This is the third in the blog series Singing as Storytelling. There are many big name singers doing cover versions of the classic hits. It’s easy money, because the songs are already well known favourites, and the singers already have a fan base who are prepared to buy whatever the singer records, and attend whatever concert the singer puts on. But, sadly, audiences are getting used to singing that neglects the power of the lyric, that, in fact, seems to suggest almost ignorance of what it means to use psychological insight and dramatic integrity to deliver a story or character in a lyric.
‘Mr Bojangles’ was written and recorded by the country music artist Jerry Jeff Walker in 1968. He said that, while in jail overnight for being drunk, he had met and learned the life story of a homeless alcoholic who called himself Mr Bojangles, after the famous American tap dancer and actor Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson (1878-1949). Robinson had been the “best known and most highly paid African American entertainer in the first half of the twentieth century”, performing with Shirley Temple in a number of movies. The entertainer (and member of the famous ‘Rat Pack’) Sammy Davis Jr. (1925-1990) said that Robinson was an important mentor for him, so it is fitting that, although the content of the song ‘Mr Bojangles’ bears no relation to the life of Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, Davis became closely associated with the song; he came to include it in all his performances. His performance shown here in this blog entry is a masterclass in how to tell a story through song.
The song form is verse-verse-chorus-verse-verse-chorus. The music material repeats a lot, but the listener barely notices this, because Davis manages to inhabit the story completely. Notice how he seems to be finding the words as he goes, just as we do when we tell someone about something that we have experienced. It is very natural, and real. Davis effortlessly creates two characters, Mr Bojangles, and the narrator who was in jail with him, and is now fondly remembering him. We feel exactly what each of the two characters feel. How does Davis achieve this? Well, I believe he is seeing the place where the two characters met, he empathises and becomes each character as the story unfolds; he sees and feels the situations through their eyes, ears and hearts. The song does not feel ‘planned’ or ‘rehearsed’. Notice how Davis experiences the memory first; then his body moves in a way that shows what he is thinking, feeling and remembering; and only once that has happened does he deliver the word, or the line. Experience and ‘inner life’ precede movement; and movement precedes the sung (or spoken) word. This is a masterclass in singing as storytelling, and is one of my all time favourite performances of any song.
Robbie Williams attempted to resurrect the spirit of Sammy Davis Jr. in his 2013 album ‘Swings Both Ways’. In his vocal styling and phrasing, it is clear he tries to mimic Davis. But that is a fatal error. The imitation is unconvincing, and it is obvious that Williams fails to come even close to ‘living’ the song. The humanity, warmth, and fragility of Davis’ rendition is entirely lacking in Williams’ performance. Like the Bublé presentation of ‘Cry Me A River’ (see earlier blog entry), it is a ‘look at me’ performance. In my view, that shows a lack of respect for the song and its writer, and it sells the song short. Williams does not appear to have done the inner psychological work as a performer to make this song real and true.
I do believe that Williams genuinely likes the material, and admired Davis, but his delivery is superficial in comparison to his idol’s. John Denver (1943-97) included the song in his concerts. It is an attractive musical arrangement with some enjoyable guitar playing. But … there is no storytelling in the voice. To be fair, there is a tenderness in the performance, because that was part of Denver’s ‘signature’ in his singing, and that redeems the performance in a way. But Denver clearly sings the tune, and, unfortunately, not the meaning.
Like Robbie Williams and John Denver, Neil Diamond (b.1941) is a ‘big name’ and commercially successful songwriter and performer. Despite this, his presentation of ‘Mr Bojangles’ lacks any life at all. It is dull and routine, with exactly the same delivery for every verse, indeed every line. There is no sense that a story is being told here at all, and there is no emotional investment by the singer to bring the story or character to life. Diamond is by no means unusual in this. Many, if not most, singers seem to have this deadpan, uninvolved response to words. The song seems to go somewhere, but this because the arranger has worked hard to vary the musical treatment from verse to verse. While this gives a sense of progression and variety to keep the listener’s ear interested, the musical treatment shows no sensitivity for the story – the decisions for the musical texture in the different verses seems quite random.
So, as in the previous blog entries in the this Singing as Storytelling series, listen once more to the performance selected as the best version:
Isn’t that a whole lot more interesting than the versions by Neil Diamond, John Denver or Robbie Williams? Davis was a Master Storyteller. The irony is that to deliver such a perfect performance would have taken many hours of meticulous preparation – getting to know the song from many angles. The performance itself is completely lived, in the moment, and honest.