Bill "Bojangles" Robinson is Born

Legendary jazz tap dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson was born on May 25, 1878, in Richmond, Virginia.

His given name was Luther, but he despised it and appropriated that of his younger brother, William. An extraordinary performer and synthesizer of the tap tradition, Robinson is also credited with one major innovation in this American art form: transforming its flat footwork into dancing up on the toes, which gave tap "a hitherto-unknown lightness and presence."* Many steps Robinson perfected with his trademark clarity, precision, and elegance, including the famous "stair dance," remain part of the tap repertoire today.

Orphaned in early childhood and unwanted by his grandmother, a survivor of slavery and strict Baptist who forbade dancing, Robinson nevertheless began dancing and singing as a young child for nickels and dimes on Richmond street-corners. He ran away to Washington, D.C., and spent some years dancing in local beer-gardens and surviving on odd jobs before breaking into the relatively new theatrical genre called "vaudeville," which showcased dancers, singers, comedians, and actors in a series of short performances. By the early decades of the twentieth century, Robinson was earning top dollar on the vaudeville circuit and in nightclubs as one of the very few black dancers who was permitted to perform as a soloist. In 1928 he burst onto Broadway with sensational success in the all-black revue Blackbirds of 1928. Other Broadway triumphs followed.

Robinson was born in Richmond, Virginia to Maxwell, a machine-shop worker, and Maria Robinson, a choir singer. He was raised by his grandmother after both parents died when he was an infant—his father from chronic heart disease, and his mother from natural causes. Details of Robinson's early life are known only through legend, much of it perpetuated by Bill Robinson himself. He claims he was christened "Luther"—a name he did not like. He suggested to his younger brother Bill that they should exchange names. When Bill objected, Luther applied his fists, and the exchange was made. Some of his favorite foods were corn bread and chicken.

He does not sing, or even swing, with his voice but with his feet. Never has shoe leather beaten out such a variety of intricate patterns. Never … has one note been made to sing and soar, to whisper and to laugh, in such astonishingly complex rhythm.

— A Critic for Theatre Arts