Jerry Jeff Walker, the songwriter and performer who long embodied Texas music, died Friday (October 23) of lung cancer. He was 78. In addition to writing and recording the modern classic “Mr. Bojangles,” Walker is often celebrated for his 1973 landmark album, ¡Viva Terlingua!, which captured the spirit of a live concert in a Texas dance hall.
Walker never landed a Top 40 country hit, though he charted multiple times with his MCA singles in the 1970s, as well as several more times in the 1980s on the Tried & True label, which he co-founded with his wife, Susan.
“Mr. Bojangles” was inspired by someone Walker met in a New Orleans jail, an encounter he recalled in his 1999 memoir, Gypsy Songman. Among the many renditions of the classic song, the most familiar may be from Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Sammy Davis Jr.
Walker was born as Ronald Clyde Crosby in Oneanta, New York, on March 16, 1942, and settled in Austin, Texas, in 1971. He released dozens of albums, starting with early LPs on the Vanguard and ATCO labels, then later Elektra/Asylum.
Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel told the Austin American-Statesman, “Other than Willie, Jerry Jeff is the most important musician to happen to Austin, Texas, I would have to say. He really brought that folksinger/songwriter form to its height in Texas. And for that, he’ll be eternal, because there’s all these kids today that write songs in that mode.”
Benson added, “But also, a la Willie, he wrote really giant hit songs. ‘Mr. Bojangles’ is a standard. His other songs are wonderful, but to write a standard, that’s something that’s very difficult in today’s day and age to do.”