Bert Williams was the recording industry's first important and enduring black artist. His dry but insightful humor, coupled with a downtrodden but persevering persona, found popular success at the turn-of-the-century which continued into the Roaring Twenties. Williams was also a noteworthy songwriter, performed on stages ranging from minstrel shows and vaudeville to Broadway, and made great strides in overcoming racial barriers in American entertainment.
Williams was born in Nassau in the West Indies, on November 12, 1874 or 1875. In 1885 he moved with his family to California. By 1893 he had teamed with long time partner George Walker and begun honing his talents in and around San Francisco. Two years later the act relocated to Chicago, but it was the following year they made their Broadway debut in Oriental America, the first "Negro" production featured on the Broadway stage. At about this time the team began turning a serious hand to songwriting.
Soon after the turn-of-the-century, Williams and Walker increased the range and ambition of their activities. On October 11, 1901, they made their first recordings, including a comic duet called "Good Morning, Carrie" which became a major success. In the summer of 1902 they began work on a new production, In Dahomey, which would become the first major musical written and performed by black entertainers to run on Broadway. The show became a great success, not just in New York but on a tour which took in most of the country as well as England, including a performance at Buckingham Palace.
While Williams and Walker had a couple more hit recordings, Bert Williams' solo performances were soon eclipsing them. Chief among these was his own composition, "Nobody," which was a huge hit in 1906. It became his signature song, and was eventually voted into the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame, by far the earliest popular recording so honored. Williams and Walker continued to be successful on Broadway as a team, but by 1907 George Walker was becoming too ill from syphilis to continue performing, (he died in 1911).
Bert Williams had concerns but little trouble in becoming a solo act. He did continue to do comic skits on stage, eventually joining the Ziegfeld Follies and performing interracially with such stars as Eddie Cantor and W.C. Fields. He was well liked by other performers, well respected for his talent and his character. Williams did much to break down the racial barriers of the time, aided by some of the many white performers he easily befriended. In August of 1920 he became the first black member of the Actors Equity Union, after W.C. Fields petitioned on his behalf.
His successful recording career continued to parallel his popular theatrical appearances. Prohibition provided a new target for his humor, and in 1919 and 1920 he recorded titles like "Everybody Wants a Key to My Cellar" and "When the Moon Shines on the Moon Shine," both best-selling records. His dry wit remained fresh twenty years after his first recordings, and he seemed poised to carry on into the Roaring Twenties, where he doubtlessly would have become a star of radio.
That was not to be. In early 1922, Williams began working on a new production, Under the Bamboo Tree. During rehearsals he caught a cold which eventually became pneumonia. He persevered, even as his illness worsened. On February 25, he collapsed on stage and was rushed to a hospital, where he died a week later.
Although all but forgotten, Bert Williams was a giant of the era, and an important and influential performer in many ways. As with all but a handful of jazz or classical musicians from the period, his recordings are nearly impossible to obtain today, a sad state for a truly marvelous catalog which display a virtually timeless wit and spirit.