Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Mr. Bojangles by Sammy Davis Jr.


I love talking to older people about music, people in their 60s and up. I find it interesting to hear about how they experience music what it meant to them when they were younger and what it means to them now. Usually when the topic of current music comes up, I hear a lot of complaining about the way the music sounds and the musicians themselves. This rant often concludes with: “music was real in my day, and music is just noise right now and the musicians are not as talented as they used to be.”

For the most part, I disagree respectfully and cite music and artists who are producing music now who I feel are at the same level of the music that the love. However, once in a while someone will talk about an artist like Sammy Davis Jr. and talk about how there simply isn’t any artists around now who are as great an entertainer as he was, and part of me agrees.

Sammy Davis Jr. could do it all. He was a fantastic actor, a genius at impressions, a virtuosic tap dancer, a great singer and if that wasn’t enough he was also an unbelievable fast draw artist. I guess it helped that his father was in show business and Sammy started going on tour with his dad’s vaudeville act when he was three years old and started performing soon after.

Davis’ biggest musical hit was “Candy Man” from the film Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. This is a fun songs but what many people think of when they reminisce about Davis is a song that is closer not only to his own heart but his life experience “Mr. Bojangles.”

Bill “Bojangles” Robinson one of the most important song and dance men of the 1930s and 1940s. He is most famous for appearing with Shirley Temple movies like The Little Colonel. He was an amazing pop culture personality who revolutionized dancing and the way that Americans viewed African Americans in popular culture. However, the song “Mr. Bojangles” is not about the famous actor and dancer.

Jerry Walker composed “Mr. Bojangles” in 1968 after encountering an incarcerated street performer in a New Orleans Jail. After a murder in 1965, the police arrested all of the people in the area and Walker was put in a crowded cell where he met an old man who began telling him stories about his life. Others who became annoyed at his stories asked him to lighten up the mood, so the old man began to tap dance. The policeman had given nicknames to the people in the cell to help identify them and after the dancing display, this old man got the nickname “Mr. Bojangles.”

The lyrics in "Mr. Bojangles" are straightforward describing the man, and meeting him in New Orleans. This man started out his life dancing in minstrel shows and now dances in honky tonks spending most of his time in jail. The one glory, the light in this mans existence is his dancing. The narrator marvels how “he jumped so high, then he lightly touched down” and effortlessly clicked his heels.

The chorus beckons “Mr. Bojangles” to dance. This request comes as the other cell mates who are bored but reaches another level throughout the song. By performing we see an old drunk, tired man come to life and by asking him to dance, it is rejuvenating Mr. Bojangles himself reminding him of his own glory days.

Sammy Davis Jr. started out doing minstrel shows and had his share of struggles. There was his drugs addiction, family issues, and racism, which he fought against his entire life. For example performing in the Las Vegas with the Rat Pack, he couldn’t stay in the hotels that he was performing in and didn’t have a dressing room. He was forced wait in-between acts by the pool poolside while his friends would be backstage.

When we hear Davis sing “Mr. Bojangles” it’s almost like he is singing about himself. There is deep sense of authenticity in his singing that comes only from a life lived on the stage and the road.

Watching Sammy Davis Jr. perform “Mr. Bojangles,” is an amazing experience. Yes, first off you need to get over the brown jump suit that is just a little bit too tight (it was the 1970s people, let’s move on). Everything he does is effortless and seems completely natural. However, all that he does including the way he colors each note, the way he stands, the exact motion that he flips the hat on his head is calculated and rehearsed. All of this contributes results in an organic and beautiful performance.

My favorite part of the performance is when Davis clicks his heels (around 2 minutes) with a graceful leap in the air that seems to come out of nowhere. What makes this moment even more amazing is how right after the leap he starts singing as if the leap was nothing.

When Davis asks at the end of the song “why can’t you come back and dance?” I find myself wanting to ask Sammy Davis Jr. himself that question. I know the answer, but still can’t help but wonder what it would have been like to see him jump so high and lightly touch down.

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