Bert Williams & George Walker: The First African-American Superstars

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    In 1893, Bert Williams and George Walker began performing together in minstrel shows. They found that by donning blackface and calling themselves “The Two Real Coons,” they could get booked into better vaudeville venues in Los Angeles, New York, London, and other major cities. Their skill at joking, singing, and cakewalking led to them starring in their own off-Broadway shows, such as The Policy Players and Sons of Ham. In 1901, they began making records for the Victor Talking Machine Co. Our previous article, Bert Williams & George Walker: The Early Years, covers this period (http://jasobrecht.com/bert-williams-george-walker-early-years/ ). We now take up their story from there.

    In Dahomey

    The partners spent the latter part of 1902 planning In Dahomey, the most grand African-American musical yet attempted. Originally, they intended to have all of the musical’s action take place in Africa, but that plan was modified to have the action began in Florida before moving to the West African country of Dahomey, which today is part of Benin. Williams and Walker secured an advance of $15,000 and began assembling a large cast. Will Marion Cook composed most of In Dahomey’s music, while Paul Lawrence Dunbar penned the lyrics. Two years earlier, Alex Rogers, with whom Williams would write some of his best-known songs, composed what became the show’s breakthrough hit, Bert’s rendition of “I’m a Jonah Man.” Another highlight came when Walker, carrying a crooked cane and bedecked in a festive striped suit and oversized top hat, sang “When Sousa Comes to Coontown.”

    In most Williams and Walker skits, the medium-built, wide-grinning Walker had played a flashy and clever update of an unflinchingly racist Negro stereotype, mischievous Zip Coon. On stage and off, the cavorting, showgirl-chasing dandy sported diamond rings and flashy custom clothes. He reportedly spent more time with his tailor than his wife, who dressed nearly as well as he did. He’d stay true to form in In Dahomey, portraying slippery Rareback Pinkerton opposite Bert’s Shylock “Shy” Homestead. Ada Overton Walker played Rosetta Lightfoot, described as “a troublesome young thing,” and Bert’s wife Lottie Williams starred as Mrs. Stringer. The all-black cast also featured Pete Hampton as Cicero Lightfoot and Alex Rogers as George Reeder.

    Among my papers, I have an original program that was handed out during the opening week of In Dahomey. Beneath the cast listing, it describes “The Story of ‘In Dahomey’” as follows: “An old Southern negro, ‘Lightfoot’ by name, president of the Dahomey Colonization Society, loses a silver casket, which, to use his language, has a cat scratched on the back. He sends to Boston for detectives to search for the missing treasure. Shylock Homestead and Rareback Pinkerton (Williams and Walker), the detectives on the case, failing to find the casket in Gatorville, Fla., ‘Lightfoot’s’ home, accompany the colonists to Dahomey. Previous to leaving Boston on their perilous mission, the detectives join a syndicate. In Dahomey, rum of any kind, when given as a present, is a sign of appreciation. Shylock and Rareback, having free access to the syndicate’s stock of whiskey, present the King of Dahomey with three barrels of appreciation and in return are made Caboceers (Governors of a Province). In the meantime the colonists having had a misunderstanding with the King are made prisoners. Prisoners and criminals are executed on festival days, known in Dahomey as Customs Day. The new Caboceers, after supplying the King with his third barrel of appreciation (whiskey), secure his consent to liberate the colonists after which an honor is conferred on Rareback and Shylock, which causes them to decide ‘There’s No Place Like Home.’” With a cast of nearly fifty, the three-act was loaded with musical numbers.

    In Dahomey opened on February 18, 1903, at the New York Theatre, which occupied the entire block of Broadway between 44th and 45th Streets. Its initial run lasted until April 4th. After years of struggle, Walker and Williams had finally hit the big time: Broadway. “The way we’ve aimed at Broadway and just missed it in the past seven years would make you cry,” Williams told a reporter after opening night. “I used to be tempted to beg for a fifteen-dollar job in a chorus just for one week so as to be able to say I’d been on Broadway once.”

    But managers of nearby theaters were not happy, as evidenced in The New York Times review of opening night: “A thundercloud has been gathering of late in the faces of the established Broadway managers. Since it was announced that Williams and Walker, with their all-Negro musical comedy, In Dahomey, were booked to appear at the New York Theatre, there have been times when trouble breeders foreboded a race war.” But the race war never took place, continued the daily, as “all went merrily last night.” According to the Tribune, Williams was called back onstage a dozen times to sing “I’m a Jonah Man,” and “those who had come to scoff were loudest in their applause.”

    The Theatre magazine proclaimed Bert Williams “a vastly funnier man than any white comedian now on the American stage.” Photographic evidence suggests that Walker performed his role with very little blackface, while Bert wore a garish coon mask of burnt cork and oversized white lips. The musical’s most famous song, “I’m a Jonah Man,” in some ways would prove symbolic of the actor’s career. Tall and broad-shouldered, the shuffling, simple-minded “Jonah man” was born under a bad sign, and nothing ever seemed to turn out the way he’d hoped. Williams sang the Alex Rogers composition in a droll, melancholy voice.

    Offstage, the six-foot, two-hundred-pound Williams was quite a different character – uptown, top-hatted, and elegant. Willie “The Lion” Smith claimed he had “that same kind of class that Duke Ellington possesses,” while James Weldon Johnson described him as “highly intelligent and with a certain reserve which at times exhibited itself as downright snobbishness,” a sentiment echoed by Alberta Hunter. As he came into money, the elegant Williams assembled a large library of books; he had a special fondness for Twain, Darwin, Wilde, Shopenhauer, Voltaire, Kant, and Goethe.

    In April 1903, following seven weeks at the New York Theater, Williams and Walker took the entire cast to to London’s Shaftesbury Theatre, where In Dahomey initially played to modest crowds. As part of the birthday celebrations for the young Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VIII), they were invited to give a command performance in the garden of Buckingham Palace on June 23rd. After that, In Dahomey played to wildly enthusiastic audiences. A special cakewalk contest was added to climax the show, with audience applause determining which pair of actors won that particular night. This, in turn, is credited with inaugurating the cakewalking fad the swept Europe.

    While in London, Bert recorded six songs. On June 5, 1903, pianist Landon Ronald accompanied him on “The Cake Walk” and “He’d a Funny Little Way With Him.” The first song was rejected, and the second came out as a seven-inch 78 on Zonophone. The following April, Bert recorded “It Wasn’t His Turn to Laugh” and “Bill’s Whistle” for Columbia, and “Bill’s Whistle” and “Whistling Johnnie” for Lambert; all four of these selections were cylinders.

    After months at the Shaftesbury Theatre, the troupe performed in major cities in England and Scotland. As other African Americans had before him, Williams thrived in Great Britain’s non-racist environment, highlighted by his gaining acceptance into the Masonic Lodge, a feat that would be virtually impossible for an African-American to achieve in New York City. In all, In Dahomey played for more than a year in Great Britain. When the cast returned home, In Dahomey enjoyed another two-week run on Broadway, and then Williams and Walker took the show on the road, crisscrossing the United States for forty weeks.

    Abyssinia

    Hoping to top the success of In Dahomey, George Walker began planning their next musical extravaganza, Abyssinia. His goal was to make it completely African-themed, with a huge “all-negro” cast and real jungle animals. After a lot of scrambling and some agreements to downsize – no live tigers or giraffes, for instance – he was finally able to secure funding. Many In Dahomey cast members were hired for the new production.

    In essence, In Abyssinia told the story of Rastus Johnson, played by Walker, winning a lottery and taking his dim-witted pal Jasmine Johnson, Williams’ character, to the African country of their ancestors. The duo’s misadventures land them before Abyssinia’s ruthless monarch Menelik, who bangs a gong to determine whether they’ll live or die: three bangs means death, four indicate life. At the show’s climax, after an extremely memorable pause, Menelik banged it a fourth time. In contrast to the African characters’ perfect English, Williams delivered his lines in minstrel jive.

    The show opened at the Majestic Theatre on February 20, 1906, and played through August. The following morning, a New York Times review proclaimed, “Negro Comedians Seen in ‘Abyssinia,’ the Best Comedy They Have Had.” The reviewer pointed out that Williams and Walker “make their most ambitious effort. The piece is far in advance of their last vehicle, ‘In Dahomey,’ in costumes, scenery, and effects, while the work of the singers, especially in the choruses, surpasses all their previous efforts. An audience which filled the large auditorium of the Majestic showed its approval with frequent and hearty applause. . . . There is little plot, most of the time being given up either to musical numbers or comedy scenes between Williams and Walker.”

    The reviewer praised the opening number – “Ode to Menelik,” sung by a well-rehearsed male chorus – and added, “other numbers which proved popular were ‘Where My Forefathers Died,’ ‘The Lion and the Monk,’ and ‘Answers You Don’ Expect to Get.’ George Walker had a good song in ‘It’s Hard to Find a King Like Me,’ and Bert Williams seemed to revive memories of the success of ‘Nobody’ when he sang ‘Here It Comes Again.’ The mounting of the piece deserves special mention. The first scene, showing a mountain pass with a waterfall in the background, was a most effective picture. The marketplace of the capital was full of picturesque quality and color. There were several unusual light effects, and a property lion and camel and live asses were introduced to give atmosphere and local color. Williams and Walker should have a prosperous career at the Majestic with ‘Abyssina.’”

    According to Ann Charters, during the Abyssinia’s run, Willaims and Walker’s “comedy routines grew increasingly more relaxed and spontaneous; some jokes were made up on the spur of the moment, other carried along from one evening to the next. Williams had an excellent memory for laugh lines. He kept the remarks which got the most response from the audience in his routines and dropped the ‘clinkers.’ Walker was more of a cut-up. In his bright fancy jackets and bell-bottom trousers, or bold checked suits, he cavorted around the stage, always in motion. He songs were struts of joy, impudent statements of his own talent, like the egotistical shout ‘It’s Hard to Find a King Like Me.’ Unlike Williams, Walker played himself, the ambitious hustler and wise guy, at his best when delivering streams of glib, fast talk. In stark contrast to George’s noisy ranting, Bert’s simple tag lines brought roars of laughter from the surprised audience. The two men were excellent foils for one another, their performances complete disguising the fact that off the stage they were not very close anymore.”

    In one very significant way, though, they did join forces offstage. With several of their show business peers – bandleader James Reese Europe, actor Bob Cole, and songwriters Alex Rogers, J. Rosamond Johnson, and Jesse A. Shipp among them – they co-founded The Frogs. This top-hatted, tuxedo-clad fraternal organization was the first important theatrical organization for African-Americans. Its name reportedly came from Aristophanes, whose character Charon spoke of “our minstrel frogs.” Justice Goff of the New York Supreme Court initially denied the organization’s application for articles of incorporation, declaring “the title, objects, and purposes of the organization were incongruous, and the title was anything but euphonious.” The group carried on, though, and its vaudeville revues and annual ball raised money for charity. In time doctors, lawyers, and other professionals were encouraged to join.

    Bert Williams’ “Nobody”

    In 1906, Williams and Walker resumed recording, this time for Columbia. In April Williams and Walker recorded “Pretty Desdemona” together. Walker, who was reportedly unhappy with the sound of his own voice on record, never made another record. Williams, by contrast, welcomed the opportunity to become an exclusive Columbia recording artist, a position he’d hold for the rest of his life. He participated in at least six more sessions in 1906, beginning with his original recording of “Nobody.” Bert wrote the music, and Alex Rogers wrote the lyrics. A New York studio orchestra’s mournful trombone, lumbering tuba, and funeral-march woodwinds provided perfect accompaniment to the slow-paced, sung-and-spoken lines delivered by Williams with mock solemnity:

    “When life seems full of clouds and rain,

    And I am full of nothin’ and pain,

    Who soothes my thumpin’, bumpin’ brain?

    Nobody

     

    “When winter comes with snow and sleet,

    And me with hunger and cold feet,

    Who says, ‘Here’s twenty-five cents, go on and get yourself something to eat – go on’?

    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’ll never do nothin’ for Nobody, no time”

    A big hit on stage and record, the song became a mixed blessing for the man Columbia advertised as “the Ethiopian baritone.” “Before I got through with ‘Nobody,’” Williams wrote in American Magazine, January 1918, “I could have wished that both the author of the words and the assembler of the tune had been strangled or drowned or talked to death. For seven whole years I had to sing it. Month after month I tried to drop it and sing something new, but I could get nothing to replace it, and the audiences seemed to want nothing else. Every comedian at some time in his life learns to curse the particular stunt of his that was most popular.” Over the decades, “Nobody” was rerecorded by Arthur Collins, Perry Como, and Bing Crosby. Late in his own career, Bert attempted to repeat the success of “Nobody” by recycling its motif of the dramatically delivered, oft-repeated one- or two-word catch phrase, as heard in recordings such as “Unexpectedly,” “Somebody,” and “Not Lately.”

    Williams was ushered back before Columbia’s recording horn in June 1906 for “Here It Comes Again.” In September he cut “I’ve Such a Funny Feeling When I Look at You,” which was rejected, “Let It Alone” from Abyssina, “All In, Out and Down,” and “I’m Tired of Eating in Restaurants,” during which a whistler accompanied Bert’s rhyming routine. Spoken in Southern dialect, his October recording of “He’s a Cousin of Mine” parodied a gossiping relative. In November he recorded the rollicking “Mississippi Stoker,” which made interesting use of minstrel-style bones percussion. He finished up this round of recordings with keeper takes of “I’ve Such a Funny Feeling When I Look at You” and “Fare Thee! On Ma Way! Jes’ Gone.”

     

    Exit George Walker

    Williams and Walker’s final collaboration, Bandana Land, opened on Broadway on February 3, 1908. J.S. Shipp and Alex Rogers provided the book and lyrics. Will Marion Cook composed the musical score. Highpoints included Bert’s performance of “Late Hours,” and an unforgettable cakewalk routine. A New York Times review of opening night described, “Williams and Walker would have won the favor of the audience at the Majestic last night if they had done nothing more than the cake walk and dance at the end of the second act. Walker, in one of his most gorgeous costumes, began what might be best described as a ‘high and mighty’ cake walk; then came Williams, his big body indescribably grotesque in more ‘low down’ way; then the two together, with a response from the audience that was utterly deafening. This cake walk, with the accompanying dancing frills and shuffles, received at least a baker’s dozen of encores.”

    Playing the role of Skunkton Bowser, Bert also debuted an early draft of what would become one of his most beloved routines, a pantomime poker game with the comedian portraying all of the players. George Walker’s big solo number was “Bon Bon Buddy”:

    “I’m a Bon Bon Buddy, the Chocolate Drop,

    The Chocolate Drop,

    I’m a Bon Bon Buddy, the Chocolate Drop,

    The Chocolate Drop – that’s me

     

    “I’ve gained no fame, but I’m not ashamed,

    I’m satisfied with my nick name

    I’m a Bon Bon Buddy, the Chocolate Drop,

    The Chocolate Drop – that’s me”

    Walker’s performances started slipping as the show progressed. Like Ernest Hogan, Scott Joplin, and many others, Walker had terminal syphilis. As he entered its final stages, Ann Charters noted, “Walker’s symptoms were the usual sad catalog of memory loss, unpredictable emotional tantrums, unsteady gait, an increasingly rough and raspy voice, the suggestion of a lisp, and frequent stuttering.” Several performances into Bandana Land, Walker withdrew from the show. For the rest of the run, until April 18th, Ada Walker donned her husband’s costume to sing “Bon Bon Buddy.”

    Thus the partnership of Williams and Walker came to an end. George Walker spent his final year in sanatoriums in Kansas and Michigan, and then travelled to New York in hopes of finding better treatment for his paralysis. On January 7, 1911, he died in a sanitarium on Long Island. Paresis was listed as the cause of his death. Bert Williams paid for Walker’s medical expenses and burial at Oak Hill Cemetery in Lawrence, Kansas. In its obituary, the New York Times noted that “Williams and Walker as a team had been together for sixteen years, first in low-priced variety theatres, where their combined salary was $15 a week, and in recent years in musical comedies of all-negro casts, where their weekly earnings often amounted for $2,000 for the two.” Ada Overton Walker outlived her husband by just three years.

    The month that Bandana Land closed, Bert Williams bought a house at 146 West Ninety-Ninth Street between Columbus and Amsterdam. For his first post-George Walker production, he staged Mr. Load of Koal, a musical that ran from November 1st through December 4th 1909. Jesse A. Shipp and Alex Rogers wrote the book and lyrics, and Rosamond Johnson furnished the score, with additional songs by Bert Williams. The plot of this dream farce centered on Williams’ shipwrecked title character, Chester A. Lode, becoming a reluctant island king. After opening night, a New York Times reviewer wrote, “Any new plot there may be in Bert Williams’s new play is effectively disguised in a jumble of nonsense and music, though one is led to suspect the presence of such a commodity from the beginning of the first act. As a wild guess, it seems to be like this: The ruler of an unidentified country is kidnapped and a certain Chester A. Load [sic], of the Island of Koal, is engaged to fill the vacancy. This he does to his own satisfaction until the return of the real ‘Big Smoke,’ known familiarly as Blootch. It took some ingenuity for last night’s audience to discover this much. Bert A. Williams is fully as amusing by himself as he was as part of Williams and Walker. He has two songs sung in his awkward way, called ‘This Is Plenty” and ‘Believe Me.’ The audience, and particularly the gallery, liked both of them.” Williams collaborated with Alex Rogers and J. Rosamond Johnson on “Believe Me,” also a vaudeville hit for comic Ned “Cork” Norton.

    Without Walker to play off of, Bert worked on perfecting his droll monologue technique. He proved to be a brilliant at pantomime, and witnesses marveled at his minimalistic stage movement. In his January 1918 American Magazine article “The Comic Side of Trouble,” Williams revealed, “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. And even what little voice I have left has to be nursed and petted like a prized cat. I study carefully the acoustics of each theater I appear in. There is always one particular spot on the stage from which the voice carries better, more clearly and easily than from any other. I make it my business to find that spot before the first performance, and once I find it I stick to it like a postage stamp. People have sometimes observed that I practice unusual economy of motion and do not move about as much as other singers do. It is to spare my voice and not my legs that I stand still while delivering a song. If my voice were stronger I would be as active as anybody, because it is much easier to put a song over if you can move about.”

    Bert Williams continued to create hit songs, co-writing “That’s a Plenty” with Harry Creamer and responding to rival S.H. Dudley’s “Come After Breakfast, Bring ’Long You Lunch and Leave ’Fore Supper Time” with “Come Right In, Sit Right Down, Make Yourself at Home.” Audiences loved it.

    In late 1908 Columbia switched to two-sided 78s. Their earliest Bert Williams reissues featured Williams on one side of the disc with another Columbia act on the other. “I’m Tired of Eating in Restaurants” was paired with Billy Murray’s “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” and Let It Alone” was coupled with Murray’s “The Streets of New York.” “Nobody” was issued with Bob Roberts’ “You Will Have to Read the Answer in the Stars” on its flip side. Williams’ “All In, Out and Down” came out as a twelve-inch 78 with Billy Golden’s popular “Turkey in the Straw.” Months later, “The Mississippi Stoker” was reissued with Collins and Harlan’s “That Mesmerizing Mendelssohn Tune,” and “He’s a Cousin of Mine” was paired with “Ragtime Bob” Roberts’ “I Don’t Know Where I’m Goin’ But I’m on My Way.” These would be the only Bert Williams 78s to be marketed this way.

    In our conclusion, Bert Williams reaches the pinnacle of show biz with the Ziegfeld Follies. Read it here: http://jasobrecht.com/bert-williams-star-ziegfeld-follies

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    © 2011 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This article may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.


     

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      2 comments on “Bert Williams & George Walker: The First African-American Superstars

      1. Kenneth Harrow on said:

        i am teaching Caryl Phillips’s Dancing in the Dark, which deals with Williams and with the team. this site is great in providing information, images, links. thanks so much

      2. elvina seward on said:

        I read, last year a book recently written about Bert Williams. Excellent information on this site. Thank you. I am working on a degree in arts, theatre and letters. Information on Black Arts are beginning to surface on the internet. Thank goodness! Black theatre is valid and important in the American culture and theatre, Racial politics are still at the forefront in our American culture, and we are in the 21st century. We are here!!!!

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