broadway pioneer bert williams -- 10/14/22

Today's selection -- from Camera Man by Dana Stevens. The legendary Bahamian American come­dian and singer Bert Williams.
"Williams, born in Nassau in 1874 and brought to the United States by his parents at age eleven, was among the first performers to integrate the Broadway stage. In 1903 he costarred in the all-Black musical In Dahomey alongside his performing partner, the African American dancer and comedian George Walker. In 1910 Williams, working as a solo act, became the first Black featured performer in the Ziegfeld Follies. When some of his white costars threatened to quit in protest, the impresario Florenz Ziegfeld is said to have responded, 'Go if you want to. I can replace every one of you, except the man you want me to fire.'

"Williams was a major star from around the turn of the century until his death in 1922, and is now considered one of the first great 'crossover' artists of the twentieth century. He made some of the top-selling records of the 1910s and performed on the same big-time vaudeville bills as many white acts, including the Three Keatons.

Bert Williams -- Click here to hear Bert Williams singing 'Nobody'

"Williams's signature persona, though usually performed in blackface, was no crude stereotype but an original and complex character, albeit one derived from a familiar minstrel tradition. In his early days touring as one-half the team of Williams and Walker, the tall and ungainly Williams played a 'Jim Crow' type, a lumbering foil to Walker's smaller, snappier 'Zip Coon.' The fast-talking Walker was always coming up with out­landish moneymaking schemes, while Williams played his slow-witted, shambling sidekick. When Walker died of complications of syphilis in 1911 after a long decline, Williams had to refashion this comic persona into the star of a solo act.

"The 'Jonah Man,' like the Old Testament prophet who gave him his name, was a dolorous figure, an Everyman seemingly conspired against by fate. In a too-small dress suit, a top hat, and slapshoes not unlike those worn by knockabout comedians like Buster and Joe, he told shaggy-dog stories that were sometimes set to catchy tunes and sometimes presented as spoken comic interludes Williams called 'lies.' These were sharply observed tales of work and family, laced with topical jokes about pop culture and Prohibition. Williams's songs often sprang from painful experiences rooted in Black life, but the pain was expressed in general enough and funny enough terms that many white audiences could relate. 'I'm Gonna Quit Saturday' is sung from the point of view of a working man unconvincingly declaring that this time his boss's exploitation has gone too far. The narrator of 'Ten Little Bottles' amasses a tidy stash of black-market moonshine, then counts down in dismay as it disappears a bottle at a time, doled out to importuning relatives, nosy neighbors, and thirsty local cops.

"Williams's signature song was 'Nobody,' a song he admitted to growing sick of singing by the end of his life, though his audiences never tired of hearing it. With music by Williams and words by his frequent collaborator, the Black composer Alex Rogers, it was a plaintive lament about poverty and loneliness that, in the move from verse to chorus, suddenly changes tones to become a defiant protest of the singer's powerless position.

"When life seems full of clouds and rain
And I am full of nothin' but pain
Who soothes my thumpin', bumpin' brain?

"When winter comes with snow and sleet
And I with hunger and cold feet,
Who says 'Here's twenty-five cents, go ahead and get somethin' to eat?'

"Oh, I ain't never done nothin' to nobody
I ain't never done nothin' to nobody, no time
So until I get something from somebody,
sometime I'll never do nothin' for nobody, no time."



Dana Stevens


Camera Man


Atria Books


Copyright 2022 by Dana Stevens


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