Jerry Jeff Walker, the iconic singer-songwriter best known for writing “Mr. Bojangles,” has died. Multiple media reports and social media posts report the music legend died on Friday (Oct. 23) at the age of 78.
Born Ronald Clyde Crosby on March 16, 1942, in Oneonta, N.Y., Walker got his start as a teenager in local bands before joining the National Guard upon finishing high school. He went AWOL and began busking for money around the country, living the itinerant life of a traveling musician.
He took the stage name Jerry Jeff Walker in the mid-’60s, making his way to New York City’s burgeoning Greenwich Village folk music scene and recording two albums with a band called Circus Maximus before resuming his solo career.
Walker’s best-known song, “Mr. Bojangles,” was first released in 1968, and it would go on to become a standard after the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band made it into a Top 10 hit in 1971. Artists as diverse as Bob Dylan, Sammy Davis Jr., JJ Cale, John Denver and many more would cover the song over the subsequent decades, raising it to the status of an all-time American classic, but Walker’s musical instincts did not lean in a commercial direction.
He followed his offbeat, often counterculture muse to Austin in the ’70s, adding his unique sensibility to a scene that would also give rise to Willie Nelson and others. He became one of the leading lights of the Texas scene, even while his unusual sensibilities were often at odds with record companies.
Waker formed his own label, Tried & True, in 1986, and he went on to a long string of releases that adhered unwaveringly to his singular vision, earning him a second act as one of the elder statesmen of country music and the Texas music scene. Over the years, he also served as an unflagging champion of other writers and artists including Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Todd Snider.
Walker endured a bout with throat cancer in 2017, later revealing that he had survived a “near-death experience.”
“At one point I had chemo, radiation and pneumonia, and a blood infection — all at the same time. That’s where I became touch and go,” he told the Austin Statesman in 2018. “As we were at the bottom, [wife] Susan said somewhere in there, ‘Do you want to fight? You want to fight for this?’
Walker survived and recovered enough to release one final album, It’s About Time, in 2018.
Walker’s cause of death had not been reported. He is survived by his wife of 46 years, Susan; daughter Jessie Jane; and son Django Walker, who is also a musician.
A number of journalists and music publications turned to social media to mourn his passing and honor his legacy: