Jerry Jeff Walker, who moved to Austin after becoming famous with the song "Mr. Bojangles" and helped change the Austin music landscape in the 1970s, died Friday evening after an extended battle with throat cancer. He was 78.
Walker’s wife of 46 years, Susan Walker, confirmed Saturday morning that Jerry Jeff died around 6 p.m. Friday at Dell Seton Medical Center at the University of Texas. "He was at home until an hour before his passing," she said. "He went very peacefully, which we were extremely grateful for."
Walker had been dealing with throat cancer for several years and had nearly died in 2017. He rallied to finish a new album and played more shows, but a downturn in his health more recently resulted in difficulties with speaking and eating.
Born Ronald Clyde Crosby on March 16, 1942, in Oneonta, N.Y., Walker wrote "Mr. Bojangles" in the mid-1960s after a night in a New Orleans jail where he met a man who "danced a lick across the cell." Walker released the song as the title track of a 1968 solo album, shortly after he left the New York band Circus Maximus. In 1971, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band took "Mr. Bojangles" to No. 9 on the pop charts. More than 100 other artists also recorded the song, including Bob Dylan, Sammy Davis Jr., Nina Simone and Neil Diamond.
Walker was headed to California about 50 years ago when he stopped in Austin and ended up staying. Along with Willie Nelson’s move here a couple of years later, Walker’s arrival helped to herald a prosperous time for Austin music, with terms such as "outlaw country" and "cosmic cowboy" used to describe the music Walker and others were making.
Walker’s 1973 live album "Viva Terlingua!" — recorded not in the West Texas town of Terlingua but in the hill country hamlet of Luckenbach — became a touchstone for that era. His influence looms large even today, as dozens of Texas country roadhouse bands and troubadours are essentially still following the same path that Walker blazed in the ’70s.
READ MORE: Our 2018 interview with Jerry Jeff Walker
"Other than Willie, Jerry Jeff is the most important musician to happen to Austin, Texas, I would have to say," Asleep at the Wheel leader Ray Benson said Saturday morning. "He really brought that folksinger/songwriter form to its height in Texas. And for that, he’ll be eternal, because there’s all these kids today who write songs in that mode.
"But also, a la Willie, he wrote really giant hit songs. ‘Mr. Bojangles’ is a standard. His other songs are wonderful, but to write a standard, that’s something that’s very difficult in today’s day and age to do."
Among Walker’s other well-known songs are "Little Bird," "Sangria Wine," "Charlie Dunn," "Hill Country Rain" and "Pissin’ in the Wind," which he wrote after doing just that on a roadside stop en route to Dallas for a Willie Nelson concert in the 1970s.
But Walker was equally known as an interpreter and champion of other writers’ songs. It was Walker who first brought Guy Clark to national attention when he recorded Clark’s "L.A. Freeway" for his 1972 self-titled album on major label Decca Records. "I remember telling him that I was going to record ‘L.A. Freeway’ and that he was on the verge of being a great songwriter," Walker recalled after Clark’s death in 2016.
Walker cast a spotlight on a young Gary P. Nunn by not only including Nunn’s song "London Homesick Blues" on the "Viva Terlingua!" album, but having Nunn sing it.
"To him, it came down to the song, whether he wrote it or somebody else wrote it," said Ray Wylie Hubbard, whose iconic song "Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother" also appears on "Viva Terlingua!"
Walker’s recording of the song "gave me a career," Hubbard says, but also a middle name. He was performing as Ray Hubbard until Walker’s Lost Gonzo Band member Bob Livingston identified him as Ray Wylie Hubbard in a spoken introduction to "Redneck Mother" that appears on the album.
Hubbard says Walker’s record label wanted to edit out that intro to avoid any confusion. "But Jerry Jeff said, ‘Nah, leave it on there.’ So because of him, I got a middle name. He was willing to acknowledge other songwriters; that was just such a gracious trait about him."
MORE PHOTOS: Jerry Jeff Walker through the years
In 2018, shortly after Walker donated a lifetime of artifacts to the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University in San Marcos, the collections’ exhibit space in the university’s Alkek Library featured an exhibit titled "Viva Jerry Jeff: The Origins and Wild Times of a Texas Icon." It provided much detail about Walker’s pre-Texas years, including audio of early songs, rare photos and letters to family.
"I wanted to tell the story of the young man who had those dreams and that determination," said Hector Saldana, Texas Music Curator for the Wittliff. "When you’re looking at the letters he was writing to his grandmother, thanking her for the few dollars she had sent him and mentioning just casually that he’d written this song called ‘Mr. Bojangles’ that he thought was good, you just can’t believe it."
The exhibit also shed light on how Ronald Clyde Crosby became Jerry Jeff Walker. He’d been using an ID card from a friend he made in the New York Army National Guard named Jerry Ferris, and he had become a fan of Harlem jazz pianist Kirby Walker. He combined them to rename himself. (He added the middle name later; on the first Circus Maximus album in 1967, he was credited as Jerry Walker.)
Singer-songwriter Todd Snider, a longtime friend of Walker’s, has often told the story of walking through Santa Fe, N.M., with Walker one night when they happened upon an apparently homeless musician performing "Mr. Bojangles" on the street. In Snider’s 2014 book "I Never Met a Story I Didn’t Like," he revisited the encounter:
"I was asking myself, ’Should I tell this guy that he’s playing Jerry Jeff’s song, and that Jerry Jeff is standing right here? But, no, I figured that if Jerry Jeff wanted to let this guy know who he was, he’d tell him. When the song was over, (Walker) said, ‘That sounded great,’ and then he put a (expletive)-load of cash — every bit of cash he had on him — into that guy’s hat."
Austin keyboardist Chris Gage, who has been playing in Walker’s band since 2008, was among many who posted thoughts about Walker to social media Saturday. "I have my memories of countless plane, bus, train and van rides, green rooms with pizza and Arnold Palmers, packed theaters and showrooms, sunrise meals in Belize, scary car rides (if he was driving), passionate studio sessions and so much more," Gage wrote.
Walker’s last appearance onstage in Austin was Feb. 22, 2020, to accept a Hall of Fame award from the Texas Heritage Songwriters Association. A star-studded cast — including Rodney Crowell, Michael Martin Murphey, Emmylou Harris, Joe Ely and the Dirt Band’s Jeff Hanna — performed Walker’s songs in his honor. Walker appeared at the end, with help from his wife and others to get on and offstage.
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Benson was at Nutty Brown Amphitheatre in Southwest Austin on Friday night for a performance by string band Old Crow Medicine Show when he heard about Walker’s death. He joined the band onstage for an impromptu rendition of "Mr. Bojangles" but he didn’t mention the news to the crowd out of respect for Walker’s family.
"He was so loved and admired by so many people," Susan Walker said. "We just thank them all for their warm wishes. We’re just going to take some time here for the family now. We’ll plan a memorial at some point for his fans, but it won’t be in the near future."
In addition to Susan, survivors include the couple’s two children, daughter Jessie Jane and son Django Walker, who followed in his father’s footsteps and became a singer-songwriter.