Egbert Austin Williams, who was known as “Bert Williams,” was born on November 12, 1874, and died March 4 1922. He was one of the most well-known entertainers of the Vaudeville era, and made a name for himself as one of the most popular comedians of the time.
One of Williams’s most noteworthy achievements was that he was the best-selling black recording artist before the year 1920. The New York Dramatic Mirror dubbed Williams, “one of the best comedians of the world.”
During his lifetime, Bert Williams played a key role in African American entertainment. Racial inequality was a fact of life and stereotyping was still commonplace in America. That didn’t stop Williams from becoming the first black American entertainer to step into a leading role on Broadway. He was not content with the status quo, and would go on to push back the number of racial barriers during his career. Comedian W.C. Fields once described Bert Williams as “the funniest man I ever saw – and the saddest man I ever knew.”
Williams was born in Antigua, in the West Indies. He and his parents moved to New York City when he was 10. From there, the family moved to Riverside California. Williams graduated from Riverside high school, and he moved to San Francisco where he intended to study civil engineering. Instead his plans changed and he ended up joining a minstrel company called “The Mastoden Minstrels.” In 1893, he started working with straight man George Walker as the team of Williams and Walker.
By this point Williams had become one of vaudeville’s top solo performers, but he first gained prominence through his work as half of the “Williams and Walker” team. He and Walker performed dialogues skits as well as song and dance numbers as part of their act. Williams would take on the role as a slick con man type character, while Walker was the victim of the schemes. Later, the act developed and Walker’s character changed into more of a dandified figure, while Williams was presented as an oaf.
Bert Williams married Charlotte Thompson in 1899. She was a singer with whom he’d worked with professionally. Charlotte was eight years older than Bert and a homebody. The couple had no children themselves but they adopted three of Charlotte’s nieces and welcomed orphans and foster children into their home. By all accounts, they had a happy marriage.
Sons of Ham
In September of 1900, Williams and Walker appeared in Sons of Ham, a show that was noteworthy due to its lack of extreme stereotypes about African Americans which were very common at the time. By this point the two performers had started to move away from traditional minstrel shows into more mainstream types of comedy.
In 1901, Williams and Walker recorded 13 records for the ‘That There Talking Machine Company’. Some of the songs, such as When It’s All Going Out and Nothing Coming In appealed to people of all races (and the theme is still current today). Good Morning Carrie, which was also penned by Williams, was covered by several artists.
Broadway Bound with In Dahomey
In September of the following year, Williams and Walker produced In Dahomey, a big hit for the pair. It opened on Broadway in 1903 and had the distinction of being the first black musical to be seen on that stage. Even at that landmark event, seating inside the theater was still segregated.
In 1908, the pair starred on Broadway in Banana Land. During this show, Williams first performed a sketch that would become famous: the pantomime poker game. He acted out a hand of poker in silence, using only his body language and facial expressions to indicate the flow of the game.
Walker left the act in 1909 due to ill health caused by syphilis. Williams continued to work until 1921. He appeared with Ziegfeld’s Follies and was still getting good reviews, even though reviewers were not as kind to the rest of the show. Williams developed pneumonia in December of 1921 but continued working.
Williams collapsed on February 27, 1922 while performing in Detroit, Michigan. The audience initially thought it was part of the show. He was helped to his dressing room, where Williams said, “That’s a nice way to die. They was laughing when I made my last exit.”
He went back to New York, but never recovered. Williams died on March 4, 1922. He was 47 years old. Very few people knew he had been ill, and the news of his passing caused shock. More than 5,000 people walked by his casket, and thousands more who came to pay their respects had to be turned away. Bert Williams is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York.
We cannot underestimate the influence Bert Williams had on the African American culture. Millions of people were inspired by his show and incredible talent to entertain. The legend of Vaudeville, this man made a cultural contribution that we will never cease to love.
Kimberley is a freelance writer working for online resume writing company which specializes in providing tips for young professionals and students.