Pop Culture, Music, The Beatles

Paul is Dead. The rumor revisited. Part I

Part one sgt peppers lonely hearts club band

Original publish date:  June 8, 2015

Reissue date:  April 18, 2019

It has been over half a century since one of the most famous hoaxes in Rock-N-Roll history began. On Wednesday November 9, 1966 at 5 am, Paul McCartney, while working on the album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, stormed out of the studio during a recording session after an argument with the other members of the group. He jumped into his Austin-Healey and sped off down the road, lost control of his sportscar and crashed into a telephone pole. Paul McCartney was dead. Well, that was the rumor anyway.
Although teen-agers and music fans all over Britain began to panic upon circulation of the shocking rumor, Paul’s bandmates and the band’s management quickly discovered that there was absolutely no truth to it at all. As the Beatles’ Press Officer Derek Taylor found out when he telephoned Paul’s St. John’s Wood home and the voice responding on the other end of the line was Paul himself. Paul calmly explained that he had been at home all day and his black Mini Cooper (NOT an Austin Healey) was safely locked up in his garage. The Beatles management addressed the rumor in the February 1967 issue # 43 of “The Beatles Monthly Book” (the Beatles’ official fan club magazine) with a short blurb that appeared in the “Beatle News” section, entitled “FALSE RUMOUR”. Far from calming nervous Beatles fans, this only intensified the ferocity of the “Paul is Dead” rumor.z Mc 1966 1
Suddenly, the “Paul is dead” urban legend spread throughout the world. Now, not only was Paul dead, he had been secretly replaced in the band by a look-alike. The rumor could not have come at a worse time for the band. To say the Beatles were going through a rough patch would be an understatement. After releasing “Revolver” in August 1966, the band quickly grew tired of touring. They were frustrated with not being able to hear themselves onstage, due to the incessant shrieks and screams of their female fans at shows. The band had been touring and recording in the studio non-stop for nearly 2 years. They were growing tired of life on the road and not being able to play the songs they liked, to say nothing about debuting new material on stage.
z original_101During that last tour, the airplane they were traveling in was shot at as they landed in Texas, and a prankster threw a firecracker at the stage during their Memphis show which everyone thought at first was a gunshot. The Beatles were burnt out and the band had had enough. The band’s attitude and message became darker and soon, concerts became dangerous as the Beatles’ started to receive death threats after some comments made by John Lennon at a press conference that year. John’s quote “the Beatles are bigger than Jesus” was taken out of context and according to John Lennon, “upset the very Christian KKK”. In the Philippines they unintentionally offended Imelda Marcos, a former beauty queen, by not meeting with her privately before their show. Filipino citizens took this as an excuse to rob, harass and threaten death to the Beatles. They stopped touring soon after the show at Candlestick Park in San Francisco on August 29, 1966. Less than six months later, the McCartney death rumor had reached a fever pitch worldwide and just like Paul himself, it refused to die.

z Making The Cover for Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1)
John Lennon & Ringo Starr at the cover shoot.

Okay Baby Boomers, go dust off your “Sgt. Pepper’s” album for the rest of this article. For it is that cover and the songs found on it that fueled the mania. Released on June 1, 1967, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was rife with “Paul is dead” clues. Turns out, it was Paul’s idea that the Beatles immerse themselves in a new identity for the album’s release. The original idea behind the album cover was to show the Beatles assuming a new identity while laying to rest their earlier “Fab Four” image. The wax images of the younger Beatles look mournfully on the gravesite because the Beatles were no longer the same band. The “Paul is dead” crowd interpreted the cover as representing a funeral for Paul. z sgt_pepper_cover_promo_cropped_4jpg
Looking at the modern, psychedelic Beatles posed on the cover, one notices that, while three of the Beatles are standing at an angle, Paul is facing the camera as if his body was being propped up by his bandmates standing at his sides like a scene out of “Weekend at Bernie’s”. John, George & Ringo are holding shiny gold band instruments, but Paul’s cor anglaise woodwind instrument is black. A disembodied hand appears above Paul’s head, as though he is being blessed by a priest before being interred.
Across the gravesite is a bass guitar oriented the way that left-hander McCartney would have played it. The strings of the bass are made of sticks but there are only three sticks rather than four, representing the three Beatles without Paul. Some rumorists claimed that the yellow hyacinth flowers spell out the name “PAUL?” or that when the album is turned sideways, the flowers form the letter “P”.z untitled3
Another rumor claimed that if you held the album cover up to a mirror, the words “LONELY HEARTS” written across the front of the bass drum reflect back as “IONEIX HE<>DIE”. When arranged as “I ONE IX HE <> DIE,” this image suggests the date (11-9, or November 9, 1966) that Paul died and the diamond between the words “HE” and “DIE” points directly at Paul. Another interpretation suggests this could also be read as “1 ONE 1 X”, meaning that one of the four is gone, and then the “HE DIE” along with the ever present diamond / arrow pointing to Paul as the missing Beatle.

z RSDOLL1
Shirley Temple Doll.

The Shirley Temple doll at the right of the picture wears a sweater that reads “WELCOME THE ROLLING STONES”. Hinting that the Rolling Stones were involved in the conspiracy. After all, without the Beatles the Rolling Stones would have been the undisputed leading rock and roll band. A model of an Aston-Martin, the type of car that Paul was supposedly driving at the time of his fatal accident, is leaning against the doll’s leg. The interior of the car is red, symbolizing Paul’s bloody accident. Also, the doll rests on the lap of a cloth draped figure (which is creepy all by itself) that is wearing a blood stained driving glove.
The Japanese stone figure at the feet of the wax images of the younger Beatles has a line on its head, rumored to represent the head wound that Paul sustained in the fatal accident. The four-armed Indian doll at the front of the picture is Shiva, symbol of both destruction and creation. Two of the doll’s arms are raised, one pointing at the wax image of the younger Paul and the other pointing at Paul himself. The television set on the ground to the right of the Beatles is turned off, suggesting that the news of the tragedy had been suppressed.
The “Paul is Dead” controversy is not the only thing that the Sgt. Pepper’s album cover is known for. It was one of the first to feature a center gatefold sleeve and it was also the first album to have the song lyrics printed on the cover. Of course, a bi-fold album had never been seen before so rumors began that it was made this way to resemble a prayer book or funeral program. Naturally, clues were found within the folds of the album as well.
inside LPOn the inside photo, Paul is wearing a patch on his band uniform with the letters “O.P.D.” that theorists interpreted as “Officially Pronounced Dead.” According to tradition, this British Police jargon “O.P.D.” phrase is the equivalent of American police forces use of “D.O.A.” (Dead On Arrival). (Much later, in a Life magazine article Paul stated, “It is all bloody stupid. I picked up the O.P.D. badge in Canada. It was a police badge. Perhaps it means Ontario Police Department or something.” Actually, the badge Paul was wearing reads “O.P.P.”, which stands for the Ontario Provincial Police. The angle of the photograph makes the final “P” look like a “D”.)
On the original album the song lyrics are printed on the back cover over a picture of the Beatles. Unlike the rest of the Beatles, Paul has his back turned to the camera which, by its very appearance, further fueled rumors that he was dead. z sgt-pepper-the-beatles-back-cover-620Furthermore, the three black buttons on the waist above the tail of Paul’s coat are supposed to represent the mourning of the remaining Beatles. Although John, Paul and George were all about the same height (Ringo, much shorter), in the gatefold photo, Paul appears taller than the other Beatles, suggesting that he is ascending to the heavens. Another clue points out that next to Paul’s head are the words “WITHOUT YOU” from the song title “Within You Without You”.
Also, George appears to be pointing at the words “Wednesday morning at five o’clock as the day begins”, which was supposed to have been the time of Paul’s fatal accident. In reality, George deliberately positioned his hand in this way not to point to the printed lyrics, but to make the letter “L”, the first letter in the word “LOVE”. His fellow Beatles appear to be spelling out the word “LOVE” with their hands as well. John’s hands are arranged in a “V” shape, and Ringo’s clasped hands form an “E”. The “O” is missing as Paul’s hands are not visible.
The lyrics themselves added to Paul’s death legend and to his replacement by a look-alike. The title song introduces Billy Shears (Paul’s alleged replacement) in “With a Little Help from My Friends”. Insiders hint that Paul’s rumored replacement, a man named William Campbell Shears, was still working on perfecting his singing voice. This theory was again referred to in the same song with the line: “Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song/And I’ll try not to sing out of key”.

z 150422235054-paul-mccartney-car-1100x619
Paul and his 1966 Aston Martin DB6.

Several other “Sgt. Peppers” songs purportedly make reference to Paul’s tragic accident. “Good Morning, Good Morning” opens with the line “Nothing to do to save his life call his wife in.” One version of Paul’s fatal accident story was that he had picked up a female hitch-hiker named Rita and she became so excited when she realized she was in a car with Paul McCartney that she threw herself on him, thereby causing the wreck. As told in the song “Lovely Rita,” “I took her home/I nearly made it”.
In “A Day in the Life” John sings “He blew his mind out in a car/He hadn’t noticed that the lights had changed/A crowd of people stood and stared/They’d seen his face before/Nobody was really sure if he was from the House of Lords”. This last lyric was, at the time, perhaps the most convincing argument that Paul McCartney was dead. Years later, John Lennon revealed that the inspiration for the spooky song lyrics was the death of Tara Browne, the 21-year-old heir to the Guinness fortune and close friend of Lennon and McCartney, who had crashed his Lotus Elan on December 18, 1966 in Redcliffe Gardens, Earls Court. Producer George Martin however, believes that the entire song, including this morose verse, is a drug reference and that Lennon was imagining a stoned politician who had stopped at a set of traffic lights.
z DRUMahiVAAAaazzRegardless, the album did nothing to quell the rumor that “Paul was Dead.” The Beatles, who were by this time totally fed up with dealing with the press, did little to dissuade the discussion of demise. Some pundits have speculated over the years that the entire affair was a ploy by the Beatles’ and their management designed to sell more albums. Which makes sense when you consider that the McCartney death rumor would continue to swirl around future album releases by the Fab Four in the coming years.
What cannot be denied about “Sgt. Pepper” was its impact on music history. The album regularly appears at the top of most music critic’s lists of “Greatest albums of all time.” The influence obviously extended beyond the music itself, as our short analysis of the cover art suggests, by changing the way the jackets containing the music told a story of its own. In pop-culture, the heavy moustaches worn by all of the Beatles band members swiftly became a hallmark of hippie style. The brightly colored parodies of military uniforms worn by the band on the cover have been, at least in part, attributed by cultural historians as fueling the anti-authoritarian and anti-establishment movement of the hippy era.

z brianepstein_2403025b
John Lennon, Brian Epstein & Paul McCartney

Nearly 3 months after Sgt. Pepper’s release, an incident occurred that further fueled the death rumor, changed the Beatles forever, and drove them further into seclusion. In August 1967, the band was informed of the death of the man responsible in large part for their success; manager Brian Epstein. The coroner ruled Epstein’s death an accidental overdose, but it was widely rumored that a suicide note had been discovered among his possessions. Epstein worried that the band might not renew his management contract, due to expire in October. Epstein’s death left the group confused and fearful about the future and did nothing to extinguish the rumors of Paul McCartney’s death. In fact, Brian Epstein’s death just added fuel to the fire.

 

Hollywood

Bill “Bojangles’ Robinson & Me. Part II

Bill Robinson Part II

Original publish date: November 13, 2014

Republished: November 22, 2018

Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was the most famous of all African American tap dancers of the twentieth century. No wait, he was, race notwithstanding, the most famous tap-dancer of all time. Robinson used his popularity to challenge and overcome numerous racial barriers, becoming one of the first minstrel and vaudeville performers to appear without the use of blackface makeup (Yes, African American performers were required to perform in Blackface up until World War I). One of the earliest African American performers to go solo.The first African American to appear in a Hollywood film in an interracial dance team (with Temple in The Little Colonel) and the first African American to headline a mixed-race Broadway production.
Offstage Robinson was the first Hollywood Civil Rights activist by using his fame to persuade the Dallas police department to hire its first African American policemen. He staged the first integrated public event in Miami, a fundraiser which, with the permission of the mayor, was attended by both black and white city residents. He also used his star power to lobby President Franklin D. Roosevelt for more equitable treatment of African American soldiers during World War II. Orphaned at a young age and raised by a grandmother who was a former slave, Bill Robinson was born to make a difference.
485154.TIFIn the early 1920s, Robinson took his career on the road as a solo vaudeville act, touring throughout the country. He frequently visited Indianapolis, where he performed multiple shows per night, often on two different stages, at the B.F.Keith theatre. Robinson worked 51 weeks per year, taking a week off every season for the World Series. Bojangles was an avid baseball fan and co-founder of the New York Black Yankees of the old Negro National League in 1936.
Toward the end of the vaudeville era, Robinson joined other black performers on Broadway in “Blackbirds of 1928”, an all- black revue for white audiences. After 1930, black revues waned in popularity, but Robinson remained popular with white audiences for more than a decade starring in fourteen motion pictures produced by such companies as RKO, 20th Century Fox, and Paramount Pictures. Most of them had musical settings, in which he played old-fashioned roles in nostalgic romances. Robinson appeared opposite Will Rogers in In Old Kentucky (1935), the last movie Rogers made prior to his death in an airplane crash. Robinson and Rogers were good friends, and after Rogers’ death, Robinson refused to fly, instead travelling by train to Hollywood for his film work.
He was cast as a specialty performer in a standalone scene. This practice, customary at the time, permitted Southern theaters to remove scenes containing black performers from their showings of the film. Times being what they were, his most frequent role was that of an antebellum butler or servant opposite reigning #1 box office moppet Shirley Temple in films: The Little Colonel (1935), The Littlest Rebel (1935), Just Around the Corner (1938) and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938). In addition, he assisted in the choreography on one of her other films, Dimples (1936). Robinson and Temple became the first interracial dance partners in Hollywood history and lifelong friends. The dance scenes, controversial for their time, were cut out in the south along with all other scenes showing Temple and Robinson making physical contact. By 1937 Robinson was earning $6,600 a week for his films, a strikingly high sum for a black entertainer in Hollywood at the time.
z ASTAIRE-1-popupAt the 1939 New York World’s Fair, he returned to the stage in “The Hot Mikado”, a jazz version of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta which quickly became one of the greatest hits of the fair. Consequently, August 25, 1939 was named ‘’Bill Robinson Day’’ at the World’s Fair. By the 1940s, although he continued to perform, Robinson was past his prime and showing symptoms of heart disease. Robinson’s final film appearance is considered by critics as his best when he starred in the 1943 Fox musical Stormy Weather alongside Lena Horne.
From 1936 until his death in 1949, Robinson made numerous radio and occasional television appearances. It was during these appearances that Robinson introduced and popularized a word of his own invention, copacetic, meaning tip-top, which he had used for years in his vaudeville shows. It was added to Webster’s Dictionary dictionary in 1934. During the 1930-40s, Robinson was appointed as the honorary Mayor of Harlem, a lifetime member of countless policemen’s associations and fraternal orders, and a mascot of the New York Giants major league baseball team.
Onstage, Robinson’s open face, twinkling eyes and infectious smile were irresistible and his tapping was delicate and clear. Robinson had no doubts that he was the best at what he did, a self-confidence that some mistook for arrogance. Bojangles felt that he had more than paid his dues and sometimes brooded that, because he was black, he had to wait until he was in sixties before he could enjoy the fame and fortune given to less talented white dancers. Rivals and wags pointed to Robinson’s lack of education as the reason for his nasty demeanor and pegged Bill as confrontational, quarrelsome, and as a heavy drinker and gambler. But they could not deny that his dancing was extraordinary.
On March 21, 1908, as a result of a dispute with a tailor over a suit, Robinson was arrested in New York City for armed robbery. After being released on bail, Robinson failed to take the charges and impending trial seriously. He paid little attention to mounting a defense. On September 30, Bojangles was shocked when he was convicted and sentenced to 11–15 years hard labor in New York’s Sing Sing prison. Robinson’s influential friends hired a new attorney who produced evidence that Robinson had been falsely accused. Though he was exonerated at his second trial and his accusers indicted for perjury, the trial and time spent in the Tombs (Manhattan’s prison complex) affected Robinson deeply. After he was released, he never again traveled unarmed and made a point of registering his pistol at the local police station of each town where he performed. Robinson’s wife, Fanny, always sent a letter of introduction with complimentary tickets and other gifts to the local police chief’s wife in each town ahead of her husband’s engagements.z robinson2-800x0-c-default
Robinson loved to play pool and insisted on silence when he attempted certain shots. At these times when the game was on the line, he would pull out his pistol, lay it on the edge of the pool table and take his shot, as the stunned patrons fell silent. African-American newspapers often derided Robinson as the quintessential Uncle Tom because of his cheerful and shameless subservience to whites on film. But in real life Robinson was the sort of man who, when refused service at all-white restaurants, would lay his gold-plated pearl-handled revolver on the counter and demand to be served.
Despite these adverse incidents that appear to reveal more about the times than the man, in fact, Robinson was a remarkably generous man. His participation in benefits is legendary and it is estimated that he gave away well over one million dollars in loans and charities during his lifetime. Despite his massive workload, he never refused to appear at a benefit for those artists who were less successful or ailing. It has been estimated that in one year he appeared in a staggering 400 benefits. Often on two different stages in the same city on the same night. Despite earning and spending a fortune, his memories of surviving the streets as a child never left him, prompting many acts of generosity.
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson held the world record for running backward. He learned this skill while a young vaudevillian and used the trick to generate publicity in cities where he wasn’t the headliner. He called them “freak sprinting” races and would challenge all comers, including Olympic Champion Jesse Owens. He never lost in his lifetime. Later, the duo became such good friends that Owens made a gift to Robinson of one of his four Olympic gold medals. In 1922, Robinson set the world record for running backward (100 yards in 13.5 seconds). The record stood until 1977, when it was beaten by two-tenths of a second.
After a series of heart attacks, doctors advised him to quit performing in 1948. Robinson maintained that though he had trouble walking, talking, sleeping and breathing, when he danced he felt wonderful. Robinson’s final public appearance was as a surprise guest on Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour TV show. He died a few weeks later on November 25, 1949. Despite earning more than $ 3 million during his lifetime, Robinson died penniless at the age of 71 from heart failure at Columbia Presbyterian Center in New York City . His funeral was arranged and paid for by longtime friend and television host Ed Sullivan.
z bill-bojangles-robinson-s-funeral_u-l-p43gkr0Robinson’s casket lay in state in Harlem, where an estimated 32,000 people filed past to pay their last respects. The schools in Harlem were closed for a half-day so that children could attend or listen to the funeral, which was broadcast over the radio. Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. conducted the service at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, and New York Mayor William O’Dwyer gave the eulogy. Newspapers estimated that one hundred thousand people turned out to witness the passing of his funeral procession. Robinson is buried in the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn. In 1989, a joint U.S. Senate/House resolution declared “National Tap Dance Day” to be May 25, the anniversary of Bill Robinson’s birth.
Bill Robinson was successful despite the obstacle of racism. My favorite Robinson story finds Bojangles seated in a restaurant as a rude customer loudly object to his presence. When the manager suggested that it might be better if Robinson left, Bill smiled and asked, “Have you got a ten dollar bill?” As the manager lays his bill on the counter, Robinson removes six $10 bills from his own wallet and adds them to the manager’s banknote. After mixing all of the bills together, Robinson says, “Here, let’s see you pick out the colored one”. The restaurant manager served Robinson without further delay.
So there you have it, a 2-part story of a true American hero. Now you know why I was so happy to find that suitcase of Big Band memorabilia containing items associated with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. I’ve already told you about most of the contents in that suitcase. But there is one item that shines above all others. Well, to me at least.
It is a page out of an old fashioned scrapbook. On that page is a small photo of Deke Moffitt with his friend Bojangles. Moffitt is holding his son up and the trio are clowning with a toy pop-gun. The typewritten caption under the photo reads: “I think this was the last snap-shot ever taken of Bill Robinson. It was taken on July 13, 1949.” Of course, there is no real way to prove that claim, but it is certainly intriguing. Under the photo, also attached to the page is a small hand drawn self caricature titled “Bill” with an autograph above it reading “Best Wishes Bill Robinson”. The sketch was drawn by Bill “Bojangles” Robinson himself and it speaks to the innocence and purity of the image Mr. Robinson projected on screen all those years ago.z bj st 2

Hollywood

Bill “Bojangles’ Robinson & Me. Part I

Bill Robinson Part I

Original publish date: November 6, 2014

Republished: November 15, 2018

This past fall, I drove to a place called White’s Farm in Brookville,Indiana, not far from Cincinnati. Every Wednesday you’ll find over 100 flea market and antique dealers set-up in the hills and dales of an area once riddled with the remnants of Ancient Native American Indian Burial Mounds. “Brookville” is one of those shows that starts “flashlight early” with most dealers arriving around 3:00 a.m. and packed up and gone by 10:00 a.m. It was one of those “dew you can chew” kind of mornings replete with tiny droplets of water hanging so thick in the air that it seemed like you could catch them on your tongue like snowflakes.
While walking up a hillside my flashlight caught hold of a pile of old paper and photographs and I instinctively froze. After all, I’m a paper and photo guy and damp cool mornings are the bane of my flea market existence. Even from 15 feet away, I recognized a familiar face smiling out from the crowd. It was a hero from my past. It was Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
z bj stIf you’re old enough to remember Black and White TV, the original Sammy Terry TV show, Timothy Church-mouse or Cowboy Bob and Janie, then you should remember Bill Robinson. If you’re over the age of 40, you can remember a time before cable TV. A time when television stations actually went off the air at night and didn’t come back on until farm shows or cartoons popped up the next morning. Back then, it was a badge of honor to say you made it up to watch the flag wave to the rhythm of the National Anthem.
After the weekend cartoon shows were over and before the sports programming began, well, that was the time for America’s sweetheart: Shirley Temple. And right there next to that darling little dancer, matching her step-for-step, was Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. And here, right here in the soggy farm fields of Brookville,Indiana, was a 5×7 World War II Era photo autographed by Bojangles himself! I sheepishly asked the vendor what the story was on the group of photographs and he replied, “Oh those all belonged to a famous Big Band leader from Cincinnati and those are all gangsters from Newport (Kentucky).”
I held up the Robinson photo in particular and the seller stated, “Oh he (the band leader) was great friends with Bill Robinson.” I asked the dealer what he wanted for the photo and he said he was trying to sell the whole collection as one lot. He then added, “I have a whole suitcase of this stuff in my truck.” Oh really? Of course I asked to see the suitcase and sure enough, it was crammed full of wonderful things. I negotiated a price, more than I expected to pay, but less than the value of my childhood memories. In instances like this, you lead with your heart, dig for your wallet and hope your wife will understand.
z 68735-004-9F4018D8For the sake of full disclosure, I must admit that I once owned a photo signed by Bill Robinson. Bojangles signed it for an Indiana Mayor whose name now escapes me. I sold it to a collector in the late 1980s for $ 100. But I rationalized the sale of the relic because the photo literally looked like it had been dipped in water and $ 100 might as well have been $ 1,000 to me and my young bride. By finding this photo on a dew soaked Southern Indian hillside, I felt the pendulum had swung back my way.
I took the suitcase home and eagerly, but carefully, began to disassemble the contents. As my fellow collectors will attest, it doesn’t get much better than this. Suitcases full of unpicked goodies fill the slumber-time dreams of every collector, regardless of the subject one desires to collect. This suitcase did not disappoint.
Turns out that this grouping represented the personal memorabilia of 1930-40s Era Queen City Big Band Leader, musician and composer “Deke” Moffitt (1906-1976). During his career, Moffitt performed with Red Skelton, Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, Perry Como, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Martha Raye, Betty Grable and the Three Stooges. After his touring career was over, Deke became music director for a Cincinnati theatre and later a high school music teacher.

z Publicity Photo
Big Band Leader Deke Moffitt

Among the collection were contracts, sheet music and records of songs Deke had composed and letters / correspondence from Deke’s years on the road, many from famous musicians. There was even a photo of Deke clowning around outside of what looked like a theatre backstage door with the Three Stooges (Larry, Moe & Shemp). But what caught my interest were the few items from Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Along with the photo I mentioned previously, there was a handwritten note to Deke and a telegram from Bill. I’ll tell you what else was in there later on in the article.
First, I want to try and explain why Bill “Bojangles” Robinson matters to me and more importantly, why he should matter to you. The predominate reason for my admiration is simple: I can’t dance. For the same reason I guffaw at the Three Stooges, giggle at Groucho Marx and crack up at the Little Rascals, I can’t help but stop and gaze in wonder whenever I see the masters dance. Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Gregory Hines, John Travolta: they all stand on the shoulders of Bill Robinson. Except none of the above were burdened with the constraints of Jim Crow America.
z bojangles1Friends say there were three certainties about Bill Robinson: he loved to eat vanilla ice cream, gamble with dice or cards, and dancing was his life. At the time of his divorce his wife Fannie accused him of being a danceaholic-a man willing to sacrifice everything to dance. While his personal life was full of contradictions, his peers and historians agree he was one of the greatest American dancers of all time.
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was born Luther Robinson in Richmond, Virginia, on May 25, 1878. He claimed he did not like the name Luther, so he traded names with his younger brother Bill. Apparently his little brother didn’t like the name either so he changed his name to “Percy” and later became famous on his own as a dancer and musician. Although orphaned and reared by a grandmother who had been a slave, Bill Robinson would become the best known and highest paid African American entertainer in the first half of the twentieth century. Robinson began hoofing in beer gardens at age 6 and quit school the next year to begin work as a professional dancer. His career started in minstrel shows then moved to vaudeville, Broadway, the recording industry, Hollywood movies, radio, and television. He died 65 years ago this week on November 25, 1949.
The name “Bojangles” mirrors it’s enigmatic namesake. Some say the name referred to his happy-go-lucky ebullience while others claim the name refers to Bill’s fiery, argumentative disposition. Today, the word Bojangles refers to to a style of percussive, rhythmic tap-dance originated by African Americans. The word is southern in origin and means “mischief maker.” The nickname was appropriate for Robinson, whose popularity transcended his race, despite a personal life chronicled by newspapers and magazines as a series of misadventures and court appearances.
While Robinson didn’t invent tap dancing, he was the artist chiefly responsible for getting tap dance “up on its toes” by dancing upright and swinging. Before Robinson tap was most often a stoop shouldered, flat-footed shuffle style, sometimes known as “sand dancing'”. Robinson performed on the balls of his feet with a shuffle-tap style that allowed more improvisation. This new style got him noticed and eventually made him a legend. Bojangles’ unique sound came from using wooden taps and his direct claim to fame would be the creation of his famous “stair dance,” which involved tapping up and down a flight of stairs both backwards and forwards. A style he unsuccessfully attempted to patent.
z bojangles0001Following the demise of vaudeville, Broadway beckoned with “Blackbirds of 1928,” an all-black revue that would prominently feature Bill and other black musical talents. Soon, he was headlining with Cab Calloway at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem. Robinson is also credited with having introduced a new word, copacetic, into popular culture, via his repeated use of it in vaudeville and radio appearances. Robinson was a true pioneer in his field with many “firsts” to his credit.
A popular figure in both the black and white entertainment worlds of his era, he is best remembered today for his dancing with Shirley Temple in a series of films during the 1930s. Although a trailblazer and acknowledged pioneer, Robinson battled inner demons that belied his demeanor as a happy and easygoing character on the big screen. On one hand, he had to deal with discrimination and racial injustice by whites and on the other hand, he was labeled as the quintessential “Uncle Tom” by his own people. Decades of dealing with this untenable double standard turned Bojangles into a split personality capable of unwavering loyalty and kindness to some while turning him into an angry man, frustrated by his second-class treatment in society who was known to flash a gun to others. Measured by today’s standards and celebrity shenanigans, Robinson’s behavior would be considered tame.
Next week, I’ll continue the story of this man and tell you what else I found in that suitcase.