Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
If you had to be best known for but one song, “Mr. Bojangles” can’t be a bad one to leave as a legacy, even if, strangely, it isn’t necessarily that characteristic of the rest of the author’s output. The author? Jerry Jeff Walker, a stalwart of the outlaw country movement, a contemporary of Waylon and Willie, Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, to name just a few. Walker wrote “Bojangles” in 1967 and released it a year later, early on in a career that would produce well over twenty subsequent long players before his death earlier this year, of throat cancer, aged 78.
“Mr. Bojangles” has often been thought to be in honor of Bill Robinson, a black vaudeville performer who used Mr. Bojangles as his stage name. Not so. Seems it’s really a song about a whole less celebrated performer who Walker had met in jail, when he had been locked up for public intoxication. This Bojangles was a homeless man, who had adopted the name to hide his true identity, but had a fund of stories relating to the life he shared with his dog. When an ugly moment arose in the communal cell, Mr. Bojangles had lightened the mood with a tap dance. As you do.
Over the years singers have covered “Mr. Bonjangles” umpteen times, and has become a staple of light entertainment, perhaps to the detriment of the song. Arguably the version known best to any casual listener might be the one by Sammy Davis Jr. I won’t be featuring either that or any of the other similar renditions by similarly gurning TV hoofers, like Frankie Laine, or by populist mainstreamers like Lulu and Robbie Williams. They don’t inspire and they bring out the worst in the song, which was never designed to be either schmaltzy or cheesy. Here’s five that pass muster, with, first, a reminder of the original. But rather than Jerry Jeff’s original, here he is, reprising the song with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, whose own version first introduced me to the song all those years ago, and which, brushing sentimentality aside, I had to exclude from the rankings.
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band feat. Jerry Jeff Walker – Mr. Bojangles (Jerry Jeff Walker cover)
So, now you remember the original, let’s go:
Todd Snider – Mr. Bojangles (Jerry Jeff Walker cover)
Todd Snider is said to be a walking (staggering?) epitome of the characters that inhabit the songs of Jerry Jeff Walker; lots of grit and lots of dust, with a world-weary voice and a battered ambience. So who better, in 2014, to issue a tribute album, Time As We Know It; The Songs of Jerry Jeff Walker. It is worth checking out in its own right, but the “Mr. Bojangles” here is a scuffed diamond. With the song tripped right back to voice and spare accompaniment, any connection to showbiz is now a dirtbowl away. Why Snider isn’t a bigger name always baffles me. Why Jerry Jeff wasn’t even more so.
Lulu – Mr. Bojangles (Jerry Jeff Walker cover)
I know, I know, I said I wouldn’t but, you know, it isn’t half as bad as you’d expect. In fact, it’s pretty damn good, from Lulu’s brief foray into Dusty In Memphis territory. Sure, it is the arrangement that clinches it, the church organ and the singing slide, her vocals pleasingly restrained, with a touch of Edie Brickell in there. And if you think it odd that the “Shout” hitmaker, later a favorite on cozy UK Saturday night TV, should tackle the song this way, rather than with top hat and cane, bear in mind the company she keeps on this 1970 album, New Routes. Recorded at Muscle Shoals, it is Duane Allman on slide guitar, amongst all the other usual suspects of the MS rhythm section.
Nina Simone – Mr. Bojangles (Jerry Jeff Walker cover)
I love the way Simone here stretches all her phrasing, extending into a slo-mo feel to the rendition, her voice softer and gentler than it can be. Simple piano, both normal and electric, underpins the arrangement, with muted guitars and a shuffle on the drums, further evoking the sepia feel, as strings swirl, embellishing rather than swamping. Ms. Simone has a habit of owning some of the songs she covers, negating the competition. Here she doesn’t, but it is still one of her best vocal performances. I could do without the plinkety-plonk ending, mind. It comes from 1971’s Here Come the Sun.
The Futures – Mr. Bojangles (Jerry Jeff Walker cover)
The Futures were a Philly soul group specializing in harmonies, but it is the lead vocal here that lifts this rendition into Five Good Covers company. Is the arrangement is a little of its day? Yes. Is the backing a little saccharine? Yes. Is the beat just a bit too bouncy? Yes. But I forgive all for the singing. This cut appeared on a little known and largely unknown 1980 album, The Greetings of Peace. Another bonus is towards the final third, where one of the other voices breaks the ranks and peels out, into a raggedy soulful delight, with a way more Motown vibe than the Gamble and Huff tendency to smoothness normally provides. (The bass voice was provided by one Harry McGilberry, later providing the same role in the Temptations.)
Dennis Brown – Mr. Bojangles (Jerry Jeff Walker cover)
Do I always include one or other of the roster of honey-tonsilled JA crooners? I guess, on this evidence, yes, with Dennis Brown always one of the best. Here is no exception, his languid tones floating gloriously over a mild skank, with just enough authentic Kingston bubbling bass and organ to keep it out of any MOR slide. Like a nice bath, this envelopes with a warm glow, the slight flutter of vibrato perfection. For those accusing me of going all soft, this includes the extended dub coda, with a soporific swoon that means you should release the bath plug if listening to the end. Which is a good place to close. If you want more, find it on Ole Man River, released in 2007.