Jerry Jeff Walker – singer, songwriter
Born March 18, 1942; died October 23, 2020
Jerry Jeff Walker, who has died aged 78, was a Country singer who stayed true to his outlaw spirit, even as he penned what became a classic of the American songbook. Walker wrote Mr. Bojangles following a night in a New Orleans drunk tank, where he encountered the old street dancer who became its inspiration.
Walker first recorded the song for his debut 1968 album of the same name. Since then, Mr. Bojangles has been covered by a multitude of artists, including The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, who had a hit with it in1970. Others who recorded it include Neil Diamond, Bobbie Gentry, Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton and Edwyn Collins. The song became a central part of Sammy Davis Junior’s act, while composer Philip Glass incorporated it into his opera, Einstein on the Beach. It was Nina Simone’s version, however, Walker said he liked best.
The success of Mr. Bojangles afforded Walker certain freedoms to be able to do things on his own terms. A move to Austin, Texas saw him find his spiritual musical home. This came by way of the Armadillo World Headquarters, a nightclub, where the so-called cosmic cowboy scene held court.
Country legends such as Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson were all in Walker’s orbit. As were writers Kinky Friedman and Hunter S. Thompson. Not for nothing was Walker’s 1970s group called The Lost Gonzo Band. Walker and co embraced the good time lifestyle, and wanted his records to be imbued with the same hard partying spirit of his live shows.
Where other artists had their attitude airbrushed into something softer for mass appeal, Walker stayed true to both his roots and reputation. This didn’t endear him to either the major record labels or the radio programmers, and in 1985, he walked away from the mainstream music industry entirely to set up his own record label. With his wife, Susan Streit, who he married in 1974, driving the company as president and manager, Tried and True Music put out every record Walker made after that. It was a consummate act of outlaw independence.
Walker was born Ronald Clyde Crosby in Oneonta, New York, to Alma and Mel Crosby. His father refereed sporting events and worked as a barman, and his mother looked after the home. He was exposed to music from an early age, with his parents local dance champions, while his maternal grandparents led a square-dance band.
A sporty child with a rebellious streak that never left him, Walker was given his first guitar as a Christmas present aged 12. He later took up banjo and ukulele, and played in a band called The Tones while still in high school.
After going AWOL from the National Guard, he hitch-hiked his way across America. In New Orleans, he played in influential coffee house, The Quorum, and travelled through Texas and Florida. He made his living busking, and ended up in more than one prison cell before landing in the Greenwich Village folk scene. It was the sort of pilgrimage taken by many restless spirits of his generation intent on reinventing themselves in the wake of post-war beat culture. Few had songs of such quality as Mr Bojangles already in their pocket, however, as the newly renamed Jerry Jeff Walker did.
In 1967, Walker and Bob Bruno formed the Lost Sea Dreamers, before Vanguard Records took umbrage at the trippy initials , and they became Circus Maximus. As the pair diverged musically after two albums, Walker struck out as a solo troubadour once more. The release of the Mr. Bojangles album saw him really make his mark, and the crossover of the title track into mass public consciousness was followed by a stream of releases.
Album titles told their own story of where Walker was at over the years that followed. Five Years Gone (1969); Driftin’ Way of Life (1969); Bein’ Free (1970); Ridin’ High (1975); A Man Must Carry On (1977); Too Old to Change (1979). Marriage to Susan did change things, and Walker cleaned up his act to release a series of increasingly personal records through Tried and True Music.
In 1999, Walker published a memoir, Gypsy Songman. A film, OK Buckaroos, showcased Walker’s life and work through a series of interviews with his peers.
Latterly, the Walkers set up The Jerry Jeff Walker Tried and True Foundation. Through this, would-be musicians from Austin who might not otherwise be able to afford college fees were sponsored to attend Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts, where their son Django had studied. The Foundation expanded to support other organisations aiding the health and well-being of musicians in the Austin area.
Walker was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2017. The same year, he donated his music archive to the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University. An album, It’s About Time, was released in 2018. A live set from 1977, Midnight Cowboy, appeared a year later. Like his archive, Walker’s recorded back catalogue documents an era he survived to tell the tale in song.
“I didn’t just burn the candle at both ends,” he wrote in Gypsy Songman. “I was also finding new ends to light.”
Walker is survived by his wife, Susan, his daughter, Jesse Jane McLarty, his son, Django, his sister, Cheryl Harder, and two grandchildren.
The Herald, December 12th 2020