“It’s about a guy I met in a jail cell in New Orleans. We were both in the drunk tank over a long weekend. He told stories, and to me he was the ‘eyes of age.’ I never saw him again.” From such inauspicious roots came Jerry Jeff Walker’s unlikely but enduring standard “Mr. Bojangles.” The song gave the title to the singer-songwriter’s 1968 Atco Records debut which has just been reissued by Raven Records as a three-for-one edition also containing his two Atco follow-ups, Five Years Gone and Bein’ Free. This new release continues Raven’s series of Walker reissues.
The former Ronald Crosby entered Atlantic’s New York studios with a couple of albums behind him as one-half of the folk-rock/jazz duo Circus Maximus. For the album that would become Mr. Bojangles, the artist also pursued a hybrid sound. He was joined by folkie multi-instrumentalist David Bromberg on lead guitar and additional players including future jazz legend Ron Carter on acoustic bass, Gary Illingworth on piano/organ, Donny Brooks on harp, Danny Milhon on dobro, Jody Stecher on fiddle/mandolin, Bobby Cranshaw on electric and acoustic bass, Jerry Jemmott on electric bass, and Liza Minnelli’s future musical director Bill LaVorgna on drums. Tom Dowd, multi-track recording pioneer and accomplished producer and engineer, helmed the album and brought his R&B background. In the end, Walker once recalled, “it came as close to being a country record as I could have done in New York in 1968.” Alongside country-flavored cuts like “I Keep Changin’,” the album also addressed styles including bluegrass (“I Makes Money (Money Don’t Make Me)” and folk-rock (“Round and Round,” “The Ballad of the Hulk”).
The ballad “Mr. Bojangles,” a touching portrait of a downtrodden song-and-dance man in his twilight years, was complemented on the LP by “My Old Man” and “Gypsy Songman,” which both touched on complementary themes. Atco cut a unique single version of “Bojangles” at Memphis’ Sun Studios with Walker backed by a different band, but neither the single nor the album version ensured the song its long life. “Mr. Bojangles” had its day in the sun when The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band took it to the Top 10 in 1971; it later became a signature song for Sammy Davis, Jr. and has been covered by everybody from Bob Dylan to Nina Simone. Raven has included the single version and its B-side, the Memphis recording of “Round and Round,” on this new set as bonus tracks.
After the jump, we have more details, the full track listing with discography, and order links!
In 1969, Jerry Jeff Walker followed Mr. Bojangles with Five Years Gone. Eschewing New York or Memphis, he recorded the LP in Nashville with a “Who’s Who” of session men from the city, some of whom had also backed Bob Dylan on his Tennessee pilgrimage. And so Walker was joined by a band including Kenneth Buttrey on drums, Charlie McCoy on vibes/organ, Mac Gayden on guitar, Weldon Myrick on steel guiar, Henry Strezlecki on bass, Pete Wade on dobro and guitar, “Nashville” David Briggs and Hargus “Pig” Robbins on piano and the returning Bromberg. Elliot Mazer, soon to work with Neil Young in Nashville on Harvest, produced. Despite its Nashville pedigree, Five Years had a lightly psychedelic, contemporary singer-songwriter feel with a strong folk-rock influence. The album also included a reprise of “Mr. Bojangles” in its original version which Walker described as “drunken.” The story goes that, after Walker and Bromberg played it during a November 1967 all-night radio show on New York’s WBAI, the station was inundated with requests and Walker had no choice but to include it on his debut album.
Bein’ Free, from 1970, wrapped up Walker’s Atco tenure. Tom Dowd was back as producer, this time recording at his home base of Criteria Studios in Miami with Mike Utley (organ/electric piano/tack piano), Jim Dickinson (piano/tack piano/dobro), Charlie Freeman (guitars), Tommy McClure (electric bass), Sammy Creason (drums), Don Brooks (harmonica) and future Bee Gees collaborator Albhy Galuten (electric piano). Walker continued to hone his individualistic style, employing humor on his socially conscious, observational songs. This time, the sound was a bit more rooted in the blues, but the album wouldn’t have been out of place classified as folk or country, either. It set the stage for his move to Texas and switch to MCA Records, where he remained for more than a decade save a brief sojourn to Elektra in 1978-1979. Walker placed a number of hits on the Billboard Country Singles chart between 1975 and 1989, and today is still a mainstay on the Texas music scene.
Raven’s three-for-one release reprints the original liner notes from the three LPs but does not contain any new commentary. The disc has been remastered by Warren Barnett. As all three of these original albums are long out-of-print on CD, this set is a particularly welcome addition to the label’s Jerry Jeff Walker series. Mr. Bojangles/Five Years Gone/Bein’ Free is available now at the links below!
- Gypsy Songman
- Mr. Bojangles
- Little Bird
- I Makes Money (Money Don’t Make Me)
- Round and Round
- I Keep Changin’
- Maybe Mexico
- Broken Toys
- The Ballad of the Hulk
- My Old Man
- Help Me Now
- Blues in Your Mind
- Seasons Change
- About Her Eyes
- Janet Says
- Dead Men Got No Dreams
- Tracks Run Through the City
- Happiness is a Good Place to Visit But It Was So Sad in Fayetteville
- Courage of Love
- A Letter Sung to Friends
- Mr. Bojangles
- Born to Sing a Dancin’ Song
- I’m Gonna Tell on You
- Where is the D.A.R. When You Really Need Them?
- A Secret
- Some Go Home
- But for the Time
- Vince Triple-O Martin
- Harmonica Talk
- Please Let Me Be
- More Often Than Not
- Mr. Bojangles (Mono Single Version)
- Round and Round (Mono Single Version)
CD 1, Tracks 1-10 from Mr. Bojangles, Atco LP SD 33-259, 1968
CD 1, Tracks 11-16 & CD 2, Tracks 1-6 from Five Years Gone, Atco LP SD 33-297, 1969
CD 2, Tracks 7-17 from Bein’ Free, Atco LP SD 33-336, 1970
CD 2, Tracks 18-19 from Atco single 6594, 1968