He was an iconic performer!
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was born Luther Robinson in Richmond, Virginia on May 25, 1878, Biography.com. He hated his name as a child, later forcing his brother Bill to switch names with him. By 1885, he was an orphan, being raised by his grandmother Bedilia, earning the name “Bojangles” because of his ways. He was just 5 when he began performing in local beer gardens for a living. By age 9, he had joined a traveling troupe. Robinson worked his way up in the entertainment world and became a world-class star. He made the transition from Broadway to Hollywood films and gained international fame as an accomplished tap dancer, using most of his fortune having fun and giving back to various communities. A pioneering dancer, Robinson passed away more than seven decades ago on November 25, 1949, but his legacy lives on. In homage of his contributions, here are 4 ways Bojangles transformed tap dance, courtesy of New World Encyclopedia:
Bojangles was one of the first vaudeville performers to perform without blackface.
“At the age of sixteen, Robinson began dancing for a living, appearing as a "hoofer" or song-and-dance man in local beer gardens. A year later, young Bill quit school altogether to pursue dancing full-time. Two years later in Washington, DC, he began touring as a member of the Mayme Remington's "Pickaninnies." In his teens, Robinson joined various traveling companies and vaudeville tours, slowly building up a successful reputation in nightclubs and musical comedies. From 1902-1914, he teamed with tapper, George W. Cooper. Bound by the 'two-colored' rule in vaudeville, which restricted Blacks to performing in pairs, they performed together on the Keith and Orpheum circuits, but did not wear Blackface makeup that performers customarily used.”
He danced exclusively for Black audiences until he was 50 years old, growing a following among both whites and Blacks later in life.
“In 1908 in Chicago, he met Marty Forkins, who became his lifelong manager. Under Forkins' tutelage, Robinson matured and began working as a solo act in nightclubs, increasing his earnings to an estimated $3,500 per week. He headlined with Cab Calloway many times at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem.
Having devoted his early career exclusively to appearances on the Black theater circuit, Robinson would not dance for white audiences until he was 50 years old. Toward the end of the vaudeville era, a white impresario, Lew Leslie, recruited Robinson for Blackbirds of 1928, an all-Black revue for white audiences featuring him and an assortment of other Black stars. From then on, Robinson's public role was that of a dapper, smiling, plaid-suited ambassador to the white world, maintaining a somewhat tenuous connection with the Black show-business circles through his continuing patronage of the Hoofers Club, an entertainer's haven in Harlem. Consequently, Blacks and whites developed differing opinions of him. To whites, his nickname 'Bojangles' meant happy-go-lucky, while the Black variety artist Tom Flatcher claimed it was slang for ‘squabbler.’”
Bojangles took his tap show to the big screen, acting in 14 motion pictures produced by companies like 20th Century Fox and Paramount Pictures and opening up the art form to an even wider audience.
“After 1930, as Black revues waned in popularity, Robinson remained a mainstay with white audiences in some 14 motion pictures produced by such companies as RKO, 20th Century Fox and Paramount Pictures. Most of these films had musical settings, in which he played old-fashioned roles in nostalgic romances. His most frequent role was that of an antebellum butler opposite Shirley Temple in such films as The Little Colonel (1935), The Littlest Rebel (1935), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938) and Just Around the Corner (1938). Rarely did he depart from the stereotype imposed by Hollywood writers. However, in a small vignette in Hooray For Love (1935) he played a mayor of Harlem; in One Mile From Heaven (1937), he played a romantic lead opposite African American actress Fredi Washington after Hollywood had relaxed its taboo against such roles for Blacks.”
He created a name for himself as an innovator and philanthropist, stretching his career into his 60s and cementing his legacy even after death.
“He confined himself to occasional performances, but he could still dance in his late sixties almost as well as he ever could, to the continual astonishment of his admirers. On his 61st birthday the much-loved performer danced his way backwards down Broadway from Columbus Circle to 44th Street. In 1943, as a farewell to Hollywood, Robinson starred opposite Lena Horne and Cab Calloway in the quality film musical, Stormy Weather.
Robinson's unique sound came from using wooden taps. 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. He claimed to have invented this dance on the spur of the moment when he was receiving some honor—he could never remember exactly what—from the King of England. Robinson claimed the king was standing at the top of a flight of stairs, and Bojangles' feet just danced up to be honored.
The publicity that gradually came to surround Robinson included his successful gambling exploits, his bow ties of multiple colors, his generosity, his ability to run backward (he set a world's record of 8.2 seconds for the 75-yard backward dash), his penchant for consuming ice-cream by the quart, and his neologism 'copacetic,' meaning 'entirely satisfactory.'
When Robinson died penniless, television host Ed Sullivan personally paid for the funeral. His body lay in state at an armory in Harlem; schools were closed; thousands lined the streets waiting for a glimpse of his bier; and he was eulogized by politicians, Black and white—-perhaps more lavishly than any other African American of his time.
Robinson claimed to have coined the word 'copacetic.' There is little argument that he popularized the term sufficiently to make it part of the American English vocabulary. In 1989, a joint U.S. Senate/House resolution declared ‘National Tap Dance Day’ to be May 25th, Bill Robinson's birthday.”
There will never be another Bojangles! Because of him, we can!
This article was originally publisheed on BOTWC