Sammy Davis, Jr. performs a set of timeless classics in SAMMY DAVIS JR: LIVE IN GERMANY, a 1985 performance filmed live at the Hohensyburg Casino in Dortmund, Germany. “Mr. Bojangles” was the show's closing song.
The song was written by Jerry Jeff Walker in 1968 as a country song. His version is here. It has been covered by various artists, including Neil Diamond (1969), the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (1970) and Bob Dylan (1973).
The song's background is briefly explained:
Walker has said he was inspired to write the song after an encounter with a street performer in a New Orleans jail and does not refer to the famous stage and movie personality Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. Walker said while in jail for public intoxication in 1965, he met a homeless white man who called himself "Mr. Bojangles" to conceal his true identity from the police.That's a very interesting history. The song has become Sammy Davis, Jr's signature song since he first recorded it in 1972, one that he has to perform, as he put it in this video: "I can't do a show without doing this song.... It's very special to me." Why? Well, there's always reason. Sammy Davis, Jr. explains the personal significance of the song, Mr. Bojangles, at his sixtieth birthday tribute.
He had been arrested as part of a police sweep of indigent people that was carried out following a high-profile murder. The two men and others in the cell chatted about all manner of things, but when Mr. Bojangles told a story about his dog, the mood in the room turned heavy. Someone else in the cell asked for something to lighten the mood, and Mr. Bojangles obliged with a tap dance.
The song is notated in two aurally equivalent time signatures, 3/4 and 6/8.
In short, his fear was that he would become Mr. Bojangles, a performer who came and went, like a puff of smoke, despite the talent he once possessed. It's a common fear, no doubt, but not one that I would have expected the multi-talented Sammy Davis, Jr. ought to have ever had.
Lesser lights have exhibited lesser fears. Or, perhaps, it is bravado in their case, like screaming in the dark to overcome the fear. It might well be that the truly talented and gifted are human enough to bare their soul, and expose themselves to a wider audience. That is one of the things that has endeared them all the more. One more comment: He doesn't so much sing Mr. Bojangles as perform it, with heart and soul.
By Jerry Jeff Walker
I knew a man Bojangles and he'd dance for you in
worn out shoes Silver hair, a ragged shirt and baggy
pants, that old soft shoe He'd jump so high, he'd
jump so high, then he'd lightly touch down Mr.
Bojangles, Mr. Bojangles, dance.
I met him in a cell in New Orleans, I was down and
out He looked to me to be the eye of age as he
spoke right out He talked of life, he talked of
life, laughing slapped his leg stale Mr.
Bojangles, Mr. Bojangles, dance.
He said the name Bojangles and he danced a lick
all across the cell He grabbed his pants for a
better stance, oh he jumped so high and he clicked
up his heels He let go a laugh, he let go a laugh,
shook back his clothes all around Mr. Bojangles,
Mr. Bojangles, dance, yeah, dance.
He danced for those at minstrel shows and county
fairs throughout the south He spoke with tears of
15 years of how his dog and him just travelled
all about His dog up and died, he up and died, and
after 20 years he still grieves Mr. Bojangles, Mr.
He said I dance now at every chance at honky-tonks
for drinks and tips But most of the time I spend
behind these county bars, 'cause I drinks a bit He
shook his head, yes he shook his head, I heard
someone ask him, please, Mr. Bojangles, Mr.
Bojangles, dance, dance, Mr Bojangles, dance.