Born in Richmond, Virginia on May 25, 1878, to Maxwell Robinson, a machine-shop worker, and Maria Robinson, a choir singer, Bill Robinson was brought up by his grandmother after the death of his parents when he was still a baby. The details of Robinson’s early life are known only through legend, much of it perpetuated by Bill Robinson himself. He claims he was christened “Luther” – a name he did not like. He suggested to his younger brother Bill that they should exchange names. When Bill objected, Luther applied his fists, and the exchange was made (The new ‘Luther’ later adopted the name Percy and became a well-known drummer).
At the age of six, he began dancing for a living appearing as a “hoofer” or song-and-dance man in local beer gardens. At seven, Bill dropped out of school to pursue dancing. Two years later in Washington, DC, he toured with Mayme Remington’s troupe. In 1891 (Ed: another source-1892), at the ripe age of 12, he joined a traveling company in The South Before the War, and in 1905 (Ed: another source 1902) worked with George Cooper as a vaudeville team. He gained great success as a nightclub and musical comedy performer, and during the next 25 years became one of the toasts of Broadway. Not until he was 50 did he dance for white audiences, having devoted his early career exclusively to appearances on the black theater circuit.
(There is an urban legend in Richmond, Virginia that Robinson was discovered while working as a bellhop at the Jefferson Hotel. However, this is most likely untrue. When the Jefferson Hotel opened in 1895, Robinson (then 16) was already touring with traveling shows.)
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 $3500 per week. The publicity that gradually came to surround him included the creation of his famous “stair dance” (which he claimed to have invented on the spur of the moment when he was receiving some honor–he could never remember exactly what– from the King of England. The King was standing at the top of a flight of stairs, and Bojangles’ feet just danced up to be honored), his successful gambling exploits, his bow ties of multiple colors, his prodigious charity, his ability to run backward (he set a world’s record of 8.2 seconds for the 75-yard backward dash) and to consume ice-cream by the quart, his argot–most notably the neologism copacetic–and such stunts as dancing down Broadway in 1939 from Columbus Circle to 44th St. in celebration of his 61st birthday.
Because his public image became preeminent, little is known of his first marriage to Fannie S. Clay in Chicago shortly after World War I, his divorce in 1943, or his marriage to Elaine Plaines on January 27, 1944, in Columbus, Ohio.
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. From then on, his public role was that of a dapper, smiling, plaid-suited ambassador to the white world, maintaining a 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, for example, his nickname “Bojangles” meant happy-go-lucky, while the black variety artist Tom Flatcher claimed it was slang for “squabbler.” Political figures and celebrities appointed him an honorary mayor of Harlem, a lifetime member of policemen’s associations and fraternal orders, and a mascot of the New York Giants major league baseball team. Robinson reciprocated with open handed generosity and frequently credited the white dancer James Barton for his contribution to Robinson’s dancing style.
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 (1935), The Littlest Rebel (1935), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938) and Just Around the Corner (1938), or Will Rogers in In Old Kentucky. Rarely did he depart from the stereotype imposed by Hollywood writers. In a small vignette in Hooray For Love (1935) he played a mayor of Harlem modeled after his own ceremonial honor; 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. 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 (1931), 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, and was one of the greatest hits of the fair. His next performance, in All in Fun (1940), failed to attract audiences. His last theatrical project was to have been Two Gentlemen From the South with James Barton, in which the black and white roles reverse and eventually come together as equals, but the show did not open. Thereafter, 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. He explained this extraordinary versatility–he once danced for more than an hour before a dancing class without repeating a step–by insisting that his feet responded directly to the music, his head having nothing to do with it.
Robinson died of a chronic heart condition at Columbia Presbyterian Center in New York City in 1949. 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. “To his own people”, wrote Marshall and Jean Stearns, “Robinson became a modern John Henry, who instead of driving steel, laid down iron taps.” He was buried in the cemetery of the Evergreens in New York City.
In 1939 Robinson returned to the New York stage to take on the lead role in The Hot Mikado, a jazz version of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. The much-loved performer brought his show great publicity when in his sixties, he danced his way backwards down Broadway from Columbus Circle to 44th Street. Robinson had spoken out against being stereotyped by Hollywood and in 1943 he went back there to star opposite Lena Horne and Cab Calloway in the quality film musical, Stormy Weather.
Robinson was dogged by lifelong personal demons, enhanced by having to endure the indignities of racism that, despite his great success, still limited his opportunities. A favorite Robinson anecdote is that he seated himself in a restaurant and a customer objected to his presence. When the manager suggested that it might be better if the entertainer left, Robinson smiled and asked, “Have you got a ten dollar bill?” Politely asking to borrow the note for a moment, Robinson added six $10 bills from his own wallet and mixed them up, then extended the seven bills together, adding, “Here, let’s see you pick out the colored one.” The restaurant manager served Robinson without further delay.
A notorious gambler and a high liver but with a big heart, he was a soft touch for anyone down on their luck or with a good story. During his lifetime Robinson spent a fortune but his generosity was not totally wasted and his haunting memories of surviving on the streets as a child never left him. In 1933, while in his hometown of Richmond, Virginia, he saw two children risk speeding traffic to cross a street because there was no stoplight at the intersection. Robinson went to the city and provided the money to have a safety traffic light installed. In 1973, a statue of “Bojangles” was erected in a small park at that intersection.
Robinson’s favorite adjective was copasetic. He claimed to have coined the word; in any event, there is little argument that he popularized the term sufficiently to make it part of the English vocabulary.
Bojangles co-founded the New York Black Yankees baseball team in Harlem in 1936 with financier James “Soldier Boy” Semler. The team was a successful member of the Negro National League until it disbanded in 1948.
In 1989 a joint U.S. Senate / House resolution declared “National Tap Dance Day” to be May 25th, the anniversary of Bill Robinson’s birth.
In 1949, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson died penniless in New York City at the age of 71 from heart disease. Television host Ed Sullivan personally paid for the funeral. More than half a million people lined the streets when Robinson’s funeral procession made its way through Harlem and down Broadway to Times Square on its way to his interment in the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn.
Jerry Jeff Walker wrote a song called “Mr. Bojangles” which is often thought to have been inspired by Robinson (Source).
Photo credit (l to r): Jesse Owens and Bill ‘Bojangels’ Robinson.