Friday, May 27, 2011

Jeff Hanna on Mr. Bojangles

Conversation with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Jeff Hanna

Mike Ragogna: That's very cool. So, let's fill everyone in on the history of your biggest early hit, "Mr. Bojangles."

Jeff Hanna: Well, we were assembling songs for the album that became Uncle Charlie And His Dog Teddy--that  was actually the first alternative country album that we recorded. We started recording it in late 1969, and I think it came out in early 1970. I was driving back from one of our rehearsals while we were putting tunes together for the record down in Long Beach, and I heard this song on late night radio with no back announcing and I really loved the tune. As it turns out, it was Jerry Jeff Walker. I went into rehearsals the next day and just started raving about this song that I thought we had to do. I kept hearing it in my head because it was mandolin and accordion, which I thought would be perfect for our band. Then, Jimmy Ibbotson, who was playing with us at the time, said that he thought he knew what song I was talking about and he ran out of the room into the parking lot and started digging in the trunk of his car. He pulled out this 45 rpm single from under the spare tire--scratched to pieces by the way--of Jerry Jeff singing "Mr. Bojangles." Somebody had given him that record before he left Indiana and it had been under the spare tire the whole time. So, we took it out and put in on our funky little record player that had pennies on the needle to hold the arm down, and listened to it. It was pretty funky, and we actually messed up a couple of the lyrics because we couldn't hear it that well.

MR: Which lyrics?

JH: Well one of the lines in the original song is "Then he spoke right out," and we sang "When the smoke ran out." (laughs) You know, it was just silly stuff. But I think Jerry Jeff forgave us because he made a lot of money on the single. (laughs) Later, he became a friend of ours. We actually got to play a lot with him later. He was always a musical hero of mine.

MR: It would have been interesting to have a Bojangles summit of all you guys, Jerry Jeff, and Sammy Davis, Jr., everyone with definitive versions of that song.

JH: Yeah. (laughs) That would have been something else. Sammy did have a big hit with the song, but we had a bigger one. It was a Top 10 pop single, which was pretty cool. More importantly, what Sammy did was that he turned the song into a piece of performance art during his concerts. He even gave us a little shout out, which was really great. One final note about that song is that in 2010, our recording was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame for significant recordings. We're really proud of that.

MR: Congratulations. I'm curious, what was it like when you first heard your recording of that song on the radio?

JH: Well, we never get tired of hearing ourselves on the radio. (laughs) But that song was kind of interesting because it kind of snuck out there as a single. Going way back to album radio in the early '70s, a station in Shreveport, Indiana, started playing the song and the phones started lighting up. A bunch of people started requesting it. At the time, we had another single out called "Some Of Shelly's Blues" that was struggling, and our label just kept an eye on all of it to see how things developed, and after several weeks, they came to us and told us that "...Bojangles" was our hit. I thought, "Really? A four and a half minute waltz about a old man and his dog?" I mean, we were thrilled because we loved the song, but we never thought it would be a hit. So, yeah, it was amazing to hear that song on the radio. We got a big kick out of it.

MR: So, "Some of Shelly's Blues" was out there first, then after a while, they said it was time to get "Mr. Bojangles" out there?

JH: Yep, that's right. Then we re-released the song later and it did much better. But I will also say this about "...Bojangles." Jerry Jeff Walker is great, and we are honored to be so closely related to the song. It was a game changer for us, and we still play it. The interesting thing is that although it was a pop hit in 1971, it totally fits what we do now. Going through the transition of country and circling back to Americana/roots music, it still fits perfectly with what we do. We could not stop playing it. People would throw things at us. (laughs)
Read the entire interview here:

 "Art will always be Art." - Goethe

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