Sunday, March 19, 2006

MR. BOJANGLES

The first person to cover Mr. Bojangles was Bobby Cole.

Bobby was in a club, saw a fairly unknown guy named Jerry Jeff Walker strum the song, and was inspired. He probably had the same glow George Martin got on hearing a demo of "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite." What possibilities! With arrangement and production ideas brimming in his mind, he called in all favors, got recording studio time, and after a brief release on his own Concentric label, finally got Columbia to put out his single via Date Records.

Bobby transformed the simple, unadorned folk ballad by adding the flavor of vaudeville and traveling shows; he used a calliope effect for the introduction, and updating lounge for the psych 60's found a woman who could play a weird brand of electric violin that wistfully tinged the tune into sunset colors. Ultimately, he added his unique vocal. The song sounds like it's from someone as weary and worn as Mr. Bojangles himself.

When Bobby's version hit the airwaves, it was a new song. You can imagine how stunned Top 40 audiences would be hearing this; the strange arrangement, the unusual violin in there, and the wistfully haggard vocal...

The song began to climb the charts. Meanwhile ATCO was rush-releasing Jerry Jeff Walker's version, a simple, honest strum. Where Columbia had influence, Bobby's was a hit. Where Atco had influence, radio stations favored Jerry's version. Both stalled at the edge of the Top 40 in the summer of 1968.

The vision of Bobby's version led everyone from Sammy Davis Jr. to George Burns to offer a pop cover...usually with an earnestly nostalgic tone. Jerry's less emotional take would later inspire the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Bob Dylan to give dry-eyed country pickin' to the tune.

Together, Cole and Walker blazed a trail followed by dozens and dozens of cover versions, either pop or folk. Sadly neither man would have another hit single. At least, Walker fans got a lot more albums and Jerry Jeff is still out there.
Bobby's "Mister Bojangles" (as the Columbia label spells it out...the original Concentric calls it "Mr. Bo Jangles") moved me so much I had to know more about him, find out who this guy was (this was his first single, but from that voice, you knew he'd been around and there was a back story to tell).

Some twenty years later, I met him in a club, not down and out, but playing the standards. I made sure to catch him at other gigs around town. And I'll just say that he turned out to be one of the most unique friends I ever had. I miss him.

"One Hit Wonder" is a cruel term, but here, it applies to a strange little moment in time when lounge and jazz sensibilities (note the backbeat drums and the late arrival of the clarinet toward the end) melded with progressive rock (the influence of "Mr. Kite" seems evident) and as produced, arranged and sung by Bobby Cole, produced a gem.

MISTER COLEJANGLES Update: The original link died, and has been replaced by a zip file of TEN versions of the song, including Bobby's

8 comments:

me said...

cool, great story, good research !
now another question,JJW recorded another version, a "live"one with just david bromberg, do you have that, or maybe somone else ?

Ill Folks said...

I have a live version on a JJW album called "Great Gonzos." He mentions the song took shape "a few blocks away" from wherever he's now playing. Zat the one? The album notes for this '91 MCA release don't seem to mention the backing players. He seems to have a full band with him.

I have a lotta Bo's...Robbie Williams, Sam Nixon, Nina Simone, Sammy Davis, John Denver, Glenn Yarbrough...JJW probably built a house on Bo royalties!

surferced said...

Finally, after almost 40 years of listening to Bobby Cole's song, including last night, and being enchanted every time, I find someone else who has an enduring interest in this hauntingly, mystically beautiful song.
Surferced

Anonymous said...

I 1st heard Bobby's version of this song in 1968 only once or twice and only one local AM radio station. I loved the version so much that I went to the radio station and asked for a copy of the song as I could not find it being sold anywhere. They made a cassette tape for me.

I can't find Bobby's version on Youtube and I have been thinking of making a video of the song with my 42 year old copy of Bobby's version. Bobby's rendition is, by far, the best version capturing the vision elicited by the lyrics. It is both haunting, sad and yet beautiful.

I heard a radio interview of Jerry Jeff Walker in the 1980s in which he said he really did meet Bojangles in a cell in N.Orleans. The story had to have been bogus as Bojangles, as I later found out, died in the late 1940s. Based on Jerry's age, Jerry was too young to have ever met Bo 'Bill Robinson' Jangles in jail. Even if the story is apocryphal, the most impactful and haunting lyrics of the song about a man 'with the eyes of age' and 'who spoke of life' and who was at one time a famous internationally known dancer are:

He spoke with tears
of fifteen years
of how his dog and him,
had traveled about.
his dog up and died,
he up and died,
after twenty years he still grieves.

He said "I dance
now and every chance at
honky-tonks,
for drinks and tips.
But most of time
I spend behind these country bars,
cause I drinks a bit."

Anonymous said...

Jerry Jeff did meet a guy who called himself Bojangles, but no, it wasn't Bill Robinson, it was a scruffy white guy who panhandled and danced and landed in jail. Why Jeff was in there, I am not sure.

arnold wise said...

i am the dummer on mr.bojangles &
the point of view album. i played with bobby for many years at jilly's & vegas he was a great talent with a great sense of humor we had many adventures together i really miss him.i just got a pc so i am behind the times but was pleasantly surprised to see all these sites about bobby.......

arnold wise said...

i am the dummer on mr.bojangles &
the point of view album. i played with bobby for many years at jilly's & vegas he was a great talent with a great sense of humor we had many adventures together i really miss him.i just got a pc so i am behind the times but was pleasantly surprised to see all these sites about bobby.......

Ill Folks said...

Hi Arnold, thanks for the comment. Yes, Bobby something special. His personality was so memorable, you can almost instantly recall his wry smile, the gravel voice, and his larger than life humor and opinions. Quite a few members of Bobby's various concentric circles (60's, 70's or later) still exchange tapes and stories and memories about him. He was, to use one of his favorite words, "Unique!"