Bill “Bojangles” Robinson
DJ Name: Bojang-a-lang
To continue our journey through prominent Virginians, today we’re focusing on a man who tippy-tappied across the silver screen, right into people’s hearts across America. That tap dancer was none other than Bill Robinson, or “Bojangles,” as some came to know him, either because of his happy stage demeanor or thanks to the popular song that Jerry Jeff Walker wrote that was covered by numerous acts such as Sammy Davis Jr., the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Jeff Tweedy. But below his copacetic surface lay issues of poverty, exploitation and racism that threw hurdles in every direction throughout his career.
But before we get to his life’s story, Bill Robinson compiled this playlist of his favorite songs that we transferred to Spotify and now you can shuffle it up while you learn about this tap dancing legend:
Bill Robinson was born Luther Robinson in Richmond, Virginia, on May 25, 1878, to Maxwell, a machinist (one who sets up and operates milling machines, grinders, lathes or drilling machines, for example), and Maria Robinson, a church choir director. He and his little brother William grew up in Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood, which is historically Black and also home to the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site (cross-over episode alert!). Both Robinson parents passed away tragically early in 1884 — his father from heart disease and his mother from unknown natural causes. Luther and William were then raised by their grandmother, Bedelia, not of Amelia fame, who was a former slave. As a kid, Luther allegedly didn’t like his name very much and made his brother swap names with him. Weird flex considering most siblings just opt for swapping clothes. Nevertheless he ditched the Luther and became William Robinson.
Now, we know we like to take some creative liberties here at Historic Shuffle, but we promise this name-swapping story is not of our creation, it came straight from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, which is always accurate. So don’t @ us if this story is more legend than legit!
OK, back to Luther, who was now officially William and his brother Luther, who was formerly William. You kept that straight, right? Okie doke, because, to throw another curve ball at ya, the OG William decided he didn’t like the name Luther either and instead opted for the name Percy. Percy Robinson eventually went on to gain recognition as a musician allegedly taking on the name “Percy RobinsonG”, but we’ll leave his story there because this is BILL’s day, y’all!
So as a little kiddo, Bill started dancing for small change, often at beer gardens or local theaters. Attendees would toss pennies his way, and one day a promoter saw him performing outside the Globe Theater in Richmond and offered him a job as a “pick” in a local minstrel show. In this era, minstrel shows were staged by white performers in blackface and pickaninnies, or “picks,” were cute Black children who were placed at the edge of the stage to sing, dance and tell jokes.
It’s also key to note that in his younger years while he was still living in Richmond, Bill began using the term “copacetic,” meaning things are “in excellent order,” according to Google when we type the word in the search box. The word would come up more throughout his life, but we’re just laying the foundation here since it would eventually become something of a catchphrase for him.
Bill did the pickanniny life for a while, earning pennies, and then in 1890 when he was 12, he ran away to D.C. where he made ends meet working odd jobs and even briefly teamed up with a young Al Jolson (who’d eventually be billed as the world’s greatest entertainer and is remembered as one of popularizers of white people performing in blackface). While Bill danced, Al sang and passersby would give them money or buy newspapers from them.
In 1891, he joined a traveling company that later performed as a vaudeville act which hired him as a pickanniny even though he was a bit old at that point. During these years, Bill mostly performed in front of Black audiences. Eight years of performing intermittently as a pickanniny or on the street, Bill returned to Richmond and enlisted in the Army as the Spanish-American War broke out. The war lasted less than a year, and after Bill sustained an accidental gunshot wound from another soldier who was cleaning his gun, Bill said ta-ta to the army and started to pursue his artistic talents again.
In 1900, the tide started to turn in Bill’s favor. That year, he entered into a dance competition at the Bijou Theatre in Brooklyn and won a gold medal, beating out lots of other big names of the day. Everyone far and wide heard about Bill and his tap-dancin’ skills, and the publicity generated more gigs for him. In 1908, when James Madison University was being founded just two hours west of Richmond, Bill met Marty Forkins, who became his manager. Manger Marty, who Bill would later introduce to Olympic track star Jesse Owens and attempt to manage his career too (more on that here), urged Bill to develop his solo act in nightclubs. Manager Marty promoted Bill as a solo act to all the clerbs which resulted in about $3,500 per week for Billy boi. He became one of the first Black performers to break the two-colored rule, which prevented solo acts by Black artists.
After his stint on the stage, Robinson returned to the Army again to serve as a rifleman, drum major and entertainer at training camps during World War I. Get it together, world. When the war was over and troops returned home, Robinson led the march of the band up Fifth Ave (where there was a party,) with his drummin’ skills. Eager to break a leg, Bill went on tour for nearly 50 weeks (for reference, there are like 52 weeks in a year). He often put on multiple shows per night at different venues. We’re exhausted just knowing that. Don’t worry, though, he made sure to take a week off because he needed to watch the World Series. Fun fact! Bill was a big baseball guy. He was a mascot for the New York Giants and co-founded the New York Black Yankees team based in Harlem. The team was a part of the Negro National League until 1948, when Major League Baseball officially integrated.
As we know (if you’ve been paying attention), Bill was a tap dance guy, too! Bill’s style is noteworthy because in the world of dance ~apparently~ it was more common to bop around on the balls of your feet. Well, Bill stayed high up on his tippity toes as he tapped across the stage or, better yet, up a set of stairs (because, why not?). His stair gig cleverly became known as the Bill Robinson “Stair Dance.” And that’s show biz, baby!
Bill was a one-of-a kind performer who just about did it all throughout his legendary life. He made his Broadway debut in 1928 starring in Blackbirds of 1928. This show had all Black performers yet was meant for white audiences. From his stardom in this show, Robinson gained a lot of recognition and fangirlies because he was an entertaining, dapper, cheerful young fella. Somebody get this guy a Tony award. His catchphrase, “Everything’s copacetic,” only further reinforced the widely recognized positive attitude of “Bojangles” Robinson because in the life of Broadway Bill everything was copacetic.
So his nickname, “Bojangles,” has a few different interpretations to it that differ between the white audiences who saw him perform and the Black performers he worked with. To those in the crowds, “Bojangles” was cheerful and laugh-out-loud funny while performers he worked with used it to mean that he was a bit of a menace. Bill himself chalked it up to being bestowed the nickname while he was a young kiddo in Richmond. Herein lies a prime example of why sometimes history is referred to as gossip.
Robinson appeared in many more Broadway shows, hopping from theater to theater in Midtown as he appeared in productions of Brown Buddies, Blackbirds of 1933, The Hot Mikado, All in Fun and Hamilton all throughout the 1930s and 40s. Ok, maybe not Hamilton. Guess that hadn’t been released yet. While in All in Fun, Robinson became the first Black performer to be the #maincharacter in an all-white production. Continuing to grow more and more in popularity, Bill hit the road for Tinsel Town where he starred in not one, not two, but fourteen major motion movies, many of which were of course musicals. Wowza! He performed on the silver screen with “Little Miss Sunshine” herself Shirley Temple in four films, and most famously in The Little Colonel. The two became the first interracial pair to dance on screen together, and they did none other than Robinson’s infamous staircase dance and had a tippy-tappity good time doing it. Here’s a wholesome video to enjoy. Warning: you may want to get some tap shoes after.
Despite his popularity in America, Robinson faced racism. Once while filming on location (~movie things~) with Shirley, Robinson and his chauffeur stayed in a room above a drugstore while Shirley got to stay in a private cottage. Nevertheless Robinson continued to perform and excel in every role he acted, sang and/or danced in. He was an entertainer who transcended color lines. His grand finale of a motion picture was Stormy Weather. Quiz time! What other historic shuffler performed alongside Bill Robinson in this film? Any guesses? Lena Horne is right (such smart fans)! Horned co-starred as Robinson’s love interest — oo la la! — and you better believe there were many a dance sequences. In 2001, Stormy Weather was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being, “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Robinson might say that that’s quite copacetic.
Even though Bill experienced a lifetime of hustling and successes, charming people on the stage and screen with his tippity-tapping, at one point even making $6,600 a week for at least one year, he died fairly impoverished due to his extravagant generosity to Harlem-based charities and gambling habits. Though penniless, his death, at the age of 71 in 1949, was well-reported and his funeral was well-attended: Bill received tributes from the royal fam, the White House and members of the Truman administration. His funeral was even arranged by his pal Ed Sullivan, and many other entertainment industry buds attended it. The tap-dancing shoes finally put away, Bill’s body was laid to rest at the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn.