Thursday, September 13, 2012

Bert Williams – King of Comedy

“They keep me out of a hotel where loafers are admitted without question, so long as they’re white. Then a professor or a lawyer or a doctor invites me up to his house. It’s a great, sad little world.” Comedian Bert Williams
“He impressed himself vividly upon his time – notwithstanding that his time was one of keen, often cruel, competition, and the surging of vast conflicts, not propitious to the ministrations of a funmaker.” Theatrical impresario David Belasco


I hate to see the evening sun go down,
Yes, I hate to see that evening sun go down,
’Cause it makes me think I’m on my last go ’round
 St. Louis Blues by W.C. Handy

Williams caricature by Marius de Zayas
BERT Williams was born Egbert Austin Williams in New Providence, British Bahamas in 1874 or 1876. Williams’ grandfather was the Danish consul in Antigua, who was married to a Spanish ‘senorita’ with African blood. His father was a papier-mâché maker, and his mother an octoroon. At least these were a few of the stories he told reporters over the years.

In an article for the American Magazine Williams wrote
Williams, of course, is obviously not a Danish name. Nobody in America knows my real name, and, if I can prevent it no one ever will. That was the only promise I made to my father.

When he was two years old the family moved to New York City then, in 1885, on to Riverside, California where the father worked as a conductor for the Southern Pacific. Williams told contradictory stories of how he came to the United States, once writing that he arrived “by way of Panama to San Pedro, California, now Los Angeles Harbor.”

Bert Williams graduated high school and began studying civil engineering in San Francisco while working as a bellhop in a hotel. His first theatrical job was with a mountebank minstrel company touring the mining and lumber camps of the great northwest in blackface.
I took to studying the dialect of the American Negro, which to me was just as much of a foreign dialect as the Italian.
Williams and Walker
He joined comedian Ernest Hogan’s Minstrel Company where he met dancer and comedian George Walker (1873-1911). Williams played one of Hogan’s ‘ends’ and Walker the other. From Hogan’s troupe in 1899 emerged the ‘blackface’ duo “Williams and Walker” billed as “The Two Real Coons.” Once, while traveling through El Paso, Texas they were assaulted by a white mob, stripped and forced into burlap sacking. Humiliated, the pair never set foot in the South again.

NY Amsterdam News 
(Negro newspaper), August 3, 1919
Rennold Wolf, a journalist, described Williams’ and Walker’s act this way
In all of their sketches, Williams was the slovenly hard luck coon and Walker the elegant bunco steerer. Just as Lew Fields, in all the Weber and Fields skits, invariably tricked the credulous Weber out of his money, so always did Walker, by some sort of a confidence game, gain control of Williams’ funds. Much of the fun of their acts was based upon Walker’s elegance, made possible by the unkempt Williams’ money.
Ring Lardner in Chicago, 
around 1913
A young Chicago sports reporter, Ring Lardner, born in 1885, was smitten by Williams’ comic songs and the two became lifelong friends, even collaborating on songwriting together.
He liked to take Williams to Stillson’s tavern, the hangout of Tribune reporters, and to other newspapermen’s haunts. But Williams did not feel at ease in such places; he rather sadly accepted discrimination, and even in later years, when, as a Ziegfeld Follies star, he was invited to stay in the same hotels as the rest of the cast, he used back entrances to avoid embarrassment.
Williams and Walker made their first New York appearance at Tony Pastor’s in 1896. Their production of ‘Abyssinia’ ran ten weeks on Broadway, a record for colored attractions at that time. Williams and Walker began recording phonographs in 1901, first for Victor and then for Columbia. Williams was one of the most prolific of early black recording stars with 71 known recordings to his name. Williams’ last recording, Not Lately, was released in 1922.

His earliest songs were advertised as ‘coon songs’ but after 1927 Columbia promoted his songs as ‘race records’ in their blues catalog along with Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Clara Smith, Sadie Jackson, Barbecue Bob and “Peg Leg” Howell. Most of his releases were actually spoken or half-sung comic monologues. His biggest hits, ‘Nobody,’ ‘Jonah Man,’ and ‘I may be Crazy but I ain’t no Fool’ were written by Alexander Rogers.

April 9, 1920
When I was a lad I thought I had a voice, but I learned differently in later years. I did not take proper care of it, and now I have to talk all my numbers.”
May 27, 1919
On June 28, 1902 the pair toured Europe and performed a command performance at Buckingham Palace. The partnership lasted until Walker’s death in 1909, which “deeply affected” his old partner. Walker ended his days in a sanatorium. It was said that Williams took care of Walker’s bills until the end.

When Walker retired in ill health Williams toured in a black production called ‘Mr. Lode of Coal’ which met with “indifferent success.” After closing he did vaudeville for a time before joining the Ziegfield Follies where he was the featured attraction for seven years.

In his early career Williams performed in ‘blackface’ just like the white minstrels as was the custom at the time. By 1916, when he was performing in Hark! Hark! Hark!, things had changed and Goodwin’s Weekly wrote
This is not the Bert Williams of blackface. This is Herbert Williams, to speak correctly, and his face is very white and extends way up where his hair ought to be, but he’s surely a funny guy, and if we had the time we would make it a point to drop in on him again.
A Natural Born Gambler 1916
Bert Williams made his debut as a film actor in Dark-town Jubilee in 1914. On July 24, 1916, Williams signed up for a series of two-reel comedies produced by Biograph Pictures. “Williams is especially noted for his droll pantomime, which should be very effective on the screen,” said the New York Dramatic Mirror. Unfortunately the films bombed when distributors refused to handle them for fear of offending Southern audiences. One of these films, A Natural Born Gambler, can be viewed online HERE.

The Crisis, June 1916
It was announced on June 15, 1918, that Bert Williams was quitting the Follies for vaudeville. His bit was a one-act turn as Uncle Tom and Simon Legree in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In 1920 he signed up once again for a series of two-reel comedies produced by Tarkington Baker. Booth Tarkington, one of the partners was to write the scenarios. Williams had spent his summers studying with the great European pantomimist Pietro.

“He is the one artist from whom I can truthfully say that I learned. He taught me gesture, facial expression – without which I would never have been able to do the poker game stunt that was so popular. And above all he taught me the value of poise, repose and pauses. He taught me that the pause after a gesture or a movement is frequently more important than the gesture itself, because it emphasizes the gesture.”

While playing in Edinburgh, Scotland Williams and other members of his company were made members of the Waverly Masonic Lodge. He held the rank of Captain in the Eighth Regiment of the Illinois National Guard. 

BERT Williams collapsed during a stage performance in Detroit. He died at his home at 2309 Seventh Avenue in New York, on March 5, 1922, and was survived by his widow, Lottie Williams, two nieces and his mother. He was the first Negro in history to be buried by a white Masonic lodge, St. Cecile, the theatrical lodge, with special permission from the mother lodge in Scotland.

New York Day by Day columnist O.O. McIntyre believed that “the pongee puckster Bert Williams died of a broken heart.”
As a reporter I talked to Williams a few months before his passing. While he made no direct statement, I garnered an impression that racial barriers which precluded his attaining the high dramatic place in the theater he deserved had worn him down. To my notion he was bankrupt of hope, did not care longer to trail his thin wisp of glory, and made no resistance to the ravages of a disease.
Bert Williams Last Photograph.
*A near complete set of Walker and Williams recordings can be found HERE.  Complete Bert Williams recordings available from Archeophone Records HERE. In 1980 Dave Van Ronk recorded an album called Somebody Else Not Me, titled after the Bert Williams song. Van Ronk was a great ragtime guitarist, a student of Reverend Gary Davis. Just by chance I picked up an American Songwriter magazine this morning with a review of the re-issue of Van Ronk's 1966 album No Dirty Names. According to the review the Coen Brothers new movie is "loosely based" on the life of Dave Van Ronk.


  1. Wonderful job John! Thanks again!

  2. Thanks for this fine piece on Bert Williams. Hope you don't mind me quoting your American Magazine quote, "Williams, of course, is obviously not a Danish name..."

  3. Don't mind at all thanks for the comment.

  4. Powerful Life. Thank you. I will be honoring Sir Bert Williams in my new theatre piece. This was a beautiful find as well as a deeper insight into the man and artist.

  5. Bert Williams compete film of A Natural Born Gambler can be viewed here >