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.
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.
Before long, Williams was receiving top billing, but the Follies remained, at heart, a spectacle. If he was underused onstage, Williams made up for it in the recording studio, waxing songs and sketches for Columbia, which considered him a sure thing and kept his titles in print for years. According to Tim Brooks's new book, "Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919," it is estimated that in 1920 Williams's various titles shipped more than a million copies. "Williams was undoubtedly the most popular black comedian before Bill Cosby," observes historian Eric Ledell Smith, author of a 1992 biography of the star.
Throughout his decade with the Follies, Williams fell back on well-worn stereotypes, but he wasn't happy about it. When he sat out the 1913 and 1918 seasons, it was likely as much because he was dissatisfied with the material he was receiving as it was because of personal matters. (During the first hiatus, he and his wife, Lottie, who had no children of their own, assumed care of three orphaned nieces. During the second, he was suffering from poor circulation.)
Williams fared no better on celluloid. "A Natural Born Gambler," a 1916 two-reeler that is the only movie of the few he made that survives in full today, revolves around the usual scenes of dice-shooting, debt-dodging, devil-fleeing and chicken-thieving. It's an embarrassing scenario, but through it all Williams is a magnetic presence onscreen. He longed for legitimate roles but wasn't sure his audience would accept him in them. In 1920, against the backdrop of a postwar recession, he finally set out on his own -- remaining in blackface -- but met with little success.
He knew he was seriously ill when, on Feb. 27, 1922, he stepped onto the stage for the last time, only to have to quit the performance halfway through. He had feared the show would close without him and his company would be out of work. Five days later he was dead of pneumonia, complicated by heart problems, at the age of 47.
"Bert Williams is a tragic story, because he never got to do what he wanted to do, which was legitimate theater," says New Orleans writer and lecturer Thomas L. Morgan, co-author of "From Cakewalks to Concert Halls: An Illustrated History of African American Popular Music from 1895 to 1930." But "he made the best of his role in life," Morgan adds.
The inclination today is to view Williams's achievement largely in social terms, within the context of times that made mass popularity and vocal protest mutually exclusive. "I think he deserves respect -- from both the white and the black community," says Maryland-based author, lecturer and pianist Bill Messenger. "His goal was to break the barriers. You don't break the barriers with hostility during that time. He would have never made it to Broadway." On the basis of his showbiz success alone, Smith contends, Williams functioned as a role model.
Although Brooks hazards that had Williams been white, "his career would have been long forgotten," along with those of virtually every other performer who never moved beyond blackface, echoes of his performances reverberate still. In the notes to "His Final Releases, 1919-1922," issued in 2001, Martin advanced the idea that "today's rap music may owe a debt to Williams's style, phrasing and humor."
The implication of those words rings louder in 2004 than when they were written. Hip-hop culture, it seems, is having a vaudeville moment. With their skits, star turns and guest appearances, rap albums are structured much like old revues. Flip to MTV, and there are your dancing girls. Savvy businessmen adopt exaggerated street alter egos in the name of keepin' it real.
According to Esquire, the world's best-dressed man is OutKast's futuristically monikered Andre 3000, who can be seen as the apotheosis of Walker's citified dandy: a fellow so uptown he's from outer space.
And Dave Chappelle, recently hailed on the cover of TV Guide as the "funniest man on TV," is notorious not just for portraying ne'er-do-well ethnic stereotypes (the ravenous crackhead) and racial fish-out-of-water types (Black Bush and Black Gallagher) but also for broadly caricaturing performers who already lean toward self-parody -- rapper-producer Lil' Jon, the late Rick James -- and boiling them down to catchphrases.
It's not hard to see parallels between the razors, confidence schemes and backroom dice games of Williams and the gats and knives, pimpin' and playin', and Vegas getaways of Ludacris, who blusters with the best of them but fundamentally maintains an endearingly buffoonish persona.
And though the poultry no longer has to be stolen, it still looms large as a down-home symbol of the good life. The cover of last fall's multi-platinum CD by Ludacris, "Chicken 'N' Beer," plays lightheartedly off the trope of the untrammeled black appetite, whether for drumsticks or booty.
As hip-hop has persisted, its roots have been traced ever further back, through funk, reggae, soul and R&B to jazz of all stripes. In the mid-1990s the Yazoo label's "Roots of Rap: Classic Recordings of the 1920s and '30s" included early country blues and jug band tunes. Perhaps now is a good time to include the work of Bert Williams.