Erika Goldring/Getty Images
Jerry Jeff Walker, a singer-songwriter and influential country musician known for penning the popular song "Mr. Bojangles," died Friday after a long battle with throat cancer. He was 78.
Born Ronald Clyde Crosby in Oneonta, N.Y. in 1942, Walker spent much of the 1960s as a member of the Greenwich Village folk music scene, but by the 1970s had settled in Austin, Texas. There, he fell in with the local music scene, helping to pioneer the "outlaw country" genre alongside such artists as Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Michael Martin Murphey. Walker's 1973 live album ¡Viva Terlingua! is cited as a landmark record of the outlaw country movement.
“‘Outlaw country’ made it sound like you had to go to jail to be an artist, but it’s just that some people like Waylon and Willie were outside the business [norm],” Walker told Rolling Stone in 2018. “People said, ‘We’re different, but we’re not hillbilly country.’ We didn’t blacken our teeth and wear baggy pants, we just liked cowboys and played like that.”
“Other than Willie, Jerry Jeff is the most important musician to happen to Austin, Texas, I would have to say,” Asleep at the Wheel frontman Ray Benson told the Austin American Satesman. “He really brought that folksinger/songwriter form to its height in Texas. And for that, he’ll be eternal, because there’s all these kids today who write songs in that mode.
“But also, a la Willie, he wrote really giant hit songs. ‘Mr. Bojangles’ is a standard. His other songs are wonderful, but to write a standard, that’s something that’s very difficult in today’s day and age to do.”
Walker wrote "Mr. Bojangles" in the mid-1960s after spending the night in a New Orleans jail, where he met a homeless man who “danced a lick across the cell.” Walker recorded the song himself for his 1968 album of the same name, and a cover by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band went to no. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1971. More than 100 artists have covered the song since, including Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, and Whitney Houston, and it became a signature song for Sammy Davis Jr.
Walker has remained a beloved figure in the Texas music scene, and donated a massive collection of his archives and personal artifacts to Texas State University after being diagnosed with cancer in 2017. He released what would be his final album, It's About Time, the next year, telling the Statesman, "I guess I took my singing for granted, and now I don’t."
Walker is survived by his wife of 46 years, Susan Walker, and their two children, daughter Jessie Jane and son Django Walker.