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Black News and News Makers in History: Luther (Bill) "Bojangles" Robinson

Black news from Pasadena - Black News and News Makers in History - recognizes Bojangles this week in Black historyBojangles was born May 25, 1878 in Richmond, Virginia. His birth name was Luther Robinson, but during his vaudeville years, he took on the nickname of Bojangles because the name depicted his happy-go-lucky demeanor.

Both parents died when he was an infant, leaving him and his brother to be raised by a grandmother. Disliking his own name, he took his brother Bill's name.  (His brother, in turn, took the name Percy and later became a renowned drummer.)

In 1884, at age six, he began hoofing in beer gardens. Within a short time, he joined traveling companies and vaudeville tours and slowly built up a successful reputation in nightclubs and musical comedies.

Bojangles headlined with Cab Calloway many times at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem. His unique sound came from using wooden taps and his direct claim to fame would be the creation of his famous "stair dance," which involved tapping up and down a flight of stairs both backwards and forwards. Both black and white audiences were taken by his style and finesse and, following the demise of vaudeville, he easily transferred his talents to Broadway.

According to one jazz dance source, he was the chief instigator for getting tap dance "up on its toes." Early forms of tap, including the familiar "buck and wing", contained a flat-footed style, while Robinson performed on the balls of his feet with a shuffle-tap style that allowed him more improvisation. It obviously got him noticed and it certainly made him a legend.

From there, it was films for the now old-timer. In the 1930s, various studios usurped his patented talent in their old-fashioned Depression-era musicals. Times being what they were, he was typically cast as a butler or servant. Nevertheless, he enjoyed immense popularity, especially when partnered with reigning #1 box office moppet Shirley Temple.

He assisted in the choreography another Shirley Temple film, Dimples (1936). For the most part, he was a specialty player, but every once in a while he got into the thick of things, playing Lena Horne's love interest in One Mile from Heaven (1937) for instance.

In 1938, at age 60, he returned to the stage in "The Hot Mikado" which was a tuneful jazz reworking of Gilbert and Sullivan's classic operetta. Suffering from a chronic heart condition, he slowed down in the mid-'40s and died in New York City in 1949.

Interesting Highlights

  • He is the grandson of a slave.
  • His father was a machine-shop worker and mother a choir singer/director. Both died while he was an infant.
  • He took his brother's name (William); his real name was Luther.
  • During World War I, Robinson was the drum major of the 369th Infantry Regiment, the so-called "Harlem Hellfighters."
  • At one point in his career he made $6,500 a week in vaudeville billed as the "World's Greatest Tap Dancer" and headlined New York's Palace Theater, which was the top vaudeville house at the time.
  • He is a founding member of the Negro Actors Guild of America (NAGA).
  • One of the first blacks to act on Broadway, he also appeared in the first all-black motion picture called Harlem Is Heaven (1932) in which he played a mayor.
  • His film debut was in Dixiana (1930) and he worked in fifteen movies.
  • The world's preeminent tap dancer of his day, he is remembered for his appearances as trouper with the moppet Shirley Temple in four of her 1930s films -- The Little Colonel (1935), The Littlest Rebel (1935), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938) , and Just Around the Corner (1938).
  • He invented the stair tap routine and was considered one of the world's greatest tap dancers.
  • Fred Astaire paid homage to him in the movie Swing Time (1936) by dancing one of his routines in a song called "Bojangles of Harlem" in black-face.
  • The 1932 all-black movie titled Harlem Is Heaven (1932) was supposedly based on Robinson's life.
  • He often credited white dancer James Barton as an influence in his dancing style.
  • He was a one-time honorary mayor of Harlem and mascot of the New York Giants baseball team.
  • His manager from 1908 until his death was Marty Forkins who eventually had him working in nightclubs for up to $3,500 per week.
  • Married three times. Second wife, Fanny Clay, was his business manager. Third wife, Elaine Plaines, was a dancer.
  • He once set a world's record in the backwards 75-yard dash (in 8.2 seconds).
  • A native of Richmond, Virginia, Robinson once paid to have a traffic light installed at the corner of Adams and West Leigh Streets, so local children could cross the street safely on their way to school. In appreciation, the City of Richmond presented him with an engraved key to the City. Today, a statue of Robinson stands at the corner of Adams and West Leigh Streets.
  • He died November 25, 1949 in New York from heart disease at the age of 71. Being very dedicated, he often donated his time and money to the people of Harlem. The people of Harlem showed their appreciation, to someone they saw as a great gentleman, when they lined the streets in their thousands on the day of his funeral.
  • Having lived a generous and fun-loving lifestyle he died almost penniless.  His funeral was arranged and paid for by long time friend Ed Sullivan, television host.  Among the 32,000 were a collection of his celebrity colleagues (including Frank Sinatra).  His body lay in state at an armory in Harlem; schools were closed; he was eulogized by politicians, black and white—-perhaps more lavishly
    than any other African American of his time.
  • Though it borrowed his name, Jerry Jeff Walker's 1968 song "Mr. Bojangles" was about a fantasy character who had little in common with Robinson. Robinson did not drink, was never a down-and-outer and was always a fastidious dresser. His dancing style was always close to the ground, never "leap . . . and lightly touch down."
  • He was the best man at the first wedding of Leroy 'Satchel' Paige.
  • He was widely credited with coining the adjective "copasetic," or, at the very least, popularizing the term.
  • He was inducted into the International Tap Dance Hall of Fame in 2002 (inaugural class).
  • He was portrayed by Gregory Hines in Bojangles (2001) (TV).
  • In 1982, a pair of his tap shoes were on display in the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institute.
  • In 1989, the U.S. Congress named his birth date as National Tap Dancing Day.

From www.anothershadeofcolor.com, IMDb Mini Biography, and http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org.

 
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