Bert WilliamsSep 25th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Arts & Entertainment
1874-1922 Bert Williams was one of Broadway’s most successful performers during the first two decades of the 20th century. First with his partner George Walker, then working solo, he transcended the boundaries of the minstrel tradition in which he performed and triumphed as a comedian, dancer, singer, and songwriter.
A Caribbean Childhood
Williams was born Egbert Austin Williams into a mixed-race family on November 12, 1874, in Nassau in the British colonial territory of the Bahamas. His father, Frederick Williams, Jr., was a sailor and sometime waiter. His mother, Julia Monceur, was the daughter of a clergyman from the nearby island of Antigua. Williams spent his first 11 years in Nassau where he experienced little racial discrimination but a great deal of poverty. In 1885, the family emigrated to the United States, ending up in southern California.
Williams and his family made their home about 60 miles southeast of Los Angeles in the small but fast-growing town of Riverside, a center of the state’s booming citrus industry. Riverside had been founded a little more than a decade earlier by an entrepreneurial abolitionist from Tennessee, but racism had since become widespread, and Williams was both surprised and angered by the discrimination to which he was now subject because of his heritage. He later frequently said, “I have never been able to discover that there was anything disgraceful in being a colored man. But I have found it inconvenient—in America.”
An excellent student with a passion for books, Williams hoped to attend Stanford University, the “Harvard of the West.” But Stanford catered to the wealthy and the elite, and Williams was neither. After graduating high school, Williams gained entrance to the University of San Francisco in 1892. Always in search of work, he employed his wits, a talent for writing songs, and a knack for doing impressions to earn money on local stages. Williams soon met George Walker, another talented young performer looking for a break, and the two of them decided to form an act. Over the next two years, they refined and improved their routine, first in San Francisco, then in Chicago, and finally in New York.
Williams and Walker worked in the minstrel tradition, originally created by Whites wearing blackface as a vehicle for demeaning humor aimed at African Americans. On the surface, Williams and Walker were doing the same, also performing in blackface, and at one time calling themselves “The Two Real Coons” with Williams assuming the traditional role of a not-too-bright black man continually getting himself into trouble. But the stories Williams and Walker told came from the heart, and the essence of their humor consisted not in stereotypes but in actions and words persons of any race might employ in the face of a world filled with absurdities and ironies. Audiences both black and white found the results profoundly moving and hilarious.
Rise to Fame
Working clever, sophisticated songs into the mix, Williams and Walker became a vaudeville phenomenon in New York as soon as they arrived in 1894. The very next year, they received rave reviews for their performance in a Broadway musical by the famous composer Victor Herbert, and soon after that the duo could be seen on the stages of New York’s best music halls. They continued to cause a sensation, noted for a unique version of the cakewalk in which Williams played the role of an enthusiastic clod trying to follow the footsteps of the acrobatic and graceful Walker. The act was credited with making the dance a national craze.
With the turn of the century, Williams’ and Walker’s careers truly took off. The two appeared on Broadway again, in the 1902 musical comedy hit, In Dahomey, which broke ground by employing black talent at every level. Williams’ performance of the song “I’m a Jonah Man” stole the show. A successful tour of the production across Europe followed, culminating in a performance before the English royal family. On returning to the United States, Williams and Walker again began staging their own shows and productions, often performing at venues that had previously not allowed Blacks. They also began working in the new medium of recording and record albums, which helped to continue the spread of their fame throughout the United States. Williams and Walker had their first of several major hits with “Good Morning, Carrie.”
In 1906, with Walker laid low by illness, Williams had a hit record of his own with the song “Nobody,” which eventually became a classic. In 1909, Walker’s poor health forced him to give up the stage for good, but Williams continued to consider him part of his act—and paid him as if he were—until Walker died in 1911. Now a solo performer, Williams retained his success seamlessly, and appeared in the Ziegfield Follies, the pinnacle of Broadway venues. He also began working with the likes of Eddie Cantor and W.C. Fields. Fields sponsored Williams’ successful attempt to become the first African American accepted into Actor’s Equity, the guild of professional performers. By this time, Williams had honed his stage persona to perfection, the archetype of a hard-luck man facing the absurdities of life. A critic called him the black Charlie Chaplin. Fields called him the funniest man he had ever known, but at the same time, the saddest.
Williams continued his celebrated performing and recording career throughout the 1920s, turning his wit against such issues as Prohibition, for instance, with his hit “When the Moon Shines on the Moon Shine.” Rehearsing for a string of Broadway musicals in 1922, he came down with pneumonia. The illness agitated an existing heart condition, and on March 4, 1922, Williams died at age 47. The tradition and excellence of African American theater, music, comedy, and performance that has followed since his death are Williams’ legacy.