Although their names are seldom recognized today, Bert Williams and George Walker were the first African-American superstars. Years before blues 78s spun on wind-up Victrolas, Williams & Walker were packing theaters on Broadway, writing hit songs, making records, and cakewalking their way into American culture. Their images appeared on sheet music, cigarette ads, postcards, and in newspapers and magazines. Coverage of their 1903 command performance for England’s royal family was followed with rapt attention back home. After Walker’s death in 1911, Williams carried on alone, becoming one of the brightest stars of the Ziegfeld Follies. In a 1910 article in American Magazine, Booker T. Washington, author of Up From Slavery, claimed that Williams “has done more for our race than I have. He has smiled his way into people’s hearts.” Bert Williams’ theatrical triumphs came at a high personal price, though: This highly intelligent, dignified man was destined to spend his career wearing burnt-cork blackface and playing longstanding racial stereotypes.
Over the years, conflicting details have been published about Bert Williams’ beginnings. He was born Egbert Austin Williams on November 12, 1874, in either New Providence, Nassau, or Antigua, West Indies. In her seminal 1970 book Nobody: The Bert Williams Story, Ann Charters described, “His paternal grandfather had been Svend Erick Williams, the Danish consul in Antigua, who married a West Indian girl who was three-quarters Spanish and one-quarter African. Their only child was Frederick Williams, Bert’s father, who married a West Indian quadroon named Julia Moncuer.” Tall, broad-shouldered, and light-skinned, Bert was raised in the British West Indies until 1885. His parents moved to Riverside, California, where his father worked as a train conductor. In his youth Bert became skilled on banjo, piano, and other instruments. He graduated from Riverside High School and briefly attended Stanford University. For a while he worked San Francisco’s rough Barbary Coast with a song-and-dance act.
In 1893, Bert joined Martin and Seig’s Mastodon Minstrels, an integrated troupe, and toured northern California mining and lumber camps. Williams’ failed attempts to become a serious singer and actor – due in large part to racial barriers – convinced him that “acting the nigger,” as it was expressed in the parlance of the day, was his surest avenue to success. He diligently studied and mastered the exaggerated stage dialect of the minstrel “nigger,” which he claimed was “as much a foreign dialect to me as that of Italian.”
Enter Williams and Walker
At age nineteen Bert teamed up with George W. Walker, who hailed from Lawrence, Kansas. Handsome and debonair, Walker, though just a year older than Bert, was already a seasoned veteran of minstrel and medicine shows. Their sixteen-year partnership carried them all the way from small-time traveling shows to Broadway. During their first years together, Williams and Walker plied their trade in San Francisco’s shabby variety houses and honky-tonks. For a while they worked in animal skins, portraying “real savages from Africa” at Golden Gate Park’s African Dahomean Village exhibit. When word reached them that the promoters of a show called Octoroons were hiring African-American actors in Chicago, they began working their way across the country with a medicine show. Outside of El Paso, white racists decided to put “the uppity niggers” in their place, forcing them to exchange their fancy clothes for burlap bags, while the show’s white proprietors stood by and laughed. Williams and Walker immediately quit the show, vowing to never again play the South. This incident deeply affected Bert Williams.
The duo reached Chicago and made the cast of Octoroons, only to be fired at the end of their first week. To improve their chances of bookings, they decided to perform in blackface and call themselves “The Two Real Coons.” “Bert and I watched the white ‘coons,’” Walker wrote in the August 1906 issue of The Theatre magazine, “and were often much amused at seeing white men with black cork on their faces trying to imitate black folks. Nothing about these white men’s actions was natural, and therefore nothing was as interesting as if black performers had been dancing and singing their own songs in their own way. . . . We thought that as there seemed to be a great demand for black faces on the stage, we would do all we could to get what we felt belonged to us by nature. . . . As white men with black face were billing themselves ‘coons,’ Williams and Walker would do well to bill themselves ‘The Two Real Coons,’ and so we did. Black-faced white comedians used to make themselves look as ridiculous as they could when portraying a ‘darky’ character. In their make-up they always had tremendously big red lips, and their costumes were frightfully exaggerated. The one fatal result of this to the colored performers was that they imitated the white performers in their make-up as ‘darkies.’ Nothing seemed more absurd than to see a colored man making himself ridiculous in order to portray himself.”
A sensitive integrationist, Williams was reviled by the notion of wearing blackface and playing the stereotype. As an actor, though, he discovered that his new “coon mask” allowed him to fully step outside of his own personality to create a stage character: “It was not until I was able to see myself as another person that my sense of humor developed.” Touring variety houses, Williams and Walker quickly discovered that audiences loved their mixture of minstrel-style music and dance. An early mention of the duo appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Christmas Eve, 1895, in an article headlined “At the Playhouses”: “Williams and Walker, the colored fellows with funny ways, do an entirely new turn that is novel and entertaining, though by no means as good as their dancing specialty of last week. They demonstrate their versatility, however, by playing the bones, tambourine, and banjo with a strong darky flavor, and manage to keep things lively while they are on.”
During 1896 a producer caught their song-and-dance routine in a hotel lobby in Indiana and signed them to play a specialty act in Victor Herbert’s operetta The Gold Bug at New York’s Casino Theatre. After numerous delays, the show opened and quickly flopped, despite positive reviews for young Marie Cahill’s zesty cancan. The theatrical weekly Dramatic Mirror stated in its October 13, 1896, issue, “The Gold Bug proved to be a very weak insect. After one brief week’s existence, it flitted into obscurity.” The names of Williams and Walker didn’t even make it onto the playbill. Due to the rising popularity of “coon” performers, though, New York City was about to welcome them with open arms.
Cakewalking New York City
After a two-week gig in Boston, Williams and Walker returned to New York, where they were introduced to William A. McConnell, booker of popular revues. On Halloween, 1896, the Dramatic Mirror announced that “the new attraction this week at Koster and Bial’s will be Williams and Walker, colored performers who are rapidly coming to the front.” A week later, the newspaper reported, “Williams and Walker made their first eastern appearance in high class vaudeville here and scored an immediate success. The dude member [Walker] of the team does various funny walks, and the common every-day Nigger [Williams] has only to open his mouth to bring laughs. He has a deep voice and sings a song called ‘Oh, I Don’t Know, You Ain’t So Wahm’ with the greatest possible unction. The song would not be much use to anyone but him, but he makes the most of it. Their act is rather crude, and if it were properly fixed by an expert farce writer, it would be an immense hit.” Williams and Walker added a grand finale, doing a cakewalk with “two coffee-colored ladies dressed in yellow.” It was a wise addition: Two years later, an entertainment reporter for the Los Angeles Times wrote that “Bert Williams and George Walker, the two negro comedians, are largely responsible for the epidemic of ‘coon’ songs and cake-walks.” George Walker was quoted in the article as saying, “Yes, we popularized cake-walking when we made our long run at Koster & Bial’s.”
Bert Williams began copyrighting his compositions in 1896, finding early success with the coon song “Mammy’s Little Pickaninny Boy” and “Dora Dean,” named after the famous cakewalker who’d appeared in the Creole Show. The song was subtitled “The Hottest Thing You Ever Seen.” A New York women’s club complained to the Post Office, which proclaimed “Dora Dean” obscene and unmailable. A new version was hastily printed, substituting “sweetest” for “hottest” in the offending subtitle and chorus. The Los Angeles Times pointed out that among coon songs, “Dora Dean” has “the real negro music in it. The others have been adapted more or less to the exigencies of the vaudeville stage.”
A reporter asked Williams if he’d ever studied music. “Studied music? Well, no. The only kind of notes that I know anything about are bank notes, and I’m not lighting any Havanas with them. How did I come to write ‘You Ain’t So Wahm.’ Well, you see, George and I were strolling up State Street in Chicago, when along comes a man and woman’ fussin. The man said something or other, and the woman replied, ‘Oh, I don’t know. You ain’t so wahm.’ And he wasn’t; for she proceeded to do him then and there until the patrol wagon came. I went home, sat down to the piano, and in about ten minutes the song was there. That night we sprung it on the audience, and it made a hit. But coon songs are on the go. Rag time has been overdone, and the public is getting tired of it.” In another interview, Williams said, “A really good song must be fairly packed with ideas. There should be at least two in every stanza and two more in the refrain. In picking a song I always consider the words. The tune will take care of itself.”
During Williams and Walker’s five-month run at Koster and Bial’s, Bert Williams made his first recording. The Phonoscope reported in its January-February 1897 issue that he’d recorded a brown-wax cylinder of “Mammy’s Little Pickaninny Boy,” most likely for the Universal Phonograph Co. No copy of this recording is known to survive today.
In April 1897, thanks to McConnell, Williams and Walker took their act to London for a week at the Empire Music Hall. Most reports suggest that their reception was tepid. Upon their return, a reporter from the Los Angeles Times asked Williams about the experience. “It was different from New York, but after a while we got used to them and they got used to us. We had to explain all about it, what we were and what our act was and where the joke was too. After the first few nights, I used to go on and say something like this, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we will endeavor to give you an impersonation of two real coons, as we say in America, meaning two genuine blackies. We shall sing as you might hear our people sing in the South and Southwest of our country. One of our songs is entitled, “Oh, I Don’ Know, You Are Not So Wa’m,” meaning, “Oh, I’m not so certain, you are not so many, you are not so great.” We shall also do some buck-dancing, or, as you call it, a regular darkey hoe-down.’ After I said that a few nights, the Englishmen began to get used to it.”
Back home, Williams and Walker were booked into major vaudeville venues in Boston and New York City. In the fall of 1897 they signed with Hyde’s Comedians, a touring company with white comedians McIntyre and Heath, who’d been performing their blackface “Georgia Minstrels” routine since the 1870s. For nine month, Hyde’s Comedians toured vaudeville houses. Joining them were Helene Mora, “the world-famous lady baritone”; Charles L. Sweet, a “far-famed tramp comedian and pianist”; Ajax “the flexible marvel”; and a mimic named The Great Lafayette. The tour finished on the West Coast, where, on May 3, 1898, the Los Angeles Times reviewed the troupe’s performance at the Orpheum Theatre. “The theater last night housed one of the largest audiences in its history. There was a jam from the first row in the parquet to the gallery stairs, and the show deserved the reception it got, for it is, as was promised, the par excellence of vaudeville . . . . Williams and Walker, the two darky Angelenos, are back from triumphs in foreign lands and eastern cities to the scene of their initial success and were given an ovation. They are as funny a pair of mokes as their race has ever given to the comedy sketch, and the cake walk which concludes their act, which comprises in addition to the two principals a pair of dusky damsels who are high-steppers, and a band master who twirls the baton with fine skill, is the very poetry of darky motion. This is the team which brought out ‘You’re not so warm,’ which has developed into an international byword, and all their business and fooling is first-class.”
After the tour, Williams and Walker returned to New York City. Though earning good money, they rented an apartment together on the fifth floor of a building on 53rd Street. As Ann Charters described in her excellent book Nobody, “They were both young, in their early twenties, and unaccustomed to living extravagantly. George’s first thought was to enlarge his wardrobe. He began to patronize a custom tailor and discarded his ‘ready mades.’ He greatly preferred that his suits, shirts, and cravats were the only ones of their kind, and he began to get a reputation as a dandy both on and off the stage. Williams was much less flamboyant. Unlike his partner, who seemed to expand under the pressures of advancing in show business, Bert kept to himself. He showed his tension by drinking more heavily and began to chain smoke, a habit he continued for years. Disinterested in living ostentatiously, Williams sent money home to his parents in Riverside, California, and continued to wear his plain black suits. But one afternoon he stopped at a jewelry store and celebrated his New York success by buying himself a three-stoned diamond ring. It was the only costly piece of jewelry he ever wore.” At the apartment, the pair hosted marathon card games for fellow vaudevillians.
During the summer of 1898, Williams and Walker agreed to do a promotional advertisement for a cigarette manufacturer. At the photo shoot, George Walker was partnered with teenaged Ada Overton, who’d been a member of the chorus in Black Patti’s Troubadours. Ada, whose name was sometimes given as “Aida,” became Williams and Walker’s choreographer, and within a year married George Walker. The fact that Walker and his statuesque wife, billed as Miss Ada Overton Walker, were expert at the strutting, high-stepping cakewalk dance style increased the popularity of their shows. In a famous publicity stunt, Williams and Walker delivered a handwritten letter to the mansion of William Vanderbilt, a cakewalk fanatic, challenging him to a contest for the cakewalking championship of the world.
On the strength of their dancing, Williams and Walker were hired in the fall of 1898 to appear in the Will Marion Cook-Paul Laurence Dunbar collaboration, Clorindy, or The Origin of the Cake Walk. The following January, Williams and Walker launched their own company, touring the East and Midwest with a show called A Lucky Coon. One reviewer called the cakewalk-heavy offering “a hodge-podge of nearly everything in the coon line, from buck-dancing and ragtime melodies to selections from grand opera.” They followed this with the “all-Negro” The Policy Players, which opened at the Star Theatre on October 16, 1899, and ran through April 9, 1900. The musical told the story of a get-rich-quick scheme concocted by dapper dude Happy Hotstuff, played by Walker. Williams provided the foil, a dopey gambler named Dusty Cheapman who’s talked into masquerading as the former president of Haiti. Walker wrote the The Policy Players book, while Williams composed it songs. During their swing through Lawrence, Kansas, Walker was honored with a silver loving cup in celebration of his success.
Events took a much darker turn on their return to New York City. On the night of August 15, 1900, a race riot broke out on city’s West Side. The cause was reportedly the murder of a policeman by a pimp. The effect, wrote one reporter, was “Negroes were baited wherever found. They were pursued, beaten, and kicked by young men, and the usual attitude of the police was to push their way through to the victims, use their clubs on them, and then carry them to the police station, where the brutality was continued.” Late that evening, Williams and Walker, unaware a race riot was in progress, finished their performance at Proctor’s Theatre. Williams headed home to bed, while Walker boarded a streetcar to meet his friend Ernest Hogan. As the Dramatic Mirror reported the following week, “Every black man found on the street was horribly beaten. Among the victims of the mob were Ernest Hogan and George Walker, whose business compelled them to be abroad just when the riot was at its worse.” According to Ann Charters, “Hogan was so badly injured by the rioting mobs that he was forced to leave the cast of Dunbar’s operetta. Walker escaped into a cellar and hid throughout the night. The horror and cruelty of the incident affected Bert Williams strongly. He withdrew further into himself, no longer so talkative to strangers who used to find him expanding into humorous anecdotes in his afternoons of relaxation, and definitely not so accessible to ‘white folks.’”
The following month, Bert Williams quietly announced to his partner and the rest of their company that he’d married Charlotte “Lottie” Thompson. Eight years older than her husband, Lottie had been a member of the company since Clorindy. Ann Charters described her as “a medium height, light skinned woman with a well trained, clear soprano voice and a very capable stage presence.” She doted on her husband, who referred to her as “mother.” Along with Ada Overton Walker, Lottie Williams would co-star in several Williams and Walker vehicles.
The duo’s next show, Sons of Ham, opened at the Star Theatre on October 15, 1900. George Walker managed the production, as he would the duo’s future endeavors. The plot revolved around a pair of tramps who are absolute look-alikes for a set of schoolboy twins set to inherit a fortune. The tramps enjoy the Denver high life until the real twins, gun-juggling acrobats, return home. Audiences thrilled to the songs “Miss Hannah From Savannah,” “My Little Zulu Babe,” “All Going Out and Nothing Coming In,” “The Phrenologist Coon,” and “The Fortune-Telling Man.” (The Library of Congress has made two of these available online: “All Going Out and Nothing Coming In” at http://www.loc.gov/jukebox/recordings/detail/id/6817/ and “The Fortune-Telling Man” at http://www.loc.gov/jukebox/recordings/detail/id/7099.) Sons of Ham played for two seasons and toured. On November 25, 1900, the New York Times reported that Williams and Walker’s performance of Sons of Ham at the Bijou Theatre in Pittsburg was shut down due to a smallpox breakout among its performers. Subsequent shows in Canton, Ohio, and other venues were cancelled until the breakout subsided.
The New York Times, in a March 4, 1902, review headlined “’Sons of Ham’ Pleases,” reported on the show’s revamped second season, without ever once mentioning Williams and Walker: “What may properly be termed a saturated solution of rag-time entertainment is provided the audiences at the Grand Opera House this week in the ‘Sons of Ham.’ Its second edition differs chiefly from the first in the addition of novel specialties, a brightening of costumes, and the introduction of new songs and choruses. . . . The ‘Sons of Ham’ is one of those entertainments which cannot be described intelligently by a rehearsing of its story. That, indeed, is of no special consequence and simply provides an opportunity for the introduction of the many vaudeville features which the two acts disclose. All of the performers are negroes, and an instance is found George Caitlin’s imitation of a Chinaman, which is exceedingly well done. Ada Overton was applauded to the echo for a song and dance, ‘Miss Hannah of Savannah,’ and Alice Mackay was similarly successful with ‘Josephine, My Jo.’”
The 1901 Victor Sessions
During October and November 1901, Williams and Walker recorded several seven-inch and ten-inch 78s for the Victor Talking Machine Co. in New York City. Most of these recordings were co-written by Williams and Walker and can be legally downloaded at http://www.archive.org. According to Ann Charters, Bert Williams provided the simple, unadorned ragtime-influenced piano accompaniment at their very first session, but master discographer Brian Rust credits C.H.H. Booth, who worked for Victor for many years playing piano and organ on ragtime, classical, and opera sessions.
Williams and Walker began on October 11th, performing together for their first selection, “I Don’t Like That Face You Wear” (http://www.loc.gov/jukebox/recordings/detail/id/6769). Singing in a clear, confident voice with a minstrel-approved “coon” accent, Bert then cut several sides on his own, beginning with Cole and Johnson’s “In My Castle on the River Nile.” Bert’s next selection, “The Phrenologist Coon,” was a song he’d written with Ernest Hogan. A droll satire on the “science” of reading the bumps on someone’s head, the song worked-in typical coon song images of a melon, razor, chicken, and rascally thief:
‘The phrenologist coon,’
I was born on Friday mornin’
With de ’clipse of de moon,
An’ the feelin’ yo’ bump and yo’ face I’ll read
Cruisin’ in yo’ pocket
I can tell what’s in your head,
Now, the reason why they call me,
‘The phrenologist coon’”
Bert then recorded “Where Was Moses When the Light Went Out” and “All Going Out and Nothing Coming In.” While the music for this latter track is pure Tin Pan Alley, the lyrics express an sentiment that would re-emerge in the enduring blues song “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”:
“Money is de root of evil,
Everywhere you go,
But nobody have any objection
To de root, now ain’t dat so?
You know how it is wid money,
How it makes you feel at ease,
Things look bright all around,
And your friends am thick as bees.
But, oh! When yo’ money is a-runnin’ low,
An’ you clingin’ to a solitary dime,
No one can see where you come in,
Dat am de awful time”
Then George Walker took a solo turn, recording “Junie” and “Good Afternoon, Mr. Jenkins.” Walker’s voice sounds lighter and less distinguished than his partner. Williams and Walker rejoined for their popular number “Good Morning, Carrie” (http://www.loc.gov/jukebox/recordings/detail/id/5099). Still going strong, Williams cut “The Ghost of a Coon” and “If You Love Your Baby, Make Dem Goo-Goo Eyes,” a Williams and Walker composition that had been recorded eight months earlier by white artist Arthur Collins. They wrapped up the first day with George Walker singing “Her Name’s Miss Dinah Fair” (http://www.loc.gov/jukebox/recordings/detail/id/6843).
Two days later, Bert Williams was back in the studio for four more solo recordings – a new take of “The Ghost of a Coon,” as well as “The Fortune Telling Man,” “My Little Zulu Babe,” and “She’s Getting More Like the White Folks Every Day,” which satirized fashion trends. Williams and Walker wrapped up their Victor sessions on November 10th with a cartoony duo version of “My Little Zulu Babe,” which came out as seven-inch Victor A-1086 and ten-inch Monarch 1086. Walker handled the lead vocal while Williams cut up behind him, simulating animal noises, moaning, and creating purposefully inexact harmonies. Williams’ solo performance of “My Little Zulu Babe,” which I’ve never heard, was issued as ten-inch Victor 1084. In those days, performers covering each other’s songs was far more commonplace than it is today. Williams and Walker’s songs “The Fortune-Telling Man” and “She’s Getting More Like White Folks Every Day” had been recorded months earlier in 1901 by white artist Dan W. Quinn, and soon after Williams’ “The Fortune-Telling Man” was issued, Silas Leachman put out his version on Victor.
The seven-inch Williams and Walker Victor 78s sold for a half-dollar, while the longer-playing ten-inchers sold for a dollar. These recordings played on only one side, and they all began with an announcer speaking the name of the performer/s and the song title. The Victor catalog went all-out in its ad copy: “The most popular songs of the day are the ‘Rag Time’ or ‘Coon Songs.’ The greatest recommendation a song of this kind can have is that it is sung by Williams & Walker, the ‘Two Real Coons.’ Their selections are always from the brightest and best songs with the most catchy and pleasing melodies. Although Williams & Walker have been engaged to make records exclusively for us at the highest price ever paid in the history of the Talking Machine business, and although their records are the finest thing ever produced, being absolutely the real thing, we add them to our regular record list with no advance in price.” The catalog singled out Bert’s performance on “Good Morning, Carrie,” claiming, “Williams’ side remarks and exclamations make this one of the funniest records we have ever produced,” and described “When It’s All Going Out and Nothing Coming In” as “the cleverest coon song ever written.”
Part two: In their next show, In Dahomey, Williams and Walker triumph on Broadway. Read it here: http://jasobrecht.com/bert-williams-george-walker-african-american-superstars/
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© 2011 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This article may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.
© 2011 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved.