BILL ROBINSON   Bill Robinson

Born in Richmond, Virginia on May 25, 1878, to Maxwell Robinson, a machine-shop worker , and Maria Robinson, a choir singer, Bill Robinson was brought up by his grandmother after the death of his parents when he was still a baby. He was christened Luther, a name he did not like, so he suggested to his younger brother Bill that they should exchange names. When Bill objected, Luther applied his fists, and the exchange was made! (The new 'Luther' later adopted the name Percy and became a well-known drummer.) The details of Robinson's early life are known only through legend, much of it perpetuated by Bill Robinson himself.

At the age of six he began dancing for a living, appearing as a "hoofer," or song-and-dance man, in local beer gardens. Two years later, in Washington, DC he toured with Mayme Remington's troupe. In 1891, at the ripe age of 12, he joined a traveling company in "The South Before the War", and in 1905 worked with George Cooper as a vaudeville team. He gained great success as a nightclub and musical comedy performer, and during the next 25 years became one of the toasts of Broadway. Not until he was fifty did he dance for white audiences, having devoted his early career exclusively to appearances on the black theater circuit.

In 1908 in Chicago he met Marty Forkins, who became his lifelong manager. Under Forkins' tutelage Robinson matured and began working as a solo act in nightclubs, increasing his earnings to an estimated $3500 per week. The publicity that gradually came to surround him included the creation of his famous "stair dance" (which he claimed to have invented on the spur of the moment when he was receiving some honor--he could never remember exactly what-- from the King of England. The King was standing at the top of a flight of stairs, and Bojangles' feet just danced up to be honored), his successful gambling exploits, his prodigious charity, his ability to run backward (he set a world's record of 8.2 seconds for the 75-yard backward dash!) and to consume ice-cream by the quart, his argot--most notably the neologism "copasetic"--and such stunts as dancing down Broadway in 1939 from Columbus Circle to 44th St. in celebration of his 61st birthday.

Bill Robinson

Because his public image became preeminent, little is known of his first marriage to Fannie S. Clay in Chicago shortly after World War I, his divorce in 1943, or his marriage to Elaine Plaines on January 27, 1944, in Columbus, Ohio.

Bill Robinson

Toward the end of the vaudeville era a white impresario, Lew Leslie, produced "Blackbirds of 1928," a black revue for white audiences featuring Robinson and other black stars. From then on his public role was that of a dapper, smiling, plaid-suited ambassador to the white world, maintaining a tenuous connection with the black show-business circles through his continuing patronage of the Hoofer's Club, an entertainer's haven in Harlem. Consequently, blacks and whites developed differing opinions of him. To whites, for example, his nickname "Bojangles" meant happy-go-lucky, while the black variety artist Tom Flatcher claimed it was slang for "squabbler." Political figures and celebrities appointed him an honorary mayor of Harlem, a lifetime member of policemen's associations and fraternal orders, and a mascot of the New York Giants baseball team. Robinson reciprocated with open handed generosity and frequently credited the white dancer James Barton for his contribution to Robinson's dancing style.

Bill Robinson Movie
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Bill Robinson

After 1930 black revues waned in popularity, but Robinson remained in vogue with white audiences for more than a decade in some fourteen motion pictures produced by such companies as RKO, 20th Century Fox and Paramount. Most of them had musical settings, in which he played old-fashioned roles in nostalgic romances. His most frequent role was that of an antebellum butler opposite Shirley Temple or Will Rogers in such films as "The Littlest Colonel," "The Littlest Rebel" and "In Old Kentucky" (all released in 1935.) Rarely did he depart from the stereotype imposed by Hollywood writers. In a small vignette in"Hooray For Love (1935) he played a mayor of Harlem modeled after his own ceremonial honors; in "One Mile From Heaven" (1937), he played a romantic lead opposite the singer Lena Horne after Hollywood had relaxed its taboo against such roles for blacks. Audiences enjoyed his style, which eschewed the frenetic manner of the jitterbug. In contrast, Robinson always remained cool and reserved, rarely using his upper body and depending on his busy, inventive feet and his expressive face. he appeared in one film for black audiences, Harlem Is Heaven (1931), a financial failure that turned him away from independent production.

Bill Robinson

In 1939 he returned to the stage in "The Hot Mikado", a jazz version of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta produced at the 1939-1940 New York World's Fair, and was one of the greatest hits of the fair. His next performance, in "All in Fun" (1940) failed to attract audiences. His last theatrical project was to have been "Two Gentlemen From The South" with James Barton, in which the black and white roles reverse and eventually come together as equals, but the show did not open. Thereafter he confined himself to occasional performances, but he could still dance in his late sixties almost as well as he ever could, to the continual astonishment of his millions of admirers. He explained this extraordinary versatility--he once danced for more than an hour before a dancing class without repeating a step--by insisting that his feet responded directly to the music, his head having nothing to do with it.

Bill Robinson

Robinson died of a chronic heart condition at Columbia Presbyterian Center in New York City in 1949. His body lay in state at an armory in Harlem; schools were closed, thousands lined the streets waiting for a glimpse of his bier, and he was eulogized by politicians, black and white--perhaps more lavishly than any other African American of his time. "To his own people", wrote Marshall and Jean Stearns, "Robinson became a modern John Henry, who instead of driving steel, laid down iron taps." He was buried in the cemetery of the Evergreens in New York City.

According to Stearns' Jazz Dance, Robinson was responsible for getting tap dance "up on its toes." Early tap was mostly 'buck and wing' a flat footed dance style. Robinson did his dancing on the balls of the feet. (The next innovation came from John Bubbles who introduced the 'cramp roll'--ball(R), ball(L), heel(R), heel(L) quickly. This separation of the different parts--and sounds--of the foot and Bubbles' timing changes became a valuable tool for improvisation.)

Bojangles was also known for vigorously protecting his steps. One didn't dare try one of his steps within his view although, many couldn't wait to try steps they had seen him do at the Hoofer's club. Also, his name 'Bojangles' (defined above as 'happy-go-lucky' or 'squabbler') was listed in another source as being a vulgarization of the name of a Frenchman known in Robinson's hometown. It seems the man had a beaver skin hat which he lost. A similar hat soon appeared on the head of Robinson and he was chided for it.

Robinson had a major acting and dancing appearance in Stormy Weather (1943)" with Lena Horne & Fats Waller. After his death in 1949, top veteran tappers formed a performing group called "The Copasetics" to keep his steps alive.

[ The previous biographical article is from the International Tap Association Newsletter May/Jun 1993. The biographical material was extrapolated from "The American Dictionary of Biography" and "Webster's American Biographies." ]