||William Luther Robinson|
Bill Robinson started hoofing
at the age of six and got his first gig as a "Pick"
for fifty cents a night. He was discovered while working in the
beer garden between engagements to do a bit part in a vaudeville
show called 'the South before the War' when he was just 12 years
old. For a few seasons after that show moved on Robinson worked
in a few local Burlesque Houses and became a professional tap
dancer at the young age of 13. Robinson is said to have arrived
in New York when he was 20 years of age and got his first job
at Minors Theatre in the Bowery, then various eateries and finally
Vaudeville Stages . At the age of 37, Robinson took a break and
won some of the Buck dance contests the Stage show In Old Kentucky.
His unique sound was partly
due to the use of 'Wooden Taps' on his shoes.
credited James Barton and Jack Donahue for his style of tap dance,
but would only say this to please his white hosts, his real mentor
was said to be George Primrose. He is also noted for coining the
term 'Copasetic' (although the Jewish people claim this term
was around way before Bojangles.) He was famous for his anecdotes
he would make while tapping and his version of the stair dance
routine, altho he claimed to have invented it, it was being done
by a few other dance stars long before him, namely King
Rastus Brown. Robinson also was mentor to a few dancers of
the day such as Derby Wilson and Bill
Bailey. Although a very successful dancer who could make $6,500
a week dancing the Keith circuit he was not yet a star, Robinson
would not achieve New York fame until he was in his 50's and would
come in the style of a bird, Blackbirds that is.
In 1928, three weeks after
his show opened on Broadway, Lew Leslie needed some new talent
for his Blackbirds Stage show. Leslie hired Robinson as an "Extra
Attraction" and was assigned the 11pm late night spot. Robinson
sang "Doin' the New Low Down" while he did his "Stair
Dance Routine" and was an immediate success with the weekly
gross for the show going from $9,000 to $27,00. Critics all hailed
Robinson's dancing with one stating Robinson dancing as "Music
of raindrops on a tin roof." With all this attention now
coming Robinson heard the call and left for Hollywood in 1932.
Shirley Temple came his way and in 1935, costarred with and coached
her in "The Little Rebel" which was a huge success.
Robinson would continue to make over 17 Movies in all.
On April 29th. 1946, to celebrate
his 60th year in show business, he was presented a plaque for
his contribution to show business and that same day it was proclaimed
"Bill Robinson Day" by Mayor O'Dwyer. Robinson was often
hailed the "Mayor of New York" (honorary.) Today,
Bojangles birthday is honored as "National Tap Dance Day."
Robinson was said to have had
very little education, had a nasty demeanor (there were times
of kindness and generosity,) confrontational, quarrelsome, drank
and gambled heavily and so on, but his dancing was extraordinary,
especially his Tap dance scenes with little Shirley
Temple were very endearing and legendary which is the way
most people lovingly think of him today. Robinson was also an
honorary member of the Police force in more than one big city.
He had a gun permit and always carried a gold plated pistol. Robinson
loved to play pool and liked it quiet when he made certain shots,
at that time he would pull out his pistol, lay it on the edge
of the pool table and take his shot, as the other patrons would
become very quiet.
Robinson appeared at the Cotton
Club in Harlem and headlined many times with Cab
Calloway. The 1932 movie titled 'Harlem is Heaven' was supposedly
Robinson's true life story. Fred
Astaire paid tribute to Bojangles by dancing a 'Bojangles
routine' in the movie 'Swingtime'. Bojangles changed the way Tap
dance would be done, Altho he did not create new steps, it was
the way he did them that made the difference, he was up on the
toes rather than flat foot buck and wing style of others and was
upright and swinging.