Jerry Jeff Walker: More Than ‘Mr. Bojangles’

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Texas’ Jerry Jeff Walker wasn’t originally from the Lone Star State, nor was he originally Jerry Jeff Walker. Born and raised in upstate New York as Ronald Clyde Crosby, he reinvented himself by the early 1970s as an Austin-based proponent of the burgeoning outlaw country genre. The name and geographical change notwithstanding, Walker—who passed away on October 23 about a month before the release of a new anthology of his early work—was the real deal. A key influence on numerous other musicians, he issued dozens of albums in his half-century recording career.

The new anthology, Mr. Bojangles: The Atco/Elektra Years, packages five of the most noteworthy ones. It includes Mr. Bojangles (1968), whose title track, Walker’s most famous song, has been covered by everyone from Nilsson to Bob Dylan and provided a major hit for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

Also here: Five Years Gone (1969), which features a live-on-the-radio version of “Mr. Bojangles”; Bein’ Free (1970), which is highlighted by Walker’s tale of a character called “Stoney”; Jerry Jeff (1978), which includes covers of songs by such fellow outlaw country artists as Rodney Crowell, Guy Clark and Keith Sykes; and Too Old to Change (1979), which incorporates such numbers as “I’ll Be Your San Antone Rose,” by Clark’s wife Susanna, Paul Siebel’s “Then Came the Children,” and Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee.”

As these albums demonstrate, there was much more to Walker than “Mr. Bojangles.” He was a first-rate songwriter, capable of sweet, evocative folk tunes that limn memorably iconoclastic characters; and he could also churn out raucous country like Bein’ Free’s “Where Is the DAR When You Really Need Them?” as well as lilting, upbeat numbers like Mr. Bojangles’ “Gypsy Songman.”

And his vocals fit the material to a tee. Witness, for example, his aforementioned cover of “Me and Bobby McGee.” This song has been well recorded by many artists, but none of them do a better job than Walker of making you conjure up a singer who is “busted flat in Baton Rouge.”

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