Born in Richmond, Virginia on May 25, 1878, to Maxwell and Maria Robinson, Bill was brought up by his grandmother after the death of his parents. The details of Robinson's early life are known only through legend but at the age of six he began dancing for a living, appearing as a "hoofer," or song and dance man, in local beer gardens, and touring with Mayme Remington's troupe. In 1891, at the age of 12, he joined a traveling company in "The South Before the War" and in 1905 formed a vaudeville team with George Cooper. Bill became a huge success as a nightclub and musical comedy performer, and during the next 25 years became one of the toasts of Broadway.
Near the end of the vaudeville era a white impresario, Lew Leslie, produced "Blackbirds of 1928," featuring Robinson and other black stars. From then on his public role was that of a dapper, smiling, plaid-suited ambassador to the white world, maintaining a tenuous connection with the black show-business circles through his continuing patronage of the Hoofer's Club, an entertainer's haven in Harlem. Blacks and whites developed differing opinions of him. To whites his nickname, "Bojangles" meant happy-go-lucky, while the blacks claimed it was slang for "squabbler." Robinson performed for many charities and political figures and celebrities appointed him honorary Mayor of Harlem. After 1930 Robinson remained in vogue with white audiences for more than a decade in some fourteen motion pictures produced by RKO, 20th Century Fox and Paramount. Most had musical settings, in which he played old-fashioned roles such as that of a butler opposite Shirley Temple or Will Rogers in such films as "The Littlest Colonel," "The Littlest Rebel" and "In Old Kentucky" (all released in 1935.) Rarely did he depart from the stereotype imposed by Hollywood writers. In a small vignette in "Hooray For Love”(1935) he played a mayor of Harlem modeled after his own ceremonial honors; in "Stormy Weather”(1943) he played a romantic lead opposite Lena Horne.
Robinson always remained cool and reserved, up on the balls of his feet, depending on his crystal clear taps and expressive face. In 1939 he returned to the stage in "The Hot Mikado," a jazz version of the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta produced at the 1939-1940 New York World's Fair, and was one of the greatest hits of the fair. He could still dance in his late sixties almost as well as he ever could. He died due to a heart condition at Columbia Presbyterian Center in New York City in 1949. His body lay in state in Harlem; schools were closed, thousands lined the streets, for a glimpse of his bier, and he was eulogized by politicians, black and white-perhaps more lavishly than any other African American of his time. After his death, top veteran tappers formed a group called “The Copasetics” to perpetuate his work.....Robinson remained a well-known figure after his death, particularly in dance circles. In 1989, a joint congressional resolution established National Tap Dance Day on May 25, Robinson's birthday. Additionally, a public park in Harlem bears Robinson's name—a way of honoring his charity contributions and participation in the neighborhood's civic life.
(Courtesy ITA Archives)Achiveschives)