Texas music legend Jerry Jeff Walker died on Friday, Oct. 23 following a three-year battle with throat cancer.
Walker, 78, is best known for writing the classic story song “Mr. Bojangles.” He was one of the founding figures of the Austin, Texas “outlaw” country scene, a top showman and the host of the TNN television series The Texas Connection.
He was born Ronald Clyde Crosby in Oneonta, New York, in 1942 and performed in a number of local teen combos in the 1950s. After going AWOL from the National Guard, he became a folk troubadour, traveling to Florida, Louisiana and Texas.
In 1965, he was arrested for public intoxication in New Orleans and spent the night in a drunk tank with an itinerant street performer named “Bojangles.” While performing in Washington, D.C. the following year, the musician changed his name to Jerry Jeff Walker.
Relocating to New York City, he formed the house band at the Electric Circus nightclub. Dubbed Circus Maximus, the band recorded two albums for Vanguard Records in 1966-67.
After the band’s demise, Walker resumed working in the Greenwich Village folk scene. He fashioned a song based on Bojangles and used it as the title tune of his 1968 solo debut LP. Walker introduced “Mr. Bojangles” at the Newport Folk Festival, and the song became a minor pop chart entry for him that summer. In 1970, the song became the first top-10 hit of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. That version is now in the Grammy Hall of Fame.
“Mr. Bojangles” has gone on to become one of the most recorded titles in the BMI repertoire. Among its hundreds of versions are those by Harry Belafonte, Nina Simone, John Denver, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, Frankie Laine, Johnny Paycheck, Bobbie Gentry, Tom T. Hall, Harry Nilsson, Sammi Smith, Nancy Wilson and Walker’s Newport Folk Festival cohort David Bromberg. It was a key feature of Sammy Davis Jr.’s nightclub act for decades.
Jerry Jeff Walker took Jimmy Buffett to Key West in 1970. They co-wrote “Railroad Lady,” which later became a Lefty Frizzell country single. Buffett remained in Florida.
In 1971, Walker moved to Austin. He and his Lost Gonzo Band became mainstays of the movement variously described as “alternative country,” “outlaw country” and “progressive country.” Their freewheeling, rollicking shows became wildly popular.
Jerry Jeff Walker became a songwriting connoisseur. He popularized such Texas classics as Ray Wiley Hubbard’s “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother,” Billy Joe Shaver’s “Old Five and Dimers Like Me,” Guy Clark’s “L.A. Freeway” and “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” Jesse Winchester’s “Mississippi You’re on My Mind,” Willie Nelson’s “Pick Up the Tempo,” Gary P. Nunn’s “London Homesick Blues (Home with the Armadillo),” Michael Martin Murphy’s “Backsliders Wine” and Rusty Weir’s “Don’t It Make You Wanna Dance.”
Following three LPs for Atco, he signed with MCA Records in 1972. Viva Terlingua was issued the following year. Regarded as a classic, the album earned a Gold record and became his biggest seller. He issued 10 other collections on MCA before forming his own Tried and True imprint in 1986.
Following in the footsteps of Nashville’s John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker became a model of do-it-yourself career success. He maintained a fan base of 50,000, communicating via regular newsletters, annual record releases and enthusiastic tours.
His partner in the business was his wife. Walker had married Susan Streit in 1974 and given up his hard-partying vices in 1978. She became his manager and booking agent. Merchandise, tour promotion and publicity were also handled in-house.
Live at Gruene Hall (1989), Navajo Rug (1990), Hill Country Rain (1992), Cowboy Boots & Bathin’ Suits (1998) and many more releases polished his reputation as a record maker. Walker also continued to write, with “Sangria Wine,” “Gettin’ By,” “Gypsy Songman,” “Hairy Ass Hillbillies,” “Pissin’ in the Wind,” “Hill Country Rain” and “Leavin’ Texas” becoming particular audience favorites. He also wrote a tribute to an enduring baseball legend, “Nolan Ryan.”
In 1991, he began hosting the series The Texas Connection on TNN. The show continued for a second season in 1992.
Walker presided at annual fan-club gatherings coinciding with his birthday in March and Labor Day in September. In 1999, he published his autobiography, Gypsy Songman: A Life in Music.
By then, Jerry Jeff Walker had become a musical inspiration for a generation of younger troubadours such as Nanci Griffith, Townes Van Zandt, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, Robert Earl Keen, Todd Snider and Jack Ingram. During his career, he released more than 40 albums, including live recordings and compilations.
He was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2017. Walker donated his career’s archive to Texas State University. His final album appeared in 2018.
Jerry Jeff Walker is survived by wife Susan, daughter Jessie Jane McCarty, son Django Walker, two grandchildren and a sister. Funeral arrangements have not been announced.
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