Bahamian-born African-American comedian and singer Bert Williams (1874–1922) was a phenomenally popular figure in the field of American theatrical entertainment during his heyday in the first two decades of the twentieth century.
Williams, who wore blackface makeup over his own black face to conform to the racist theatrical stereotypes of the era, was in many ways a tragic figure. He worked in the genre of the blackface minstrel show, which was one of the key components of a longstanding attempt by white Americans to degrade Americans of African descent. Yet Williams made comedy out of the sadness he felt behind the mask, creating hard-luck stage characters and songs that appealed to a wide cross-section of audiences. In terms of the development of African-American opportunities in American show business, Williams was widely recognized as a pioneer. Williams was described by film comedian W. C. Fields (quoted by Ann Charters in Nobody: The Story of Bert Williams ) as "the funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever knew."
Raised in Bahamas
Egbert Austin Williams was born in Nassau, in the Bahamas, on November 12, 1874. His background was mixed: his mother was from Antigua, and among his ancestors on his father's side was a Danish diplomat. When Williams was born, his father was working as a waiter at Nassau's Royal Victoria Hotel. The family thought of immigrating to the United States and made a temporary trip to New York when Williams was two, but then returned to the Bahamas, Williams's home until he was 11. His natural accent was lightly Caribbean, and the stylized black dialect of the American minstrel show, he was quoted as saying by Charters, "to me was just as much a foreign dialect as that of the Italian."
In 1885 the Williams family came to the United States for good, following a Bahamian migration to Florida and then moving on to southern California and its growing fruit farms. Williams attended Riverside Boys High School, treating classes with indifference but singing enthusiastically in the choir. Once, when he was called on to recite from a book the class had been reading, he entertained his classmates with jokes he had been absorbing from a second book concealed on his lap. "I was always doing something funny, and my teachers didn't know what to do with me," he recalled in an interview quoted by Eric Ledell Smith in Bert Williams: A Biography of the Pioneer Black Comedian . "They couldn't spank me for being funny, and I wasn't a mischievous boy."
Tall like both his parents, agile, and obviously talented, Williams ran away from home at age 16 to join a medicine show but then returned home to his family. He thought of attending Stanford University but could not afford the tuition. In order to earn the money, he joined a minstrel show that traveled among the lumber camps of northern California. Things went from bad to worse when the company floundered and Williams arrived in San Francisco, as he recalled in an interview quoted by biographer Smith, "without a stitch of clothing, literally without a stitch, as the few rags I wore to spare the hostility of the police had to be burned for reasons that everyone will understand who has read of the experiences of the soldiers in the trenches." But he bounced back with another job with a Hawaiian troupe (impersonating a Pacific islander) and then, in 1893, signed on with Martin and Selig's Minstrels.
In that company he met George Walker, a fellow aspiring comedian who would be his stage partner for the next 16 years. The pair sang and performed comic routines, often with Walker in the role of a sharp-dressed straight man and Williams as his down-at-the-heels counterpart, bumbling but quick-witted. The two made their way across the country, performing minstrel shows and billing themselves as The Two Real Coons. The trip was a difficult one; in Colorado they were robbed of their clothes by a white gang who thought they were too well-dressed and forced them to wear burlap bags. They were not the first African Americans associated with minstrel shows, which for many decades after the Civil War represented the only performing opportunities of any kind open to blacks.
Used Burnt Cork Makeup
Williams and Walker downplayed the minstrel show's racist aspects and turned its humor to their own ends. At an 1895 Detroit performance, Williams adopted the minstrel show's strongest visual symbol—he put on burnt cork makeup to darken his face and went on stage to perform a song of his own composition, called "Oh, I Don't Know, You're Not So Warm." "Nobody was more surprised than I was when it went like a house on fire," he said (as quoted by Charters). "Then I began to find myself. It was not until I was able to see myself as another person that my sense of humor developed." The financially precarious Williams and Walker barnstorming tour arrived in New York in 1896, where the two landed roles in the Victor Herbert operetta The Gold Bug .
That and the duo's other initial forays into New York theater were unsuccessful, partly because classically trained New York pit musicians could not handle the ragtime rhythms of the songs they interpolated into vaudeville programs. But ragtime in the late 1890s was rapidly on the rise, and Williams and Walker were in the right place at the right time. They landed an engagement at Koster and Bial's, one of the city's top music halls, and the craze for the cakewalk dance—a comic black imitation of white society dances that in turn became popular among white audiences—fit their comic style perfectly. They gained publicity by visiting the mansion of tycoon William Vanderbilt, who had been seen doing the cakewalk at a dance, and leaving a letter (quoted by Charters) with his butler, suggesting a cakewalk contest: "We, the undersigned world-renowned cakewalkers, believing that the attention of the public has been distracted from us on account of the tremendous hit which you have made, hereby challenge you to compete with us in a cake-walking match, which will decide which of us shall deserve the title of champion cake-walker of the world." In 1900 Williams married Charlotte (Lottie) Thompson.
The career of Williams and Walker gained some momentum, and they were able to put their resources behind a nascent attempt to mount shows with all-black casts. In 1902 they performed in a musical by composer Will Marion Cook, with texts by poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, with an African theme, called In Dahomey . Although still dealing in racial comedy to an extent that would make modern audiences uncomfortable, In Dahomey was a landmark in African-American theater history. Williams and Walker toured widely with the show, which reached England in 1903 and brought the duo to the chambers of King Edward VII for a private performance. The king reportedly struck up a friendship with Williams, who attempted to teach him the cakewalk, the game of craps, and a few of his dialect comedy routines.
In Dahomey spawned all-black musical successors including Abyssinia (1906) and Bandanna Land (1908); these shows, like those mounted by white performers in New York's theaters and music halls, spawned hit songs and new dance steps that spread around the country. Williams became a star, but his life was never free of the tragic sting of racism. In an essay later published in The American Magazine (quoted by Steven C. Tracy in MELUS ), he related how some white actors treated him as an equal associate but that their "brainless and envious" rivals took the opportunity to use racial restrictions to humiliate him. Williams often responded to discrimination with the mild but firm observation (quoted by Charters) that "in truth, I have never been able to discover that there was anything disgraceful in being a colored man. But I have often found it inconvenient—in America."
Developed Solo Act
Walker's ill health and his death in 1911 put an end to his partnership with Williams, but by that time Williams had taken on a new stage persona that did not reject minstrel comedy but transcended it. He premiered several new songs that established him as a hard-luck figure who was funny, to be sure, but who had a deep undercurrent of melancholy. Among these were "I'm a Jonah Man," written by frequent Williams collaborator Alex Rogers, and the most famous Williams number of all: "Nobody," with words by Rogers and music by Williams himself. The song was first introduced in Abyssinia . For many years afterward, Williams was obliged to sing "Nobody" in personal appearances even as he introduced other satirical material like "Woodman Spare That Tree (It's the Only One My Wife Can't Climb)" and "I Want to Know Where Tosti Went (When He Said 'Goodbye Forever')," the latter parodying a prominent Italian-American song of the day.
"Nobody" lay at the heart of the Williams image. Its individual sections began with semi-spoken verses in which Williams lamented his lonely state: "When life seems full of clouds and rain / And I am full of nothin' but pain, / Who soothes my thumpin', bumpin', brain? / Nobody!" Then its slow ragtime chorus continued: "I ain't never done nothin' to nobody, / I ain't never got nothin' from nobody, no time." Increasingly the musical revues in which Williams appeared drew white as well as black audiences (often segregated, depending on where in the country they were presented). One of his admirers was the pioneer African-American educator Booker T. Washington, who wrote a tribute to Williams that appeared in American Magazine in 1910. Washington, as quoted by Smith, declared that Williams "puts into this form [vaudeville] some of the quality and philosophy of the Negro race." In 1910, despite resistance from some of the company's white performers, Williams joined the cast of the Ziegfeld Follies and become the first black star of a leading white Broadway revue.
Appearing in the Follies between 1910 and 1912 and intermittently thereafter, Williams became a major national star. At one point his annual salary reportedly exceeded that of the President of the United States, but money could not buy him freedom from segregation restrictions. After having to ride the freight elevator of a hotel to reach his room, he remarked to singer Eddie Cantor (according to an interview quoted by Tracy), "It wouldn't be so bad, Eddie, if I didn't still hear the applause ringing in my ears." Williams made a series of popular 78 rpm recordings for the Columbia label in the 1910s, featuring comic routines and songs; one of the most popular, "Darktown Poker Club," anticipated hip-hop themes in its mixture of violence, rapid spoken text, and atmosphere of illicit gambling. Williams's comic sketches, such as the ghost story "You Cant' Do Nothin' Till Martin Gets Here," drew on African-American southern folklore.
Williams became a naturalized American citizen in 1918, and he appeared with Cantor in the 1920 show Broadway Brevities . He lived to see younger black performers benefit from the opportunities he had done so much to create. Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones became the first major drama by a white playwright to feature a black lead character, and the Noble Sissle/Eubie Blake revue Shuffle Along spawned a new generation of African-American stars. Williams mounted a new production of his own called Under the Bamboo Tree , but he fell ill during a performance in Detroit while the show toured nationally. Suffering from pneumonia brought on by heart problems, he died in New York on March 4, 1922. Tributes that flowed in from both black and white performers were collected in Mabel Rowland's 1923 biography Bert Williams: Son of Laughter , but after that Williams's star dimmed for many years, largely due to the decline of racial stereotyping in American performing arts. Toward the end of the twentieth century, however, interest in Williams reawakened with the publication of two biographies and the reissue on the Archeophone label of many of his recordings in compact disc form. The play Nobody: The Bert Williams Story by Frank Jenkins, and the novel Dancing in the Dark by Caryl Phillips were both fictionalized treatments of Williams's tragicomic life.
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Smith, Eric Ledell, Bert Williams: A Biography of the Pioneer Black Comedian , McFarland, 1992.
Buffalo News , December 4, 2005.
Houston Chronicle , September 25, 2005.
MELUS , Summer 2004.
Sarasota Herald Tribune , March 17, 2006.
"Bert Williams (1876–1922)," DuBois Learning Center, http://www.duboislc.org/ShadesOfBlack/BertWms.html (February 8, 2007).
"Bert Williams," Songwriters Hall of Fame, http://www.songwritershalloffame.org/artist_bio.asp?artistId=73 (February 8, 2007).