Jerry Jeff Walker (born Ronald Clyde Crosby on March 16, 1942 in Oneonta, New York.) is an American country music singer and songwriter. He is most famous for writing the song "Mr. Bojangles". Walker's prolific music career and his widespread musical influence have made him an iconic fixture of the Texas country music scene.
His maternal grandparents played for square dances in the area, with his grandmother, Jessie Conroe, playing piano, and her husband playing fiddle. During the late 1950s, Crosby was a member of a local Oneonta teen band called The Tones. The band traveled to Philadelphia to audition for Dick Clark's American Bandstand, but were turned down. Members of the band found Dick Clark's house and were able to get a recommendation to audition at New York City's Baton Records through the company's lead producer Sol Rabinowitz. The band was given a recording contract, but the studio wanted a quintet backed by studio musicians, which left Crosby and another member (Jerry Russell) out of their recordings.
After high school, Crosby joined the National Guard, but his thirst for adventure led him to go AWOL and roam the country busking for a living in New Orleans and throughout Texas, Florida, and New York, often accompanied by H.R. Stoneback (a friendship referenced in 1970's "Stoney"). He played mostly ukulele until Harriet Ottenheimer, one of the founders of The Quorum, got him settled on a guitar in 1963. He adopted his stage name "Jerry Jeff Walker" in 1966. He spent his early folk music days in Greenwich Village in the mid-1960s. He co-founded a band with Bob Bruno in the late-1960s called Circus Maximus that put out two albums, one with the popular FM radio hit "Wind", but Bruno's interest in jazz apparently diverged from Walker's interest in folk music. Walker thus resumed his solo career and recorded the seminal album "Mr. Bojangles" with the help of David Bromberg and other influential Atlantic recording artists. He settled in Austin, Texas, in the 1970s associating mainly with the country outlaw scene that included artists such as Willie Nelson, Guy Clark, Waylon Jennings, and Townes Van Zandt.
Walker's "Mr. Bojangles" is perhaps his most well-known and most-often covered song. It was about an obscure alcoholic but talented tap-dancing drifter, (not the famous stage and movie dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, as usually assumed, nor was it about New Orleans blues musician Babe Stovall), a friend of Walker's. In his autobiography 'Gypsy Songman', Walker makes it clear the man he met was white. Further, in an interview with BBC Radio 4 in August 2008, he pointed out that at the time the jail cells in New Orleans were segregated along color lines, so his influence could not have been black. Bojangles is thought to have been a folk character who entertained informally in the south of the US and California, with authentic reports of him existing from the 1920s through about 1965. Artists from Neil Diamond to Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, Philip Glass, David Bromberg, Tom T. Hall, Jim Stafford, Sammy Davis Jr., Lulu (New Routes), Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Harry Belafonte and recently Robbie Williams, have covered the song. Walker has also recorded songs written by others such as "LA Freeway" (Guy Clark), "Up Against the Wall Red Neck Mother" (Ray Wylie Hubbard), "(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night" (Tom Waits) and London Homesick Blues (Gary P. Nunn).
A string of records for MCA and Elektra followed Jerry Jeff's move to Austin, Texas, before he gave up on the mainstream music business and formed his own independent record label. Tried & True Music was founded in 1986, with his wife Susan as President and manager. Susan also founded Goodknight Music as his management company and Tried & True Artists for his bookings. A series of increasingly autobiographical records followed under the Tried & True imprint. Tried & True also sells his autobiography called "Gypsy Songman". In 2004, Jerry Jeff released his first DVD of songs from his past as performed in an intimate setting in Austin.
He has interpreted the songs of others like Rodney Crowell, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Keith Sykes, Paul Siebel, Bob Dylan, Todd Snider, Dave Roberts, and even a rodeo clown named Billy Jim Baker. Some have called Jerry Jeff the Jimmy Buffett of Texas. It was Jerry Jeff who first drove Jimmy Buffett to Key West (from Coconut Grove, Florida in a Packard). Walker and Buffett also co-wrote the song "Railroad Lady" while riding the last run of the Panama Limited.
Jerry married the former stripper Susan Streit in 1974 in Travis County, Texas. They have two children: a son, Django Walker, who is also a musician and a daughter, Jessie Jane. In addition to his residence in Austin, Walker has a retreat on Ambergris Caye in Belize where he recorded his "Cowboy Boots and Bathing Suits" album in 1998.
Walker has developed a style of music he calls "Cowjazz". The poignant "Eastern Avenue River Railway Blues," is one of the best examples of this music. The song sounds like a cross between Bob Dylan and Harry Chapin, with lyrics that refer to the industrial area between Cincinnati's Eastern Avenue and the Ohio River, just south of the tony Mount Adams area.
Members of his band have varied over the years. The Lost Gonzo Band and the Gonzo Compadres have backed him in the past. Key members of his band have included John Inmon, Freddie Krc, Gary P. Nunn, Bob Livingston, Michael Clarke, Bobby Ray Rambo, Mitch Watkins, Steve Samuel, David Bromberg, Chris Gage (of Albert and Gage, Austin, TX), Brad Fordham and others. He is the "Jerry Jeff" in the song Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love) when Willie Nelson sings,"Between Hank Williams pain songs / Jerry Jeff's train songs" (referencing his co-writing credits with Jimmy Buffett on "Railroad Lady" that Willie Nelson covered on his 2003 compilation album "Willie Nelson's Greatest Hits (& Some That Will Be)." Walker is also referenced in the 2012 song Beers Ago by Toby Keith. He also makes a cameo with Brooks & Dunn in the single "The Ballad of Jerry Jeff" on their album "Cowboy Town" (2007 BMG Music) where Brooks & Dunn relive the days when they opened for Jerry Jeff Walker.
Jerry Jeff has an annual birthday celebration bash in Austin, Texas at the Paramount Theatre and at Gruene Hall in Gruene, Texas. This party has become an enormous event in Texas and brings some of the biggest names in country music out for a night of picking and swapping stories under the Austin skyline. Jimmy Buffett attended the 2004 Birthday bash. His son Django also often accompanies him at these parties.