Saturday, December 12, 2009



For the most part, we like to keep it funky over here at the StereoTyped blog concerning the music and design works we like to drop on you. However, from time to time there are exceptions. The previous post on the new Taschen book release on music packaging design work of graphic designer Alex Stienweiss inspired this post.

Seeing a pic of Stienweiss sitting at his desk with some of his designed album covers on display (check the black and white pic below in the previous post). Then the Al Jolson looking cat in the top hat on one of the album covers entitled "Famous Songs" by Bert Williams froze me up cold. I stared at the cover thinking, "what the..?" The cover, of course a product of the racially troubling times, unexpectedly grabbed my undivided attention. I decided to do a little digging into the past for a word on this Bert Williams cat.

Interesting is the story I found regarding Williams.

*** Egbert Austin "Bert" Williams (November 12, 1875 – March 4, 1922), born in Sweetes, Antigua, was an important figure in the development of Black music in America (U.S.). A pre-eminent Black entertainer of his era and one of the most popular comedians for all audiences of his time. He was by far the best-selling black recording artist before 1920.

*** Williams became the first black American to take a lead role on the Broadway stage, doing a lot to push back the racial barriers that existed during his career and time. Becoming one of Vaudeville's top solo artists, fellow vaudevillian W.C. Fields, who appeared in productions with Williams, described him as "the funniest man I ever saw – and the saddest man I ever knew."

*** In San Francisco, intending to study to be a civil engineer, but instead joined a minstrel company known as "The Mastoden Minstrels", which played the lumber and mining camps of California. In 1893, in San Francisco he formed the team of Williams and Walker, his partner being equally celebrated straight man George Walker.

*** Williams & Walker (George Walker), performing song-and-dance numbers, comic dialogues, skits, and humorous songs, fell into stereotypical vaudevillian roles: The sharp-featured and slender Walker developed a persona as a strutting dandy, while the stocky Williams played the languorous oaf.

They headlined the Koster and Bial's vaudeville house for 36 weeks in 1896-97. The pair performed in burnt-cork blackface, as was customary at the time, billing themselves as "Two Real Coons" to distinguish their act from the many white minstrels also performing in blackface. Williams also made his first recordings in 1896, but none are known to survive. Williams & Walker appeared in a succession of shows, including A Senegambian Carnival, A Lucky Coon, and The Policy Players. Their stars were on the ascent, but they still faced vivid reminders of the limits placed on them by white society. In August 1900, in New York City, hysterical rumors of a white detective having been shot by a black man erupted into an uncontained riot. Unaware of the street violence, Williams & Walker left their theater after a performance and parted ways. Williams headed off in a fortunate direction, but Walker was yanked from a streetcar by a white mob and was beaten.

*** The following month, Williams & Walker had their greatest success to date with Sons of Ham, a broad farce that was perhaps most notable for its lack of the extreme "darkie" stereotypes which were then common. The pair had already begun to transition away from racial minstrel conventions to a more human style of comedy. In 1901, they recorded thirteen discs for the Victor Talking Machine Company. Some of these, like "The Phrenologist Coon," were standard blackface material, but the financial lament "When It's All Going Out and Nothing Coming In" was race-blind, and became one of Williams' best-known songs. Another Williams composition, "Good Morning Carrie", was covered by many artists, becoming one of the biggest hits of 1901. These discs existed only in pressings of fewer than 1,000, and were not heard by very many listeners. Sons of Ham ran for two years.

*** Williams & Walker, in September 1902, debuted their next vehicle, In Dahomey, was a bigger hit. In 1903 the production moved to New York City, where it became the first black musical to open on Broadway. This was a landmark event, but seating inside the theater was segregated. In Dahomey then traveled toLondon, where it was enthusiastically received. A command performance was given at Buckingham Palace in June 1903.

*** In February 1906, Abyssinia, with a score co-written by Williams, premiered at the Majestic Theater. The show, which included live camels, was another smash. Williams committed many of its songs to disc and cylinder. One of them, "Nobody," became his signature theme, and the song he is best remembered for today. It is a doleful and ironic composition, replete with his dry observational wit, and is perfectly complemented by Williams' intimate, half-spoken singing style. 'Nobody' was a particularly hard song to replace." "Nobody" remained active in Columbia's sales catalogue into the 1930s, and the musicologist Tim Brooks estimates that it sold between 100,000 and 150,000 copies, a phenomenally high amount for the era.

When life seems full of clouds and rain,
And I am filled with naught but pain,
Who soothes my thumping, bumping brain?
[pause] Nobody.
When winter comes with snow and sleet,
And me with hunger and cold feet,
Who says, "Here's two bits, go and eat"?
[pause] Nobody.
I ain't never done nothin' to Nobody.
I ain't never got nothin' from Nobody, no time.
And, until I get somethin' from somebody sometime,
I don't intend to do nothin' for Nobody, no time.

*** Williams' langorous, drawling delivery was the primary selling point of several similarly-structured Williams recordings, such as "Constantly" and "I'm Neutral." Williams even recorded two compositions titled "Somebody" and "Everybody." His style was inimitable. In an era when the most popular songs were simultaneously promoted by several artists (for example, "Over There" was a top ten hit for six different acts in 1917-18), Williams' repertoire was left comparatively untouched by competing singers.[8]

*** Williams & Walker were prominent success stories for the black community, and they received both extensive press coverage and frequent admonitions to properly "represent the race." Leading black newspapers mounted campaigns against demeaning stereotypes such as the word "coon." Williams & Walker were sympathetic, but also had their careers to consider, where they performed before many white audiences. The balancing act between their audience's expectations and their artistic impulses was tricky.

In his only known essay, Williams wrote:

"People sometimes ask me if I would not give anything to be white. I answer . . . most emphatically, "No." How do I know what I might be if I were a white man? I might be a sandhog, burrowing away and losing my health for $8 a day. I might be a streetcar conductor at $12 or $15 a week. There is many a white man less fortunate and less well-equipped than I am. In fact, 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."

*** Walker was in ill health by this point, apparently due to syphilis, and was forced to drop out of Bandanna Land in early 1909. The famous pair never performed in public again, and Walker died less than two years later. Williams' next move was starring as Mr. Lode of Koal, a farce about a kidnapped king that was well-received by critics, but which played a secondary string of theaters and was a box office flop. After Mr. Lode skidded to a halt, Williams accepted an unprecedented offer to join Flo Ziegfeld's Follies. The idea of a black featured performer amid an otherwise all-white show was a shock in 1910. Williams' initial reception was cool, and several cast members delivered an ultimatum to Ziegfeld that Williams be fired. Ziegfeld held firm, saying, "I can replace every one of you, except [Williams]." The show's writers were slow to devise material for him to perform. But by the time the show finally debuted in June, Williams was a sensation. Reviews were uniformly positive for Williams.

*** Following his success, Williams signed an exclusive contract with Columbia Records, and recorded four of the show's songs. His elevated status was signaled not just by the generous terms of the contract, but by the tenor of Columbia's promotion, which dropped much of the previous "coon harmony"-type sales patter and began touting Williams' "inimitable art" and "direct appeal to the intelligence." Tim Brooks wrote, "Williams had become a star who transcended race, to the extent that was possible in 1910." All four songs sold well, and one of them, "Play That Barbershop Chord," became a substantial hit.

Few stage performers were recording regularly in 1910, in some cases because their onstage styles did not translate to the limited technical media. But Williams' low-key natural delivery was ideal for discs of the time.

*** Williams returned for the 1911 edition of the Ziegfeld Follies, teaming up in some sketches with the comedian Leon Errol to ecstatic effect. Williams also reprised his poker routine, and popularized a song called "Woodman, Spare That Tree." In January 1913, he recorded several more sides for Columbia, including a new version of "Nobody," the 1906 copies having long since become scarce. All of the releases remained in Columbia's catalog for years. Walker continued as a featured star of the Follies, and made several more recording dates for Columbia, though he stopped writing his own songs by 1915. He also began making film appearances, though most have been lost. One of them, A Natural Born Gambler, shows his pantomime poker sketch, and is the best-known footage of Williams available.

*** Williams recorded several records in the guise of "Elder Eatmore," an unscrupulous preacher, as well as songs dealing with Prohibition, such as "Everybody Wants a Key to My Cellar," "Save a Little Dram for Me," "Ten Little Bottles," and the smash hit, "The Moon Shines on the Moonshine." By this point, Williams' records were taking up a full page in Columbia's catalog, and they were among the strongest-selling songs of the age. At a time when 10,000 sales was considered a very successful major label release, Williams had four songs that shipped between 180,000 and 250,000 copies in 1920 alone. Williams, along with Al Jolson and Nora Bayes, was one of the three most highly paid recording artists in the world.

*** In 1910, regarding Williams, Booker T. Washington wrote, "He has done more for our race than I have. He has smiled his way into people's hearts; I have been obliged to fight my way."

*** In 1940, Duke Ellington composed and recorded "A Portrait of Bert Williams", a subtly crafted tribute.

*** Legendary cartoon director Chuck Jones pays homage to Williams with the high-kicking dance steps of Michigan J. Frog in Jones' classic Warner Bros. cartoon One Froggy Evening.

*** The Archeophone label has collected and released all of Williams' extant recordings on three CDs.

*** In World War II the United States liberty ship SS Bert Williams was named in his honor.

*** In 1996, Bert was inducted in the International Clown Hall of Fame.