Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (1878-1949)

Image Ownership: Public Domain

Bill Robinson was born in Richmond, Virginia on May 25, 1878 to Maxwell and Maria Robinson.  Due to the death of both of his parents when he was an infant, Bill and his younger brother Percy were brought up by his grandmother.  As a young child, Bill was given the nickname of “Bojangles” although Robinson himself was unsure of the origin of the name.

At the young age of six, Robinson began dancing for a living in local beer gardens as a “hoofer,” or song and dance man.  By the time he was twelve, Robinson joined a traveling company and was entertaining audiences far from home.   By 1905, he performed on stage in vaudeville shows featuring numbers by dancers, singers, comedians, and actors.  Throughout his vaudeville experience, Robinson became a top dancer in the vaudeville circuit while inventing a new way to tap, transforming it from a flat-footed dance to a style that pushed the performer to his toes.  Robinson was noted for his “cool” style, rarely using his upper body and depending on his feet and his expressive face.  In 1908 in Chicago, Robinson met Marty Forkins, who became his lifelong manager. Under Forkins, Robinson began working as a solo act in nightclubs, increasing his earnings to an estimated $3,500 per week.  Despite Robinson’s great success, his opportunities were still limited to black venues because of racism.

In 1928 when Robinson was 50 he appeared before his first white audiences when Lew Leslie produced Blackbirds, an all-black revue.  As the star performer, Robinson soon captivated white audiences.  During the next decade he performed in fourteen motion pictures for RKO, 20th Century Fox and Paramount.  His most frequent role was that of an old antebellum butler opposite Shirley Temple in such films as The Little Colonel (1935), The Littlest Rebel (1935), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938) and Just Around the Corner (1938).

After his run with motion pictures, Robinson returned to the stage in 1939 at the age of 61 to perform in The Hot Mikado, a jazz rendition of the Gilbert and Sullivan Operetta performend at the New York World’s Fair. To celebrate that 61st birthday, Robins danced down Broadway from Columbus Circle to 44th Street.  He continued to perform well into his sixties before he died of a chronic heart condition in 1949.  Performers and fans of dance still pay tribute to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, a man of professional genius and personal generosity.  In 1989 a joint U.S. Senate/ House resolution declared “National Tap Dance Day” to be May 25th, the anniversary of Bill Robinson’s birth.