His friend and colleague W.C. Fields famously called him "the funniest man I ever saw -- the saddest man I ever knew." Looking back from the vantage of old age, Eddie Cantor said that such a talent came along only "once in a lifetime." Booker T. Washington claimed, "He has done more for our race than I have."
With his partner, George Walker, he spurred the careers of black performers and songwriters, in 1903 staging "In Dahomey," Broadway's first all-black musical comedy. In 1910, as a solo act, he broke the color barrier at the Ziegfeld Follies, the lavish variety show that was the premier stage extravaganza of the day. As a pop star, he was the top-selling African American artist of the pre-1920 era. The toast of London when he traveled abroad, he taught the King of England how to cakewalk.
Williams, second from right, and partner George Walker in a performance of 1903's "In Dahomey," Broadway's first all-black musical comedy. The duo (Williams is at left below) met white audiences' expectation of buffoonery, but recordings attest to Williams's mastery of lyrical phrasing and comic timing.
But if the name of comedian, singer, dancer, actor and songwriter Bert Williams is little recognized today, except among scholars of pre-jazz popular music and early 20th-century theater, it's because more than just his sound seems antique.
Williams, a light-skinned man of African, Spanish and Danish heritage, performed in blackface.
With the imminent release of "The Early Years, 1901-1909," the last of three volumes of Williams's collected recordings (issued in reverse chronological order), Archeophone Records, a small Illinois label devoted to intensively researched and annotated reissues of historically important material in the public domain, has placed him again in the public eye.
Williams and Walker teamed up as young men on the West Coast, working the medicine-show circuit. The act started out with Williams playing the slick operator and Walker taking the role of his dupe, a countrified rube, but the two men quickly figured out that the act worked better the other way around.
But it wasn't until they positioned themselves as "Two Real Coons" -- new, racially authentic versions of white blackface performers -- that their star rose. "The way they got in," Archeophone principal Richard Martin explains, was by saying, in effect, "Joke's on us. We're the Two Real Coons. You guys want coons? Well, we're the genuine item."
It didn't hurt that, as performers, Williams and Walker had the goods to back up their claims. From novelty songs to love songs, character sketches to dance numbers, they did it all. "The self-deprecation worked," Martin says, "and at the same time, they were better than anything else."
The "realness" was, in fact, a carefully crafted fiction. Williams had been born in the Bahamas in 1874; around 1885, his family relocated to the States, eventually settling in Riverside, Calif. Williams graduated from Riverside High School, but family finances prevented him from attending Stanford University.
As Williams explained in "The Comic Side of Trouble," a 1918 essay reprinted in the booklet of "The Middle Years, 1910-1918," the language he used in performance "to me was just as much a foreign dialect as that of the Italian." Williams actually had to study to be able to satisfy white expectations of uneducated black speech.
Offstage, Walker was a hard-charging dealmaker who demanded the choicest gigs, knew what the act was worth and didn't back down from a fight. The quiet, dignified Williams was more jealous of his privacy and family life. But when the curtain went up, he was the main attraction. Walker appears on the first few recordings the pair made, but before long Williams was handling sessions on his own. Williams's baritone could handle a number of styles, from the vibrato-laden art song to the throaty quasi-blues he attempted late in his career. But his trademark was a rhythmically astute, behind-the-beat, largely spoken delivery that established him as a master of lyrical phrasing and comic timing.
In 1906, Williams teamed with black songwriter Alex Rogers to compose what would become his signature number. Recounting a litany of troubles with which the singer received no offers of assistance, "Nobody" provided Williams with a woebegone but winning persona that reached beyond the stereotypes of minstrelsy and appealed to audiences of all races. It remains the single enduring item in the Williams songbook, having been recorded by figures as varied as Perry Como and Ry Cooder. As recently as 2000, Johnny Cash reinterpreted it.
In the first decade of the 1900s, syphilis swept New York's black theatrical set, much as AIDS would descend upon the theater community of the 1980s. By 1909, Walker was too ill to continue the act. Williams was loyal, sending Walker his share of the receipts until his death two years later. Without Walker's guidance, Williams fell prey to bad management, and by 1910 he was open to Florenz Ziegfeld's invitation to join the Follies, where he would work with W.C. Fields and Eddie Cantor.
When white cast members balked at being asked to share the stage with a black man, the impresario stood by his decision, saying, "Go if you want to. I can replace every one of you, except the man you want me to fire." No one left.