Jerry Jeff Walker aka The Gypsy Songman is the songwriter behind the classic song “Mr. Bojangles” who died on October 23 at the age of 78. Walker is survived by his wife and manager, Susan, and children, Jesse Jane and Django. Walker’s cause of death has not been made public. In 2017, Walker battled throat cancer. Walker’s death was confirmed in a tweet from fellow country singer Kix Brooks.
Walker wrote his most famous song in 1969. It would later become a hit for Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Neil Diamond, John Denver and Sammy Davis Jr. Walker told Lone Star Music Magazine in 2012 that his favorite cover of the song was by Nina Simone.
Walker was born Ronald Clyde Crosby in Oneonta, New York, in March 1942. He formed his first band, The Tones, while he was a student at Oneonta High School. Walker spent most of his early years performing in the Greenwich Village folk music scene of the 1960s. Eventually, he settled in the Hill County area close to Austin, Texas.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Walker Said the Advice He Gave His Singer-Songwriter Son Was ‘Write a Good Song’
Walker’s son, Django, is the lead singer of the Django Walker Band in Texas. He was named after Belgian guitarist Django Reinhardt. In a January 2009 interview with Texas Highways, Walker spoke about the one piece of advice he gave his son about the music business saying:
Write a good song. Writing a good song is the foundation of a lot to keep you going. Guy Clark’s advice to young people was “Don’t stand too long on one foot.” But we all did, which gave us back problems.
According to Django Walker’s Facebook page, he is a graduate of Stephen Austin High School in Sugar Land, Texas, and now lives in Nashville, Tennessee.
2. ‘Mr. Bojangles’ Is Based on a ‘Down-and-Out Dancer’ He Met in a Jail Cell in New Orleans in 1965
Walker told Lone Star Music Magazine in 2012 that he wrote “Mr. Bojangles” after he was jailed in New Orleans for public intoxication in July 1065. Walker said while in jail he “met a down-and-out street dancer who poured out his hardscrabble tale.” That man became the inspiration for “Mr. Bojangles.” In later years, Walker confirmed that “Mr. Bojangles” was a white man as jails in New Orleans were segregated along racial lines in 1965.
Walker credited the song’s exposure to WBAI-FM disc jockey Bob Fass, who played the song repeatedly, the singer told The New York Times in 2001. Jeff Hanna of the Nitty Gritty Band told The Tennessean that the manner in which the song came to their band was described by Walker as “the folk process.”
3. Walker’s Wife Susan Formerly Worked for Fames Democratic Congressman Charlie Wilson
Walker married his wife Susan Streit in 1974. At the time, Streit worked in politics, in particular for Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson. Wilson later became the subject of the book and movie, Charlie Wilson’s War.
Streit spoke about her career in politics in an interview at Stephen F. Austin University. In the interview, Streit said that she graduated from the University of Texas in Austin in 1970. Streit said that she went on to become her husband’s manager in 1984.
Streit told The San Antonio Express-News in a 2018 interview that she met Walker while hosting a party at her home in Austin. Streit said that Walker repeatedly turned off her records, including The Rollings Stones’ “Let it Bleed.” Walker replaced the songs with country records. Walker told Streit that he received the records from his label and he needed to know how they sounded on different turntables. Walker said there were sparks “but not the good ones,” Susan answered, to much laughter. “I was trying to shoo him away, ‘Leave my stuff alone.’”
4. Walker Said His Throat Cancer Battle Began With a ‘Real Bad Sore Throat’
In 2018, Walker told the Austin Chronicle that in the previous year, he got “a real bad sore throat and the rest is history.” The Chronicle report noted that as soon his treatment was done, Walker was eager to begin performing again.
Walker spoke about his treatment in a 2018 interview with the Austin Statesman:
At one point I had chemo, radiation and pneumonia, and a blood infection — all at the same time. That’s where I became touch and go. As we were at the bottom, Susan said somewhere in there, ‘Do you want to fight? You want to fight for this?’ They said I was going like this. Like I was weighing the decision. I guess I chose life. Because here I am.
5. Walker Was a Friend of Gonzo Writer Hunter S. Thompson
According to a 2018 feature in Rolling Stone, Walker got the name for his backing band, The Lost Gonzo Band, from his “friend” Hunter S. Thompson. Walker told Lone Star Magazine in 2012 that he had a “Gonzo spirit.” Walker added that he and Thompson felt ““Gonzo” means taking an unknown thing to an unknown place for a known purpose.”
Walker made a similar comment to the Aspen Times in 2013 saying, “Gonzo meant taking an unknown thing to an unknown place for a known purpose. nd that was what we were doing with the band. You go and do something, you get back, and then you reflect on it and write a song. That’s kind of what Hunter did with his writing. He never did the story he was sent to do; he did the story that came out.” Walker also said that the pair often hung out at Thompson’s Woody Creek farm.