Jerry Jeff Walker, the outlaw country singer and songwriter best known for penning ‘Mr. Bojangles’, has died at the age of 78. He passed away on Friday, October 23 following a long battle with throat cancer. “He was at home until an hour before his passing,” his wife of 46 years, Susan Walker, told the Austin American-Statesman. “He went very peacefully, which we were extremely grateful for.”
Walker was born Ronald Clyde Crosby in Oneonta, New York. He played guitar in a few local bands growing up before going on to pursue a full-time music career after graduating high school in 1960. While travelling across America, he was inspired by the folk music scene of Greenwich Village in the mid-’60s and co-founded a band with Bob Bruno called Circus Maximus, which put out two albums. His 1968 song ‘Mr. Bojangles’, which was inspired by a character he met during a night in a New Orleans drunk tank, became his first and most popular hit, and was later covered by many artists including Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr., and others.
In the 1970s, Walker settled in Austin, Texas and became associated with the outlaw country scene that also featured artists such as Willi Nelson and Townes Van Zandt. ”I’m a Texan,” the singer-songwriter later told The New York Times. ”Some of me is still nestled up there in the Catskill Mountains; the summers I spent with my grandfather on the farm, and the guys I played basketball with in high school. But then that was it. High school ended, and Ron Crosby ended and Jerry Jeff began. Texas is where I found my musical self.”
In 1974, Walker married Susan Streit. Following a series of records for MCA and Elektra, including the beloved 1973 live album Viva Terlingua and 1975’s Ridin’ High, he founded his own independent music label, Tried & True Music, in 1986, with his wife as president and manager. He released a total of 36 albums during his 51-year recording career; his final album, 2018’s It’s About Time, was his first in almost a decade.
“I’ve been putting them in there one at a time, choosing my way as good as I can,” Walker said in a 2018 interview with the Statesman, reflecting on his musical output over the years. “And they fit me. So when it’s all done, and that goes away, I’m still me.”