Bert Williams, largely forgotten today, was the first African-American star: the most famous “colored man” in America during the early years of the twentieth century. The team of Williams and Walker put together the first all-Negro musical comedy to play a major Broadway theatre...their popularity among audiences both black and white allowed them to force the integration of first-class theatres around the country...through it all he continued to perform in blackface, embellished by giant lips painted over the cork, an ill-fitting suit, a preternaturally unhurried style of locomotion, and a cringing “Uh-huh, boss” lazy drawl. According to another Follies colleague, W. C. Fields, Williams onstage was the funniest man he ever saw, and offstage was the saddest.
Both Williams’s reputation and the remaining record of his work—a number of scratchy vocal tracks, some suggestive photographs and reels of film—make one long to ask: What on earth was he thinking? How does a mind maintain its balance when professional pride is so bound up with personal shame?...
-from BEHIND THE MASK: On the minstrel circuit, by Claudia Roth Pierpont, a review of Caryl Phillips' novel "alternately fascinating and frustrating novel 'Dancing in the Dark' (Knopf)," in the Dec 12 New Yorker.
Bert Williams mp3s:
Eve Cost Adam Just One Bone
Oh Death Where Is Thy Sting
From Bert Williams 1915-1921.