Jerry Jeff Walker, Oneonta Original, 1942-2020
By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
ONEONTA – With the passing of “Mr. Bojangles” creator Jerry Jeff Walker, Doug Decker thinks it’s time to honor Oneonta’s most famous son.
“It’s time,” he said. “I don’t think people realize how important he was to the western, gonzo and country scene. They revered him.”
Walker – Oneonta’s own Ron Crosby, before he took his stage name and found fame with his 1968 classic – died Friday, Oct. 23, 2020, at age 78, after a three-year battle with throat cancer.
When he heard the news of Walker’s passing, Decker started a GoFundMe campaign, hoping to raise $20,000 needed for a memorial bandstand in Muller Plaza.
“The city doesn’t have the money in the budget for it, but someone suggested GoFundMe,” he said.
A fan of Jerry Jeff’s music for years, Decker even taught Walker’s sister, Cheryl Harder, how to play “Mr. Bojangles,” now an American classic, on the guitar when he was teaching at the Eighth Note.
He first met Walker in the early ’80s, when Nick Lambros came into the music store “He said Jerry Jeff was coming to the Diana restaurant to give a concert, and he needed some gear,” he said. “I told him I could provide it – if he got me a ticket. It was invite-only, so Nick said, ‘You’re invited!’”
It was “the best concert I ever saw,” said Decker, and after that saw Jerry Jeff concerts whenever he could, including when he played at the Oneonta Theatre in 2010.
A longtime radio personality at WCDO, Decker also interviewed the star frequently.
The 2010 show was a rare sell-out for the theatre, and while Walker may have brought
the hits, Oneonta had something more in store for him.
“Jerry Jeff didn’t come to his induction into the OHS Wall of Fame,” said his former coach, Tony Drago. “So at intermission, Ron Brazier went backstage, and then on stage to present him with his award!”
Long before Walker was the country music icon, he was a member of the Class of 1960, playing on Drago’s 1959-60 record-breaking basketball team – undefeated, untied.
“He was one of my nice boys,” said Drago. “He was 6-foot-1 and a good shooter; he could score 11 or 12 points in a game.”
In addition to sports, he also played in a local band, The Tones. “My husband played with him before we were married,” said Oneonta’s Cecelia Russell, whose late husband was also a Jerry, and also a member of The Tones. “I never got to meet him, but whenever he was in town, they’d get together.”
Walker came from a musical family; his grandparents played for square dances and his mother, Alma, played piano.
“Our grandmother gave him his first guitar,” said sister Cheryl.
“I only met him one time,” said fabled local DJ Chuck D’Imperio. “But I told him that my father, Don, and his Aunt Norma both played in the same orchestra, The Bards of Swing. He got a big charge out of that!”
After high school, Walker moved to New York City, where he played in folk clubs and busked on the sidewalk. “We always hear the word ‘troubadour,’ but Jerry Jeff was a real-life one,” said D’Imperio. “He truly was a free spirit.”
His sister agreed. “He was 15 years older than me, but one time when he came home to visit my parents, he had long hair,” she said. “I was 7 or 8 years old, and I remember walking down Main Street with him, feeling so proud of my brother, with his long hair. I thought it was the coolest thing – and my parents were walking behind us! They didn’t like it.”
“When he came back to Oneonta, it didn’t matter if he was Jerry Jeff or Ron,” said Mike Syron, a fellow basketball player. “He was always a great guy.”
Walker later moved to Texas, where he became one of the “grandfathers” of the Austin music scene. His annual “birthday party” concert at the Paramount Theatre and at Gruene Hall was a major event in country music, featuring local and national recording artists for a night of songs and stories.
In 2012, he held a major fundraiser for President Obama’s reelection at Austin City Limits.
But he never forgot his coach, and the two kept in touch. “He’d call me whenever Duke was playing basketball,” said Drago. “We’d critique the game together.”
Drago’s son, Charlie, lived in San Antonio, and went to Walker’s shows whenever he could. “When my dad would come visit, we’d all play golf, then go see Jerry Jeff play at night,” he said. “I was at the last show he ever did at Gruene Hall. We had tickets for his birthday bash, but he canceled the show.”
“I always wanted to go to the shows he did at his house in Belize,” said Decker. “I kept saying, ‘next year, next year.’”
Walker was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2017 and released his final album, “It’s About Time” in 2018.
Walker was cremated and no funeral service is planned, but Harder said that a tribute concert is in the early planning stages.
“His music and his storytelling will live on for generations,” said Harder. “I can always put on a CD and hear his voice. He’s gone, but he’s not really gone.”