“I knew a man Bojangles and he'd dance for you in worn out shoes Silver hair, ragged shirt and baggy pants, that old soft shoe He'd jump so high, he'd jump so high, then he lightly touch down Mr. Bojangles, Mr. Bojangles, dance.
I met him in a cell in New Orleans, I was down and out He looked to me to be the eyes of age as he spoke right out He talked of life, he talked of life, laughing slapped his leg stale Mr. Bojangles, Mr. Bojangles, dance.
He said the name Bojangles and he danced a lick all across the cell He grabbed his pants for a better stance, oh, he jumped so high and he clicked up his heels He let go laugh, he let go laugh, shook back his clothes all around Mr. Bojangles, Mr. Bojangles, dance, yeah, dance.
He danced for those at minstrel shows and county fairs throughout the south He spoke with tears of 15 years of how his dog and him but just travelled all about His dog up and died, he up and died, and after 20 years he still grieves Mr. Bojangles, Mr. Bojangles, dance.
He said, "I dance now at every chance at honky-tonks for drinks and tips. But most of the time I spend behind these county bars, 'cause I drinks a bit" He shook his head, yes, he shook his head, I heard someone ask him, "Please, Mr. Bojangles, Mr. Bojangles, dance, dance, Mr. Bojangles, dance."
Inspired by a vagrant he met in a New Orleans jail, Jerry Jeff Walker wrote the song, in 1968. There had been a violent shooting in the French Quarter. Police executed a street sweep in order to sort potential suspects. A dancer and entertainer, the man borrowed the moniker Mr. Bojangles from Bill Robinson in order to elude the law. He told of his old dog who, “just up and died”. I suspect the drunk tank in the New Orleans jail isn’t as gay as a night at the county fair. On the request of a cellmate looking to lighten the mood in the room, Mr. Bojangles got up and danced.
Anyone old enough to endure the indignity of a prostate exam can name the tune in one note, and hum the chorus. The first cover of Mr. Bojangles, by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, spent weeks in the Billboard Top 10. It has been interpreted by artists and songwriters from Bob Dylan to Queen Ifrica. Versions have been featured on stage and television by Sammy Davis Jr., Jim Carrey, and Homer Simpson.
The tune written by an intoxicated Texan songwriting poet with a ten-grit tenor has been embellished with orchestras, string sections, and steel guitars behind the angelic voices of Dolly Parton, Emmy Lou Harris, and Whitney Houston.
The song Mr. Bojangles couldn’t have achieved better market penetration if it had been performed by Taylor Swift holding a puppy rescued from a fire by an ex-Marine.
I’d bet a broken-in pair of Redwings that neither Jerry Jeff Walker nor half the generation of folks who can hum the tune knew sickum about Bill Robinson, the original Mr. Bojangles.
Thanks to a 55-year-old tap dancing ambassador of good will from the south side of Chicago named Reggio McLaughlin, I do.
Bill Robinson was born in 1878. He started dancing and entertaining in the streets of Richmond, Virginia at five years of age. He was born Luther, but legend has it he didn’t care for the name and so he persuaded his brother to trade. His parents died young; Robinson supported himself by dancing, singing, telling jokes and entertaining for anyone who’d throw a nickel at his magical feet. To many, his sixty-year career would parallel the evolution of entertainment in the United States.
In my mind, he helped define it.
He started on church steps and street corners, and made his way from minstrel shows and vaudeville through Broadway, and eventually Hollywood. He is credited for having “brought tap to its toes and making it swing”. So much bigger than that, he was also “the first black man to…” go solo in vaudeville, headline a Broadway show, and take a white dance partner (Shirley Temple). He would become the highest paid African American entertainer in the first half of the century, but was known by many for his generosity, sometimes subtle. During WWI, he performed gratis for the troops in training camps, and employed Jesse Owens when no one else would. He once paid to have a traffic light erected at a busy intersection in Richmond where he had seen two children chase a ball into the street. He was a fearless advocate for integration and equality. From his platform as a respected entertainer, he petitioned the Dallas Police Department and President Roosevelt for integration and equitable treatment of black police officers and soldiers.
Though skilled with his feet, his heart and generosity would eventually get the best of him. He died without a penny in 1949. Schools in Harlem were closed so that children could attend the service. His funeral was arranged and funded by his friend Ed Sullivan; 32,000 were estimated to have paraded past his casket.
Robinson popularized a term. There were shows when the band was tight, and the crowd was just right. When the dancers were swingin’ and the register ringing, that’s when things were… “copacetic”.
Shortly after his passing, a team of elite dancers was formed to continue the art form and culture of tap. Honi Coles, Charles “Cookie” Cook, and Ernest “Brownie” Brown were The Copasetics. National Tap Day was proposed in 1989. In 2004, President Bush signed into law that May 25th, Bill Robinson’s Birthday, would be National Tap Day.
At The Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, National Tap Day was celebrated on Saturday June 4, 2016.
Kishan Khemani is a brother; I aspire to his character. Kish is not verbose. Twenty years ago, he arrived at annual gathering that has come to be known as Storkfest.
“Hick, I’ve got someone I’d like you to meet.”
On August 30, 1997, Anita became his wife.
A few years later, Kish called to ask, “Can you be in the city on Thursday, April 17?” He’d already calculated I had to work on the 17th, and it’d take two gallons of coffee and a seven-minute nap to get through the 18th.
The message: just be there.
On that April 17th, I sat at the feet of a songwriting genius. Four grown and accomplished men cried as Kris Kristofferson paused and inflected his way through Sunday Morning Comin’ Down, though we’d heard it a thousand times or more. The cornerstone of The Mount Rushmore of Country Music, he was opening for 27-time Grammy Award-winning Alison Krause, in a room with 325 people.
All that to say, Kish has cred. So, when he picks up his phone to say, “Hick, I’ve never been so honored to be in the presence of another man in all my 50 years…” well, if I portend to tell stories about inspirational people, then I’d better sharpen a pencil, shut my mouth, and get to Chicago.
We read about the violence, protests, and politics of Chicago. It is a city of 2.7 million people, bounded by Lake Michigan, the Cheddar Curtain, and The Grain Belt; but it is a collection of communities. Some are defined by economics or ethnicity, and others rise from a shared passion.
One such community is The Old Town School of Folk Music.
To say “Old Town is a school where you can take music and dance lessons” would be akin to, “Shakespeare wrote some poems”.
Old Town offers lessons from accordion to ukulele, and blues harmonica to beginning contemporary dance. There are literally classes for anyone from toddlers to Baby Boomers. Sessions are taught by working musicians, professors, and students of life. A young person at Old Town is in danger of learning skills from finger picking and proper phrasing, to perseverance and respect.
Beginning in 1959, hundreds of artists from every conceivable race, religion, and ethnicity came to a tiny studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Through one of the most racially charged periods in American history, artists ranging from Aretha Franklin to Duane Allman came to Fame Studios. With no regard for race, religion, or orientation, they were there to make music, together.
You won’t find as many of the names on plaques in Cleveland, but six hundred miles to the North, established 1957, the influence of Old Town School of Folk Music is every bit as significant.
Old Town Director, Bau Graves, handed one of three 2015 Distinguished Teaching Awards to Reginald Mclaughlin. Reggio cradled the award like a newborn child. He brushed back his trademark dreadlocks, and let the tears fall to the ground. He thanked his mother for opportunities and the sense to follow them; he credited Old Town… for saving his life.
The mentors at Old Town are all masters of their craft. The Distinguished Teaching Award is given to those who help their students master not only andante, allegro, and shuffle ball-change-stamp; but also humility, grace and gratitude.
I call myself “the most under-read writer to ever (self) publish a book”. If this book were written on the old blue Brother from my high school research papers, I’d need white-out in a 55-gallon drum. With the typing skills of a trained ape and a rather consumptive day job, a healthy percentage of my annual reading takes place during flight delays. “Curling up with a good book”, usually results in REM faster than a Monday staff meeting after a midnight calving.
I made it through three of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and The Purpose Driven Life is collecting dust. I read Tap Dance of Life in two sessions. It’s available on Amazon for $19.95. If you don’t find a story for the water cooler or your kids, I’ll buy it from you.
I’ve always felt there were more people with books in them, than those who have written one. Reggio’s life story reads more like gospel. After the two-dozenth person suggested, he sat down and wrote Tap Dance of Life. An equally appropriate title could have been lifted from Teddy Roosevelt, "Do the best you can with what you got, where you are, when you’re there".
If you’ve ever known a veteran of the depression and World War II, I hope you took time to ask them, “What do you remember?” Wes Gillespie, Bill Dierskmeir, and my grandpa all spoke of family, and what they had. Never did they mention what they didn’t. Reggio is one of eight kids, raised by Elsa May McLaughlin, a woman with the strength of 10,000 men and the heart of Mother Teresa.
Reggio walked past a TV when he was seven years old. Mayor Jane Byrne was standing on the steps of what she called “the worst building in the city of Chicago”, promising to make changes. He looked out the window to see the television trucks and reporters at his door.
After finishing Tap Dance of Life, I sent Kish a text, “I gotta meet Reggio”.
The response came 2 days later, “Be here Saturday at 5:00”.
When he was looking for a home to raise a couple kids, with room for grandparents, Kish had given the realtor two parameters: within three blocks of Old Town and a baseball field.
We arrived in the last ten minutes of Reggio’s Tap 2 class. We sat on the bench outside the classroom as the old building percussed on the stomps and rat-a-tat-tat-clap echoed down the hall. From the bowels of the classroom, in a voice like Justin Bieber before his first shave, came, “That was awesome, thank you everybody”. Old, young, black, white, and Asian, his ten students laughed and tapped their way through the vestibule, wiping sweat like Ali vs Frazier.
Reggio’s memory resides in his feet. He can do the Copasetic Soft Shoe, Cane Dance or Chair Dance and read the Gettysburg Address at the same time. Names escape him. He once met the Rolling Stones. By most accounts, their lead singer has a mug that is not easily mistaken. After several attempts, Mr. Jagger resigned himself to being “Nick” for the day.
Off-camber to counter the backpack on his shoulder, he gobbled up floor tiles with a stride I had seen only once before. Michael Jordan also walked as if his feet didn’t quite touch the ground, but the purpose in his step was to blow by fans and photographers as if they were a power forward blocking his way to the hole. Reggio’s smile stretched between the corn rows that swung like a spastic metronome, and stuck out a hand for everyone who lined his path. “Chief Indian”, he growled in recognition of Kish. Just one second, he excused himself as he walked the length of the hall to thank the janitor and ask, “You doin’ ok man?”
There are words you can’t exclude when writing about Reggio; we’ll just get them out of the way now: “infectious”, “affable”, “polite”, “boundless”.
We strode to the Grafton Pub next door where Reggio’s entrance was no less grand than his exit from Old Town. Like Norm on Cheers, the chants rose from behind the bar, through the swinging doors into the kitchen, and the high-tops in the window, “R-e-g-g-i-o, give us a little shuffle man, don’t just walk on by”. Reggio worked the crowd from the vestibule to our table. He fist bumped, shook hands and hugged half the people in the bar, asking “How’s your mother doin’? Your brother doing ok in school?”
If Reggio’s awake, he’s on.
We settled into a bench and table, Reggio mounted a chair turned backwards, like a cowboy on a bull named El Diablo. The waiter confirmed, “Mac and cheese, Reggio?” “You know how I like it man, thank you very much”, he responded. I was hoping for a couple minutes. Reggio’s feet and his heart have taken him all over the world. It was clear that his time was ours. My goal was to ask as few as few questions as possible, wind him up and watch him go.
Not a problem.
On cue Reggio walked us through a (mostly) seated performance version of his book, Tap Dance of Life. As he spoke, I picked cherries. Reggio told of growing up in a building where most boys were shot, stabbed, incarcerated, addicted, or all the above. I asked Reggio how he stayed safe. “Ah man, you just gotta make friends with the biggest, baddest dude on the playground,” he explained. “Not only that, but I had fve brothers; you fight me, you fight them”.
It was his first installment of “mother wit”.
He smiled long enough to stir the steam from his mac and cheese, before explaining where he first saw tap.
“Hah,” he laughed, “when I got slapped upside the head with a red rubber playground ball”. Reggio was seven-going-on-eight when he was distracted from a game of dodge ball at the Chicago School District Recreation Center. He heard a rhythmic shuffle-hop-stamp! from behind a partition. He peeked to see a line of girls in shiny shoes tap dancing; he was infected for life.
Reggio taught himself bass guitar when he was thirteen. His brother played guitar, and they enlisted a neighbor boy who had a drum set. They organized a performance in the community room of their building.
At age fifteen he was offered a job as a touring musician.
I knew the answer when I asked, “How hard was it for your mother to let you go on the road?” “She knew my chances were better on the road with a band, than in the neighborhood.”
If opportunities were fastballs down the middle of the plate, Reggio McLaughlin would be hitting .700.
Reggio was learning tap from a Chicago legend named Jimmy Slyde when a friend offered to introduce him to Earnest “Brownie” Brown. Reggio was a student of the history of tap as well as the art. He recognized Brownie as a member of the original “Copasetics”.
Reggio learned the chair dance and absorbed every subtle step and nuance Brownie had to hand down from Bill Robinson himself. The two were as much a father and son as a dance team. Reggio knows respect. He toured with Brownie until he passed in 2009.
He was hoofing for tips on the streets when he was hired to perform for a prominent lawyer named Milton Kollman. New York is to tap as Texas is to barbecue. Reggio shared his need to get to the city with Milt. The benevolent lawyer booked him a flight and cut him a check. As a rough-cut young hoofer from Chicago, they tried to break his spirit. Seeing opportunity where others see adversity, he watched, learned and incorporated everything the hot-shots in the Big Apple had to teach him.
Throughout our dinner the words, “blessed”, “opportunity”, and “fortunate” were in heavy rotation.
Reggio had finished his mac and cheese and second whiskey and coke, and we had concert tickets.
“Reggio, by my way of thinking, your way out started with that gig in the community room”, I asked in the form of a statement. “Man, I got the first taste of success”, he confirmed. “I was not going to let it go”.
Thomas Jefferson and ten others are quoted: “I’m a big believer in luck; the harder I work, the more of it I have”. By my way of thinking, that gig, and every opportunity in the last 43 years were as a result of Reggio’s initiative, attitude, and follow-through.
As we adjourned, I put his feet to the fire. “Reggio, you give credit to your mother, Milt, Slyde, Brownie, and every-damn-body on the planet but Reggio “The Hoofer”. I had his attention, “you have not seized opportunity, you’ve created it, and you had the good sense to pick the one good choice from a bucket of 10 bad ones.”
“Ah, Bill, that’s just ‘mother wit’”, he smiled.
I worked him down to the point he had no choice but to take a little credit for his success. “No man, I appreciate if that’s what you think; I ain’t gonna go there.”
In college you listen to your professors, looking to highlight and take notes on what you think will be on the final exam.
In the presence of Reggio “The Hoofer”, put your pen down and don’t miss a word. It’s all on the test… called life.
I could not wait to get back home. I sat down to the computer with four pages of scribbles I had made from my time with Reggio. I didn’t get a whole paragraph in before I realized there was no way to write about Reggio without actually watching him work.
I mentioned earlier that National Tap Day 2016 was Saturday, June 4th.
Reggio “The Hoofer”, is also a businessman.
My email request to shadow Reggio was returned with a phone call in ten minutes. “So Bill, what’s your angle, man, what are you looking to write?” Suddenly, I knew Reggio left little to chance. “Where does your writing appear, and how does it get distributed?”, as he calculated market penetration. ”Well sir, I’ve got a website, a blog, and appear monthly in several local papers, including The Lake Mills Leader”, specifically attempting not to exaggerate my reach.
I arrived near 4:00PM as Reggio had instructed. Dressed in a pair of first generation Air Jordans with laces dangling, and a retro Space Jam baseball jersey falling repeatedly from his shoulders, he instructed me to a seat in the front row before I barely broke the plane of the doorway. “How you doin’ Bill, good drive down?”
He was in meeting with the keyboard player. “All right, I’m going to need you to do that intro four times, so I can get my dancers on the stage”. And he tapped, working out details one would think may have come up in rehearsal. As it turns out, it was. He beckoned an assistant, “Bring in my Tap 1s, Tap 2s and my black shoes”. The dancers and shoes arrived in minutes. The piano man struggled to pick up the beat from Reggio’s feet. He turned to the drummer who had no trouble. Without looking, he instructed, “Y’all sit down and don’t ask me questions; I’ll let you know when I need you and where.”
And he tapped.
The band started and stopped on Reggio’s cue, and the room filled as he added layers. By now the drummer politely noted even he couldn’t hear Reggio’s Air Jordans. Hopping on one foot into his tap shoes, he directed, “Ahh right now, Diane can you get a light and a microphone on the end of the stage for the choir, don’t forget to check levels, I’m going to need some volume on the piano, and where is my man Harrison?”
Where there could be dead air, there was Harrison.
Watching Reggio build the show was akin to assembling a Cadillac by hand while it’s rolling down the on-ramp to the Dan Ryan Express Way during rush hour, while pulling the parts from a clothes dryer.
I was glued like a gawker’s block on the highway, but Kish was coaching his kids’ T-ball game a block away. Among the din I gathered my notes. While directing traffic, Reggio danced his way to the corner of the stage, “Bill, where you going?”
I explained, and he instructed me to be back by 6:30.
You can search for a new one, but the expression “herding cats”, has never been so applicable than watching a White Sox fan, disciple of the discipline of baseball, and consultant to global corporations, coach a T-ball game. Though the Tampa Bay Rays hit the ball well, Kish had yet to indoctrinate the kindergartners on “two hands, butt down, and head up”. A disparaging word was never heard but the batters up, on deck, and in the hole were helmeted and at attention. Behind the plate a teenage umpire was calling “balls and strikes”. I envied him not. I’d rather blow a call against Bobby Knight than muff a T-ball rule against the “Chief Indian”.
Without anything that resembled a ticket, I left the game and reported for duty as instructed. It had been 20 years since Reggio had first proposed that the ukulele player and he should do a show together. The dream came to fruition for the National Tap Day celebration 2016; then less than 30 minutes before curtain, it was discovered she could not handle her ukelele arrangement. As the part was altered on the fly, Reggio the traffic cop pointed to a chair next to the light board. “Bill, there’s your seat, enjoy the show.”
I settled in with my camera and note pad and the lighting technician stuck out her hand, “Good evening, my name is Diane, Reggio mentioned you might have some questions.” In sequence, a stately gentleman named Jim offered his hand. Jim is a journalist who helped Reggio assemble Tap Dance of Life; he’d be happy to answer any questions I might have.
I thought I was there to watch the people watch Reggio. Alas, if Reggio is in the room, he is the show. The production came off without so much as a hitch. Not so much like a fine Swiss time piece, but more like a Smith family reunion in Pennsylvania. Reggio’s productions are not written, rehearsed, reviewed, or revised. From the cast of dancers, singers, and musicians he builds the foundation on the fly… then feels it.
And when there’s a gap, he calls on Harrison.
As a fan of Old School Blues and Gut Bucket Folk Music, I’ve learned people are far more moved by authenticity, than virtuosity. You’re more likely to put out a canopy fire in a pine forest than capture a Reggio Show with camera and pen. They don’t call it “Percussive Dance” for nothin’: next time I’m renting a seismograph.
Reggio’s take on tap day 2016 was sensory overload. Master vocalist Sid Brown and The Allen Gressik’s Swing Shift Band had but a vague notion what was coming next, but they never missed a beat. From the jaw-dropping athletic art of George Patterson III, to 90-year-old Doris Humphreys, and including every student in Reggio’s stable, they brought the house down.
Reggio the Master of Ceremonies executed a half-dozen wardrobe changes and at least as many audibles. From center stage he commanded the attention of every eye in the crowd and cast.
Harrison took his third encore, and the house lights flooded the room. Reggio’s all-encompassing tap family spilled from the auditorium, through the vestibule and onto Lincoln Avenue. I searched and failed to find anyone in the room that Reggio McLaughlin had not touched in a deep and meaningful way, but none more than Harrison.
Harrison asked to participate in his school talent competition. Searching for a skill beyond humming and being silly, his mother showed him a video of Riverdance. His older sibs laughed, but Harrison was hooked. His mother approached Old Town, who referred her to Reggio. When Reggio needed to learn tap, he went to New York. When Reggio learned Flamenco, he immersed himself in the culture of Spain. When asked to help a special needs boy learn to tap, he jumped in with both feet… and his heart. I asked Harrison’s mother to describe his relationship with Reggio. “Reggio’s determination and love of teaching has been a gift for Harrison.” He didn’t stop there. Reggio has accompanied Harrison to needs camps, teaching others the joy of dance and movement.
This was just one night in the life of a man who has danced from street corners in Chicago to Spain and Northern Europe. The magnitude of his impact defies measure.
The Flo-Bert award is given to recognize lifetime achievement in teaching, performing, and supporting the art of tap. Past recipients include Gregory Hines, Gene Kelly, and Savion Glover. The 2013 recipient of the Flo-Bert award is none other than Reggio McLaughlin.
Rest in peace, Mr. Bojangles, things here in Chicago are indeed, Copasetic.
*Mother wit is the kind of knowledge that comes from earthly experiences and good old common sense.