Standing in his own field, the country great created a body of work that became a category all its’ own
When the late Jerry Jeff Walker surfaced in 1968 with “Mr. Bojangles,” he must have appeared to be another in a long line of folk-rockers who were part of the Sixties landscape.
By the time of his unfortunate passing on October 23 from throat cancer, it was made clear that we had lost one of the founding fathers of what was later known as outlaw country – that offspring of country, rock and other eclectic influences that thumbed its’ nose at the Powers-That-Be in Nashville.
Walker didn’t fit the country mold of a polyester-clad “entertainer” who was angling for his own TV variety show. He just barely fit in with the singer-songwriters who dominated the early seventies, like James Taylor. Standing in his own field, he created a body of work that became a category all its’ own.
Born Ronald Clyde Crosby on March 16, 1942, this Oneonta, New York, native played in a teen rock & roll band called the Tones, and, after a stint in the National Guard, roamed the country with his guitar, singing in the streets. His first taste of fame came when he founded the psychedelic quintet Circus Maximus with Bob Bruno. Two albums were released on Vanguard; the first self-titled album, from 1967, contained the song “Wind,” which was a radio staple in the early days of FM album-rock stations. The tune, a moody ballad, bore almost no relation to the rest of the album, divided as it was between raunchy garage rockers and folkish tunes sung by Walker in that wavering baritone of his. After one more album, Circus Maximus disbanded.
AUDIO: Circus Maximus “Wind”
Back on the New York scene as a solo act, Walker dropped in on Bob Fass’ radio show on WBAI, along with guitarist David Bromberg. According to legend, “Mr. Bojangles” was performed live on the show for the first time. A sympathetic portrait of a down-and-out street dancer who wound up behind bars, it was based on a white man Walker met while sobering up in a New Orleans drunk tank. After the tune was rebroadcast enough times on Fass’ show, Atlantic signed Walker and released an album on their Atco subsidiary named after the song, which became a regional hit in ’68.
It was an even bigger hit for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in early ’71. While his version didn’t make the charts, “Mr. Bojangles” did become a signature song for Sammy Davis, Jr. When asked to sing it on a TV show, he understandably refused; he mistakenly thought it was about Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the African-American hoofer. Additionally, Davis had a mortal fear of winding up on the skids just like the character in the song. Davis soon overcame those fears, to the point where it became the centerpiece of his live show. It’s a tribute to Walker’s songwriting that he could stir up such strong emotions.
VIDEO: Sammy Davis, Jr. performs “Mr. Bojangles”
Even though he was probably set for life with this number, Walker soldiered on into the seventies, relocating to Austin, Texas. At this point, the city was slowly establishing itself as a city with an eclectic scene. Even though all kinds of music was represented, it was the progressive country acts who were in the forefront: Willie Nelson, Doug Sahm, Waylon Jennings, Townes Van Zandt. Signed to Decca (later MCA) in 1972, it was here that Walker’s rep was cast in cement, recording such iconic numbers as Guy Clark’s “L.A. Freeway” and Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Up Against The Wall, Redneck Mother,” along with his droll, humorous originals. While his status was cast in stone, his sense of experimentalism was not. Even though he was nominally a country singer, he was not above adapting his sound to other genres every so often, just to stay an hour ahead of the posse. When he first signed with Atlantic, he had the bright idea to record a country-soul album that fused both worlds; the label rejected it.
Of course, a few years later, Atlantic released several LPs like Willie Nelson’s Shotgun Willie and Rusty Kershaw’s Rusty…Cajun In The Blues Country that elaborated on the same idea.
It’s hell being a misunderstood pioneer, but ole Jerry Jeff certainly got his due in time.
AUDIO: Jerry Jeff Walker and David Bromberg on WBAI-NY 2/23/68