in 1936 with financier James “Soldier Boy” Semler. The team was a successful member of the Negro National League until it disbanded in 1948.
In 1989, a joint U.S. Senate/House resolution declared “National Tap Dance Day” to be May 25, the anniversary of Bill Robinson’s birth.
In popular culture
Fred Astaire paid tribute to Bill Robinson in the tap routine Bojangles of Harlem from the 1936 film Swing Time. In it he famously dances to three of his shadows. Duke Ellington composed “Bojangles (A Portrait of Bill Robinson)”, a set of rhythmic variations as a salute to the great dancer.
Bill Robinson’s biography was published in 1988 and a made-for-television film titled Bojangles was released in 2001. The film earned the NAACP Best actor Award for Gregory Hines’ performance as Bill Robinson.
Bill Robinson’s character was, in effect, memorialized in Jerry Jeff Walker’s 1968 folk song “Mr. Bojangles” that was later recorded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Harry Nilsson, Harry Chapin, Chet Atkins, King Curtis, Jim Croce, Bob Dylan, Harry Belafonte, Arlo Guthrie, Nina Simone, John Denver, David Bromberg, Neil Diamond, Sammy Davis, Jr., Tom T. Hall, John Holt, Robbie Williams, the Nervous Rex, and David Campbell, it was also again performed, by the 60/70s folk rock band The Byrds. The song, however, is not about Robinson himself. It was inspired by an encounter with a street performer in the New Orleans first precinct jail. Although this man could tap dance, the inspiration for the song was not the famous stage and movie dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, nor the New Orleans blues musician Babe Stovall. In a sense, Robinson’s influence passed into the “folk culture” by inspiring talented, but poor, individuals to dance, thus sharing in his legacy.
In Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride (2005), the character “Bonejangles” was named after him.
In Larry Norman’s song nightmare #71, Robinson is mentioned in the line “Bill Robinson, who Shirley called black red”.