Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Egbert Austin Williams, November 12, 1875, Antigua; d 4 March 1922, New York City) Singer, songwriter, actor and comedian, the first and most successful black performer in vaudeville and then on Broadway. The family moved to New York City; young Bert went to San Francisco to study to be a civil engineer, but joined a minstrel company instead. In 1893 he partnered with George Walker, performing skits and songs with Walker as a conniving straight man and Williams as the victim. They billed themselves as 'Two Real Coons', to distinguish themselves from the more common white minstrels who blacked up on stage. They soon began to dilute the 'dumb coon' stereotype, adding universally applicable human comedy and pathos to their act, and ascended in the vaudeville business until they were headliners, struggling against racism all the way. Despite an unprepossessing appearance, Williams was a master of physical stage presence; he also had a streak of melancholy: W. C. Fields described him as 'the funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever knew'. In his personal life he had middle-class tastes and aspirations, but he had to wear blackface during his entire career.

After appearing in several plays, in 1902 Williams & Walker were the stars of In Dahomey, and the next year it reached New York, the first full-length musical show to be written and performed by blacks on Broadway. It then traveled to London, where there was a command performance at Buckingham Palace. This was followed by Abyssinia in 1906, with a score co-written by Williams, and which included his most famous number, 'Nobody', a sort of half-spoken, half-sung observation disguised as comic pathos, which he had to perform for the rest of his life. In 1908, Bandana Land was another hit, containing a pantomime poker game which became a famous Williams turn, and survives on film. Walker performed a number called 'Bon Bon Buddy', as a dapper sophisticated type; the song had been co-written by Will Marion Cook, and evidently because a sort of password, a fragment turning up on records by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington a decade later. But Walker was in ill health, and had to drop out of the show early in 1909; he and Williams never appeared together again.

Williams seemed to flounder for a year, but then he received an unprecedented offer for an African-American to join the Ziegfeld Follies in 1910, and became a bigger star than ever, with Eddie Cantor (who became a close personal friend), Norah Bayes, Fanny Brice, later Will Rogers, and several more of the biggest stars of the era. Yet he had to be defended against the racism of fellow performers by Ziegfeld, who said on one occasion that he could replace them all, except Williams. Another time, when Williams and his wife went to visit the Ziegfelds at home, a doorman refused to admit them until Ziegfeld threatened to move out of the building. Meanwhile Williams had become one of the most highly paid recording artists in the country; on yet another occasion, when a racist bartender tried to charge him $50 for a drink, he pulled out a wad of $100 bills and bought a drink for the house.

One of Williams's earliest hits was 'Good Morning Carrie', covered by other artists, one of the biggest hit songs of 1901. He revived a 19th-century hit, 'Woodman, Spare That Tree'. 'Play That Barbershop Chord' from the 1910 Follies was another hit. He left the Follies in 1919, his name enough to sell tickets to a show even if the show did not have a long run, and continued as a recording artist, his voice and low-key delivery ideal for the acoustic medium. He recorded as Elder Eatmore, a comic preacher, and recorded songs about Prohibition, such as 'The Moon Shines on the Moonshine'. Many of his records stayed in the Columbia catalog until well into the 1930s. But in 1922 he collapsed with pneumonia, touring with a show called Under The Bamboo Tree, and returned to New York, where he died, only 46 years old.

Bert Williams transcended race, as far as that was possible in those days, and the public's love for him has never disappeared. Duke Ellington composed and recorded 'A Portrait Of Bert Williams' in 1940, perhaps the single greatest year in Ellington's career; a liberty ship was named after Williams during WWII. Ry Cooder revived 'Nobody' on his Jazz CD in 1978, and Ben Vereen has performed a tribute to Williams on TV. Archeophone Records has compiled and reissued all the surviving recordings on three CDs.