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Bill Bojangles Robinson
1878-1949

 Bill "Bojangles" Robinson 1878-1949

African-American writer Donald Bogle called him “the quintessential Tom” because of his cheerful and shameless subservience to whites in film. But in real life Robinson was the sort of man who, when refused service at an all-white luncheonette, would lay his pearl-handled revolver on the counter and demand to be served.

Bill "Bojangles" Robinson was the most famous of all African American tap dancers in the twentieth century. Born Luther Robinson in Richmond, Virginia, his parents, Maria and Maxwell Robinson, died in 1885. Young Bill was reared by his grandmother, Bedilia Robinson, who had been a slave. In Richmond, he got the nickname "Bojangles" from "jangler," meaning contentious, and he invented the phrase "Everything's Copasetic," meaning tip-top.

Bill Robinson began dancing in local saloons at the age of six. He soon dropped out of school to pursue dancing as a career. He became a popular fixture on the vaudeville circuit just two years after that. His first professional gig was the part of a “pickaninny” role in the show “The South Before the War” which toured the northeast. By 1900, he had made his way to New York and Robinson rapidly rose to become one of America’s best loved nightclub and musical comedy performers. 

His act was an amalgam of little steps and moves he had taken from others, then stitched together into a sequence that was greater than the sum of its parts. He worked his magic by rehearsing and performing the act so much that he could do it in his sleep, and then “selling it” to an audience through the sheer force of his infectious personality. He would intersperse his routines with little jokes and remarks, such as the famous “Everything’s copasetic!” In 1918, Robinson introduced what was to become his signature bit, “the stair dance.”

Robinson served as a rifleman in World War I with New York's 15th Infantry Regiment, National Guard. The Regiment was renamed the 369th Infantry while serving under France's Fourth Army and earned the nickname the "Harlem Hellfighters". 

Toward the end of the vaudeville era, a white impresario, Lew Leslie, produced Blackbirds of 1928, a black revue for white audiences featuring Robinson and other black stars. After 1930, black revues waned in popularity, but Robinson remained in vogue with white audiences for more than a decade in some fourteen motion pictures produced by such companies as RKO, 20th Century Fox, and Paramount Pictures. Most of them 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, The Littlest Rebel, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Just Around the Corner, or Will Rogers in In Old Kentucky.

Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Shirley Temple in The Little Colonel
Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Shirley Temple in The Little Colonel

Rarely did he depart from the stereotype imposed by Hollywood writers. In a small vignette in Hooray for Love he played a mayor of Harlem modeled after his own ceremonial honor; in One Mile from Heaven, he played a romantic lead opposite African American actress Fredi Washington after Hollywood had relaxed its taboo against such roles for blacks. Audiences enjoyed his style, which eschewed the frenetic manner of the jitterbug. In contrast, Robinson always remained cool and reserved, rarely using his upper body and depending on his busy, inventive feet and his expressive face. He appeared in one film for black audiences, Harlem is Heaven, a financial failure that turned him away from independent production.

In 1939, he returned to the stage in The Hot Mikado, a jazz version of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta produced at the 1939 New York World's Fair, which was one of the greatest hits of the fair. His next performance, in All in Fun (1940), failed to attract audiences. Thereafter, he confined himself to occasional performances, but he could still dance well in his late sixties, to the continual astonishment of his admirers. 

Onstage, his open face, twinkling eyes and infectious smile were irresistible, as was his tapping, which was delicate and clear. Buck or Time Steps were inserted with skating steps or crossover steps on the balls of the feet that looked like a jig, all while he chatted and joked with the audience. His unique sound was partly due to the use of 'Wooden Taps' on his shoes. Robinson danced in split clog shoes, ordinary shoes with a wooden half-sole and raised wooden heel. The wooden sole was attached from the toe to the ball of the foot and left loose, which allowed for greater flexibility and tonality.

According to one jazz dance source, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson 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.

Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Lena Horne in "Stormy Weather"
Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and Lena Horne in "Stormy Weather"

Robinson was said to have had very little education, had a nasty demeanor (there were times of kindness and generosity,) confrontational, quarrelsome, drank and gambled heavily and so on, but his dancing was extraordinary, especially his Tap dance scenes with little Shirley Temple were very endearing and legendary which is the way most people lovingly think of him today. Robinson was also an honorary member of the Police force in more than one big city. He had a gun permit and always carried a gold plated pistol. Robinson loved to play pool and liked it quiet when he made certain shots, at that time he would pull out his pistol, lay it on the edge of the pool table and take his shot, as the other patrons would become very quiet.

After a series of heart attacks, the doctor advised him to quit in 1948. Robinson maintained that though he had trouble walking, talking sleeping and breathing, when he danced he felt wonderful. He died a few months later. Despite earning more than $2 million during his lifetime, Robinson died penniless in New York City in 1949 at the age of 71 from heart failure.  Newspapers estimated that almost one hundred thousand people turned out to witness the passing of his funeral procession.

 


Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in
"The Little Colonel" (1935). 

 



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