Monday, July 27, 2009

The great Bert Williams (1874-1922).. A great star in a not so great time.

Bert Williams was a great performer, dancer, writer, comedian, and mime. That he happened to be black had nothing to do with anything. But in the age he lived, it did. This was a great mind and a great collector of books. He loved Shakespeare, but never could perform it.

He was one of the most beloved performers on stage, yet he was not allowed in the front door of many of the hotels of the cities in which he performed. He was a star on Columbia Records. His recordings were numerous. He received a handsome amount of money for his recordings alone. He was outsold by only a few on the Columbia label.

He traveled the country to rave reviews. Yet when he wanted a drink at a bar, he was often insulted and driven away. In fact once while at the Astor Hotel he went in and asked for a drink. The Bartender was not going to serve a black man so he told Williams that it would cost $50.00 for a drink. Not to be undone by this racist bartender Williams produced a wad of $100.00 bills and said "Buy a round for every person at the bar" That solved that. But still he had to deal with racism in his work and in his private life.Burt Williams 1874 - 1922
The song that became Williams most popular hit. He came to hate the song in time, but was forced to perform it for the rest of his life. As it became his theme song and most people associated the song with him.
Burt Williams in the Columbia recording laboratory as they liked to call it back then. Notice he is singing into a large horn, and just the end of a clarinet is sticking out behind him.
Here is a 1913 edition of his famous song Nobody. One of the best selling records in the Columbia catalog in its day.
Here is Bert Williams in some of his costumes. He always performed in black face as was the custom of the time. I wonder how many in the audience even knew he was black. What was demeaning was this talented performer had to always perform this way. He made a lot of money that is true. He was a super star of his time. He was perhaps the first of the great black stars on stage. It is sad he lived such a short life.
He lived in a age of Jim Crow, but was a dignified gentleman through out his life. I wish that could be said of most of his white colleagues of the time. Because for many it can not. W.C. Fields wrote of Williams saying, "he was the funnest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever knew."
Was he bothered by it all. I am sure he was. But he also knew he was in a much better position to deal with it. He was wealthy, and famous, but still it was hard in America for him. I will finish this up with Bert Williams own words on what he thought of his lot in life.

"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."