Making of: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's "Mr. Bojangles"
(Since its inception in 1973, the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame has enshrined nearly 1,000 recordings across all genres. The Making Of … series presents firsthand accounts of the creative process behind some of the essential recordings of the 20th century. You can read more Making Of … accounts, and in-depth insight into the recordings and artists represented in the Hall, in the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame 40th Anniversary Collector's Edition book.)
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
(As told to Roy Trakin)
We were rehearsing for Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy in this giant [Seeburg] Jukebox warehouse in Long Beach, Calif., where [bassist] Les Thompson's dad was a distributor. Driving home one night, I heard the tail end of this song on the radio. There was no back-announcing on FM, so we had no idea who or what it was. I pulled the car over to listen, and my eyes just welled up. The song really moved me.
The next day, I announced I'd heard this beautiful tune we ought to record. [Guitarist] Jimmy Ibbotson jumped up and blurted, "I think I know what song you're talking about," ran to the parking lot, popped the trunk on his Dodge Dart, and under the spare tire — I'm not sure it was even in a sleeve — was the 45 of "Mr. Bojangles." When he left New Castle, Ind., for California, he was given the single by this hippie — whom he described as a witch — telling him, mysteriously, "You should have this."
We excitedly ran into the jukebox factory, found a playable turntable, put some pennies on the disc — there was no amplification, so we had to listen on these tinny speakers — and pulled the lyrics as best we could. We actually screwed up a couple of the words on the final record.
We recorded at World Pacific Studios on West 3rd St. in L.A., where a lot of amazing jazz and R&B records were made. I sang lead on "[Mr.] Bojangles," with Jimmy doing harmonies. We actually switched up on the last verse, where I went up to the high harmony. We wanted to use accordion and mandolin together because the emotional impact was so beautiful. John [McEuen] came up with the gorgeous mandolin part, while Jimmy and I did the cross-picking on guitars. We were big fans of the Band's "Rockin' Chair," [on which] Robbie [Robertson] played this tremolo Archtop.
I remember performing the song live before the album release, and seeing some of the waitresses get all moony. And I thought, "Wow, this must be good." We'd already released one single, "Some Of Shelly's Blues," which we used to sing with Linda Ronstadt, but it peaked at No. 64, so we were pretty disappointed. Then, one day, we got a call from Liberty Records that an FM station in Shreveport, La., was wearing out "Mr. Bojangles," and the phones were lighting up. This was all for a five-minute waltz about an old guy and his dog. But people just loved and responded to the song. It was the emotional high point of our set.
[Producer] Bill McEuen was a fan of this Lightnin' Hopkins' record with Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee and Big Joe Williams called "Down South Summit Meetin','' which had all these spoken word interludes. McEuen had previously recorded several conversations with his wife Alice's great Uncle Charlie on their front porch, which he edited and placed as the intro to "[Mr.] Bojangles." Taking these two raw pieces of art and combining them turned out to be genius. We're very proud of that record.
My personal favorite is Jerry Jeff Walker's original. He always liked Nina Simone's cover. After it became a hit, Sammy Davis Jr. would give us a shout-out when he performed it.
(Roy Trakin, a senior editor for HITS magazine, has written for every rock publication that ever mattered, some that didn't, and got paid by most of them.)