Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (May 25, 1878 – November 25, 1949) was an American tap dancer and actor, the best known and most highly paid African-American entertainer in the first half of the twentieth century. His long career mirrored changes in American entertainment tastes and technology. He started in the age of minstrel shows and moved to vaudeville, Broadway, the recording industry, Hollywood, radio, and television. According to dance critic Marshall Stearns, “Robinson’s contribution to tap dance is exact and specific. He brought it up on its toes, dancing upright and swinging”, giving tap a “…hitherto-unknown lightness and presence.”His signature routine was the stair dance, in which Robinson would tap up and down a set of stairs in a rhythmically complex sequence of steps, a routine that he unsuccessfully attempted to patent. Robinson is also credited with having introduced a new word, copacetic, into popular culture, via his repeated use of it in vaudeville and radio appearances.
A popular figure in both the black and white entertainment worlds of his era, he is best known today for his dancing with Shirley Temple in a series of films during the 1930s, and for starring in the musical Stormy Weather (1943), loosely based on Robinson’s own life, and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. Robinson used his popularity to challenge and overcome numerous racial barriers, including becoming the following:
- one of the first minstrel and vaudeville performers to appear without the use of blackface makeup
- one of the earliest African-American performers to go solo, overcoming vaudeville’s two colored rule
- a headliner in Broadway shows
- the first African American to appear in a Hollywood film in an interracial dance team (with Temple in The Little Colonel, 1935)
- the first African American to headline a mixed-race Broadway production
- Luther Robinson was born in Richmond, Virginia, and raised in its Jackson Ward neighborhood. His parents were Maxwell, a machine-shop worker, and Maria Robinson, a choir singer. His grandmother raised him after both parents died in 1884 when he was six years old—his father from chronic heart disease and his mother from natural causes. Details of Robinson’s early life are known only through legend, much of it perpetuated by Robinson himself. He claimed he was christened “Luther”—a name he did not like. He suggested to his younger brother Bill that they should exchange names. Eventually, the exchange between the names of both brothers was made. The brother subsequently adopted the name of “Percy” and under that name achieved recognition as a musician.