Jerry Jeff Walker: He was part of the Texas outlaw movement that catapulted Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings to fame.

From a New York Times obit by Bill Friskics-Warren headlined “Jerry Jeff Walker, Who Wrote and Sang ‘Mr. Bojangles,’ Dies at 78”:

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. . . .

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. . . .

“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.

The reception Mr. Walker received in Austin, he often said, signaled the first time he felt truly validated as an artist. “Texas was the only place where they didn’t look at me like I was crazy,” he told Rolling Stone in 1974, referring to the freewheeling ethos he cultivated with fellow regulars at Armadillo World Headquarters like Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys and Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. . . .

In a career that spanned six decades, Mr. Walker never had a Top 40 pop hit. But in his 1970s heyday, he and the Lost Gonzo Band, his loose-limbed group of backing musicians, made a number of definitive Texas outlaw recordings.

Foremost was “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother,” a boozing, brawling anthem written by Ray Wylie Hubbard that appeared on Mr. Walker’s 1973 album, “Viva Terlingua.”. . .

A rebellious youth who excelled in athletics, Mr. Walker received his first guitar as a Christmas present when he was 12. He later took up banjo and ukulele and played in local pop combos when he was in high school. He joined the National Guard in the early 1960s, only to go AWOL before embarking on the hitchhiking tour of the country that ultimately led to him changing his name to Jerry Jeff Walker and moving to New York to pursue his muse as a folk singer.

While in Greenwich Village, he became a member of the psychedelic rock band Circus Maximus, although he remained with the group only until the release of its debut album. By that time he had written “Mr. Bojangles,” which, after an auspicious live performance on the listener-supported New York radio station WBAI, helped him secure a contract with Atco Records. . . .

Mr. Walker toured and recorded extensively throughout the 1970s and ’80s, even as his drinking became unmanageable and he faced mounting debt, including back taxes owed to the I.R.S. With the help of Susan Streit, his wife of 46 years, he gave up liquor and drugs in the late ’70s, put his life back together and eventually settled into the role of elder statesman of the gonzo Texas music scene he had helped create. . . .

“The mid-’70s in Austin were the busiest, the craziest, the most vivid and intense and productive period of my life,” Mr. Walker wrote in his memoir.

“Greased by drugs and alcohol, I was also raising the pursuit of wildness and weirdness to a fine art,” he wrote. “I didn’t just burn the candle at both ends, I was also finding new ends to light.”

The Washington Post obit on Jerry Jeff Walker by Matt Schudel is also very good. The opening grafs:

Jerry Jeff Walker was singing in New Orleans coffeehouses and on street corners in 1965, when he was thrown in jail for public intoxication. It wasn’t the first time he had been drunk, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last, but as he sobered up, he heard his cellmate tell him a story that would change his life.

He was an old man with years of sorrow behind him, a homeless street performer who had once been a dancer “at minstrel shows and county fairs throughout the South.”

Like Mr. Walker, he didn’t go by his real name. He said he was called “Bojangles,” after Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, a renowned vaudeville and film dancer who died in 1949.

Mr. Walker used the encounter as the basis for his song “Mr. Bojangles”:

I knew a man Bojangles and he’d dance for you

In worn-out shoes

Silver hair and ragged shirt and baggy pants

The old soft shoe

Mr. Walker recorded the song in 1968, but it did not become a hit. By the early 1970s, with four albums and 10 years of struggle, he was ready to give up on the music business. He was leaving New York and was on his way to Florida for a fresh start.

“A friend of mine was driving and I was asleep in the back seat,” he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1994. “Somewhere in South Carolina, he woke me up and asked me didn’t I write that song ‘Mr. Bojangles.’ I said yeah, and he said, ‘I tell you what. For the last couple of hours it’s been on this station, and this one, and this one.’ He hit the button, and there it was again.”

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band recorded a version of “Mr. Bojangles” that reached No. 9 on the Billboard pop chart in 1971. It soon became recognized as a standard and was recorded by artists as varied as Nina Simone, Harry Belafonte, Dolly Parton, Sammy Davis Jr., Bob Dylan, Whitney Houston and George Burns. . . .

I knew a man, Bojangles and he danced for you
In worn out shoes
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
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. . . .

Speak Your Mind