Jerry Jeff Walker, the singer-songwriter who wrote the much-recorded standard “Mr. Bojangles” and later became a mainstay of the Texas outlaw movement that catapulted Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings to fame, died Friday at a hospital in Austin, Texas. He was 78.
His former publicist John T. Davis said the cause was cancer. Walker learned he had throat cancer in 2017.
A native New Yorker, Walker began his career in the 1960s, hitchhiking and busking around the country before establishing himself in Greenwich Village and writing the song that would secure his reputation.
A waltzing ballad about an old street dancer Walker had met in a New Orleans drunk tank, “Mr. Bojangles” was first recorded by Walker for the Atco label in 1968. The song achieved its greatest success in a folk-rock version that reached the pop top 10 in 1971 with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and went on to be covered by a wide range of artists, among them Nina Simone, Neil Diamond and even Bob Dylan. Sammy Davis Jr. included it in his stage show and performed it on television.
“At the time, I was reading a lot of Dylan Thomas, and I was really into the concept of internal rhyme,” Walker wrote of the song’s origin in his 1999 memoir, “Gypsy Songman.”
“The events of the past few months were still swirling inside, along with the memory of folks I’d met in jail cells in Columbus and New Orleans,” he went on.
“And it just came out: <em>Knew a man Bojangles, and he danced for you. …</em>”
The song was by far Walker’s best-known composition, the only original of his – he typically performed songs written by others – to become a major hit. But perhaps his most enduring contribution to popular culture was as an architect of the so-called cosmic cowboy music scene that coalesced around Armadillo World Headquarters, an iconoclastic nightclub in Austin.
The reception Walker received in Austin, he often said, signalled the first time he felt truly validated as an artist. “Texas was the only place where they didn’t look at me like I was crazy,” he told Rolling Stone in 1974, referring to the freewheeling ethos he cultivated with fellow regulars at Armadillo World Headquarters like Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys and Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen.
“It was the first place where, when I got on the stage to play, they said, ‘Of course, why not?’ Other places, they said, ‘Aw, you’re just another Bob Dylan, trying to make it with your guitar.’”
In a career that spanned six decades, Walker never had a Top 40 pop hit. But in his 1970s heyday, he and the Lost Gonzo Band, his loose-limbed group of backing musicians, made a number of definitive Texas outlaw recordings.
Foremost was “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother,” a boozing, brawling anthem written by Ray Wylie Hubbard that appeared on Walker’s 1973 album, “Viva Terlingua.”
“Viva Terlingua,” recorded live in Luckenbach, Texas, included other tracks that became signature recordings for Walker: among them are a dissolute take on Michael Martin Murphey’s “Backsliders Wine,” and “London Homesick Blues,” a tribute to Armadillo World Headquarters, written and sung by Walker’s long-time bass player Gary P. Nunn, with Walker on backing vocals. With a memorable refrain that began, “I wanna go home with the armadillo,” “London Homesick Blues” later became the theme song of the long-running PBS concert series “Austin City Limits.”
Mainstream radio programmers nevertheless didn’t play Walker’s music, perhaps because of his gruff, braying singing voice and his reputation for being intoxicated onstage or failing to show up for performances altogether. Further jeopardizing his commercial prospects, he eschewed the glossier sensibilities of Nashville, Tennessee, and other recording centres in favour of releasing raucous albums, recorded both in concert and in the studio, without the benefit of editing or overdubs.
“I wanted our records to sound like we were having a grand time at a party thrown for a bunch of our best friends – which, I guess, is exactly what it was,” Walker was quoted as saying in the 1998 edition of The Encyclopedia of Country Music.
Jerry Jeff Walker was born Ronald Clyde Crosby on March 16, 1942, in Oneonta, New York, in northernmost Appalachia. He was the only child of Mel Crosby, who refereed sporting events and tended bar, and Alma (Conrow) Crosby, a homemaker.
Young Ronnie grew up in a musical home. His parents were local dance champions, and his maternal grandparents led a square-dance band.
A rebellious youth who excelled in athletics, Walker received his first guitar as a Christmas present when he was 12. He later took up banjo and ukulele and played in local pop combos when he was in high school. He joined the National Guard in the early 1960s, only to go AWOL before embarking on the hitchhiking tour of the country that ultimately led to him changing his name to Jerry Jeff Walker and moving to New York to pursue his muse as a folk singer.
While in Greenwich Village, he became a member of the psychedelic rock band Circus Maximus, although he remained with the group only until the release of its debut album. By that time he had written “Mr. Bojangles,” which, after an auspicious live performance on the listener-supported New York radio station WBAI, helped him secure a contract with Atco Records.
Walker made three albums for Atco and another for Vanguard Records before relocating in 1971 to Austin. After signing with Decca in 1972, he released an album, titled simply “Jerry Jeff Walker,” which featured an acclaimed version of “L.A. Freeway,” a staple of the Southwestern songwriting canon written by Guy Clark, the Texan singer-songwriter. The next year, Walker further helped raise Clark’s profile as a songwriter with his heart-rending cover of “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train,” another neo-western touchstone written by Clark.
Walker toured and recorded extensively throughout the 1970s and ’80s, even as his drinking became unmanageable and he faced mounting debt, including back taxes owed to the IRS. With the help of Susan Streit, his wife of 46 years, he gave up liquor and drugs in the late ’70s, put his life back together and eventually settled into the role of elder statesman of the gonzo Texas music scene he had helped create.
In addition to Streit, Walker is survived by a daughter, Jessie Jane McLarty; a son, Django, who is also a musician; and two grandchildren.
Walker had been receiving chemotherapy and radiation. In 2017, it was announced that he had donated his music archives, including tapes, photographs and handwritten lyrics, to the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University.
“The mid-'70s in Austin were the busiest, the craziest, the most vivid and intense and productive period of my life,” Walker wrote in his memoir.
“Greased by drugs and alcohol, I was also raising the pursuit of wildness and weirdness to a fine art,” he wrote. “I didn’t just burn the candle at both ends, I was also finding new ends to light.”