Robinson, Bill (I) Biography

biography of Robinson, Bill (I)

Luther Robinson
25 May 1878, Richmond, Virginia, USA
25 November 1949, New York, USA (heart disease)
'Bill Robinson (I)' (qv) quit school at age seven and began work as a professional dancer the following year. Bojangles (the name referred to his happy-go-lucky ebullience) starred in vaudeville, musical stage and movies. He invented the stair tap routine and was considered one of the world's greatest tap dancers. His film debut was in _Dixiana (1930)_ (qv). He worked in fifteen movies, but his movie fame came primarily from the films he made with 'Shirley Temple' (qv) -- _The Little Colonel (1935)_ (qv), _The Littlest Rebel (1935)_ (qv), and _Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938)_ (qv). In 1989 the US Congress named his birth date as National Tap Dancing Day.
Ed Stephan

According to one jazz dance source, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson was the chief instigator for getting tap dance "up on its toes." Early forms of tap, including the familiar "buck and wing", contained a flat-footed style, while Robinson performed on the balls of his feet with a shuffle-tap style that allowed him more improvisation. It obviously got him noticed and it certainly made him a legend. Born Luther Robinson in Richmond, Virginia, on May 25, 1878, he was orphaned in infancy and reared by a grandmother. He took his brother Bill's name for his own once he went professional. His brother, in turn, took the name Percy and later became a renowned drummer. Hoofing in beer gardens at age 6, Bojangles joined traveling companies and vaudeville tours in his teens and slowly built up a successful reputation in nightclubs and musical comedies. He headlined with 'Cab Calloway' (qv) many times at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem. 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. Both black and white audiences were taken by his style and finesse and, following the demise of vaudeville, he easily transferred his talents to Broadway. Lew Leslie, a white producer, put together "Blackbirds of 1928," an all-black revue that would prominently feature Bill and other black musical talents. From there it was films for the now old-timer. In the 1930s various studios usurped his patented talent in their old-fashioned Depression-era musicals. Times being what they were, he was typically cast as a butler or servant. Nevertheless, he enjoyed immense popularity, especially when partnered with reigning #1 box office moppet 'Shirley Temple' (qv). Bojangles would be featured in four of Shirley's sentimental vehicles: _The Little Colonel (1935)_ (qv) (in which he recreated his "stair dance" with her), _The Littlest Rebel (1935)_ (qv), _Just Around the Corner (1938)_ (qv) and _Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938)_ (qv). In addition, he assisted in the choreography on one of her other films, _Dimples (1936)_ (qv). For the most part Bill was a specialty player, but every once in a while he got into the thick of things, playing 'Lena Horne' (qv)'s love interest in _One Mile from Heaven (1937)_ (qv) for instance. Still tapping his heart out as a 60-year-old, Bojangles returned to the stage in "The Hot Mikado" which was a tuneful jazz reworking of Gilbert and Sullivan's classic operetta. Suffering from a chronic heart condition, he slowed down in the mid-'40s and died in New York City in 1949.
Gary Brumburgh /

-   'Fannie S. Clay' (27 January 1922 - 1943) (divorced)

-   'Lena Chase' (1907 - 1922) (divorced)

-   'Elaine Plaines' (27 January 1944 - 25 November 1949) (his death)

-   Used wooden taps on his shoes

-   The world's preeminent tap dancer of his day, he is remembered for his appearances as trouper with the moppet 'Shirley Temple' (qv) in four of her 1930s films.

-   He took his brother's name (William); his real name was Luther.

-   During World War I, Robinson was the drum major of the 369th Infantry Regiment, the so-called "Harlem Hellfighters."

-   Appeared in 4 movies with 'Shirley Temple' (qv): _The Little Colonel (1935)_ (qv), _The Littlest Rebel (1935)_ (qv), _Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938)_ (qv) , and _Just Around the Corner (1938)_ (qv).

-   A native of Richmond, Virginia, Robinson once paid to have a traffic light installed at the corner of Adams and West Leigh Streets, so that the local children could cross the street safely on their way to school. In appreciation, the City of Richmond presented him with an engraved key to the City. Today, a statue of Robinson stands at the corner of Adams and West Leigh Streets.

-   At one point in his career he made $6,500 a week in vaudeville billed as the "World's Greatest Tap Dancer" and headlined New York's Palace Theater, which was the top vaudeville house at the time.

-   Founding member of the Negro Actors Guild of America (NAGA).

-   One of the first blacks to act on Broadway, he also appeared in the first all-black motion picture called _Harlem Is Heaven (1932)_ (qv) in which he played a mayor.

-   Grandson of a slave.

-   'Fred Astaire' (qv) paid homage to him in the movie _Swing Time (1936)_ (qv) by dancing one of his routines in a song called "Bojangles of Harlem" in black-face.

-   The 1932 all-black movie titled _Harlem Is Heaven (1932)_ (qv) was supposedly based on Robinson's life.

-   Often credited white dancer 'James Barton (I)' (qv) as an influence in his dancing style.

-   A one-time honorary mayor of Harlem and mascot of the New York Giants baseball team.

-   His manager from 1908 until his death was Marty Forkins who eventually had him working in nightclubs for up to $3500 per week.

-   His father was a machine-shop worker and mother a choir singer/director. Both died while he was an infant.

-   Married three times. Second wife, Fanny Clay, was his business manager. Third wife, Elaine Plaines, was a dancer.

-   Once set a world's record in the backwards 75-yard dash (in 8.2 seconds).

-   He was very dedicated to the people of Harlem and often donated his time and money to the people, in an era when it was much needed. The people of Harlem showed their appreciation, to someone they saw as a great gentleman, when they lined the streets in their thousands on the day of his funeral. Having lived a generous and fun-loving lifestyle he died almost penniless and his funeral was paid for by a collection of his celebrity colleagues (including 'Frank Sinatra' (qv)).

-   Though it borrowed his name, 'Jerry Jeff Walker' (qv)'s 1968 song "Mr. Bojangles" (covered by many other artists, including 'Sammy Davis Jr. (I)' (qv) in 1972) was about a fantasy character who had little in common with Robinson. Robinson did not drink, was never a down-and-outer and was always a fastidious dresser. His dancing style was always close to the ground, never "leap . . . and lightly touch down.".

-   Was the best man at the first wedding of 'Leroy 'Satchel' Paige' (qv). .

-   Widely credited with coining the adjective "copasetic," or at the very least popularizing the term.

-   Inducted into the International Tap Dance Hall of Fame in 2002 (inaugural class).

-   Portrayed by 'Gregory Hines (I)' (qv) in _Bojangles (2001) (TV)_ (qv).

-   In 1982, a pair of his tap shoes were on display in the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institute.

-   He died penniless. 'Ed Sullivan (I)' (qv) quietly paid for his funeral because he thought he deserved a dignified burial.

-   On Brunswick #6134, 7705, 01168 he performs "Keep a Song in Your Soul" and "Just a Crazy Song (Hi-Hi-Hi), accompanied by a studio orchestra. Recorded 27 May 1931.

-   On Brunswick #6520, 01521 he performs "Doin' the New Low Down", accompanied by 'Don Redman' (qv) and His Orchestra. Recorded 29 December 1932.

-   Several recordings were made of his tap dancing with various orchestras. Brunswick #4345, 7706, 01112, recorded 11th November 1929, captured him doing "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "Doin' the New Low Down". The label credits 'Irving Mills' (qv)' Hotsy-Totsy Gang as the accompanying orchestra, but there is reason to believe that he was actually accompanied by the 'Duke Ellington Orchestra' (qv). These sides have been re-issued as part of the "Early Ellington" CD collection, MCA Records #GRD-3-640 (Legendary Masters of Jazz series).

-   Danced two numbers -- a solo and a duet -- for Café Metropole (1937). The scenes were not included in the film, but they are included in "deleted scenes" on Disc One of a 2008 Fox DVD collection, "Tyrone Power Matinee Idol."

-   Blackbirds of 1928 (1928). Musical revue. Music by 'Jimmy McHugh' (qv). Lyrics by 'Dorothy Fields' (qv). Directed by Lew Leslie. Liberty Theatre: 9 May 1928= Apr 1929 (closing date unknown/518 performances). Cast: Baby Banks, George Cooper, Billie Cortez, Adelaide Hall, Marjorie Hubbard, Crawford Jackson, Ruth Johnson, Harry Lucas, Blue McAllister, Willard McLean, Lloyd Mitchell, Tim Moore, 'Mantan Moreland' (qv), Philip Patterson, 'Bill Robinson (I)' (qv), Mamie Savoy, Earl Tucker, Eloise Uggams, Aida Ward, Elizabeth Welch. Produced by Lew Leslie.

-   Active on Broadway in the following productions:

-   James Haskins. _Mr. Bojangles: the biography of Bill Robinson._ New York: William Morrow, 1988. ISBN 0688072038

-   James Haskins. _Mr. Bojangles : the biography of Bill Robinson._ New York: Welcome Rain Publishers, 2000, c1988. ISBN 1566491134

-   Leo Dillon. _Rap a tap tap._ New York: Blue Sky Press, 2002. ISBN 0590478834

-   What success I achieved in the theater is due to the fact that I have always worked just as hard when there were ten people in the house as when there were thousands. Just as hard in Springfield, Illinois, as on Broadway.

-   _Bojangles (2001) (TV)_ (qv)

-   _"Biography" (1987) {Bill Robinson: Mr. Bojangles}_ (qv)

-   _Child Star: The Shirley Temple Story (2001) (TV)_ (qv)

-   _Have You Got Any Castles? (1938)_ (qv)

-   _Bojangles (2001) (TV)_ (qv)

-   _You're an Education (1938)_ (qv)

-   _Clean Pastures (1937)_ (qv)

-   "Classic Images" (USA), July 1990, Iss. 181, pg. 45; 182, by: Zan Turner, "The Tap Dancing King--'Bo Jangles'"

-   "Variety" (USA), 30 November 1949, "Bill Robinson"

-   "New York Times" (USA), 26 November 1949, pg. 1:2, 10;3, "Bill (Bojangles) Robinson Dies; 'King of the Tap Dancers' Was 71"

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  1. Dimples (1936) (dances directed by)