Mr. Bojangles: The Biography of Bill Robinson

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Over sixty years after his death, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson is still the most famous tap dancer who ever lived. Robinson was the first black single dancer to star in white vaudeville circuits and he was a headliner for nearly thirty years. He got top billing at the Palace in New York, and he played command performances for kings and presidents.

This first full-length biography reveals the charmer, gambler, brawler, athlete, and consummate entertainer behind the crusade for ...

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Overview

Over sixty years after his death, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson is still the most famous tap dancer who ever lived. Robinson was the first black single dancer to star in white vaudeville circuits and he was a headliner for nearly thirty years. He got top billing at the Palace in New York, and he played command performances for kings and presidents.

This first full-length biography reveals the charmer, gambler, brawler, athlete, and consummate entertainer behind the crusade for actors' rights, who pushed past the color barrier in the first half of the twentieth century. Haskins and Mitgang, with access to many of the people who knew Bojangles best, and to his scrapbooks and personal papers, have created a vivid portrait of the man behind the myth, from his birth in Richmond, Virginia, to his death and the star-studded funeral where he was eulogized by Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and Ed Sullivan.

When people talk about famous American freedom fighters they talk about Rosa Parks, a brave woman who took a seat in the front of a bus and broke it down. They talk about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They talk about Jackie Robinson. They talk about many others who sacrificed to achieve equality and justice.

The person they don't talk about is the man who helped to break down vaudeville, Broadway, the recording industry, radio, television, and Hollywood. They don't talk about the man who broke down Miami and was responsible for its first integrated audience. They don't talk about the man who was responsible for the hiring of the first African-American on the Dallas police force. They don't talk about the man who went to F.D.R. during World War II for changes for African-American soldiers who were risking their lives for their country. They don't talk about the freedom fighter, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, who happened to be the world's greatest tap dancer of his day.

Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., one of Harlem's greatest leaders and freedom fighters, and Pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, helped to answer that question when he eulogized "Bojangles" in 1949. Rev. Powell said:

Born within the shadow of slavery and dying at the middle of the twentieth century, the most glorious century of mankind, Bill Robinson was a legend.
He was a legend because he was ageless and raceless.
Bill wasn't a credit to his race, meaning the Negro race. Bill was a credit to the human race.
No Protestant ever appeared at more benefits for Catholics than Bill Robinson. No gentile ever appeared at more benefits for Jews than Bill Robinson.
He was raceless.
He was not a great Negro dancer. He was the world's greatest dancer.
In some way the legend got around that Bill Robinson was an 'Uncle Tom.'
Oh, no!
You didn't know Bill if you heard of that story!

So, let's ask the question again. Why don't people think of Bill Robinson as an American hero and front-line freedom fighter? They one word answer is simple - racism. Not the racism of white against black, but the racism of black against black. The people he fought for the most turned their backs on Bill Robinson and let the cancer of racism enter his legacy.

"Bojangles " was the Mayor of Harlem and a founding member of the Rainbow Coalition long before the term was coined. Bill Robinson fought for respect with every weapon he had - his charming smile, his humor, his dancing feet, his fists, or his gold plated pearl handled gun given to him by the New York City Police Department.

During a time when too few African-American voices shouted for justice, Bill Robinson's whispers were heard by presidents, governors, kings, queens, and countless others. Bill "Bojangles" Robinson was a man who fought dignity for himself, and others.

Bill "Bojangles" Robinson stood up to fight for what was right from the onset of his sixty-year career. He demanded justice and equality as a performer, and as a man. He stood up then, and never sat down.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
An elegantly dressed man who could neither read nor write until he was in his 40s, honorary mayor of Harlem and one of the best-known black entertainers of his time, Bill Robinson (1878-1949) grew up an orphan in Richmond, Va., where he earned a living by shining shoes and shelling peas. Based on Robinson's papers and on interviews with his wives and friends, this dutiful biography tries to explain the character and personality of the popular but enigmatic tap dancer but is more successful at chronicling his career. Here are glimpses of his struggles to overcome the color barrier on his way to stardom in white vaudeville, musicals (especially The Hot Mikado), films and radio, his addiction to gambling and compulsive need to live on borrowed money, his generosity (he performed at more than 3000 benefits) and his love for his native city. Haskins is the author of Queen of the Blues; Mitgang is a black-theater historian. Photos not seen by PW. (May)
Library Journal
To most people, Bill Robinson was Shirley Temple's tap-dancing partner in films of the 1930s. Yet he also was one of the country's foremost and best-loved vaudeville headliners. The authors tell of Robinson's life from his early days as an orphan in Richmond, dancing on street corners, through his illustrious career. They deal squarely with Robinson's gambling and three marriages, and succeed splendidly in detailing the hardships faced by a black performer in a white entertainment world, but at times the writing is choppy and too adulatory. Photographs not seen. Recommended. Eric W. Johnson, Univ. of Bridgeport Lib., Ct.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780688072032
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 5/1/1988
  • Edition description: 1st ed
  • Pages: 320

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