Sunday, March 19, 2006

The First Black Pop Star


Thanks to exhaustive work by scholars at the Donald C. Davidson Library at the University of California, Santa Barbara, along with various collectors and independent record labels, a collection of more than 6,000 cylinders converted to downloadable MP3's, WAV files and streaming audio are now available online free of charge. I read about it this morning in the New York Times. The collection has everything from opera and gospel to comic monologues and ragtime "ditties". The best part for me though, was hearing the voice of Bert Williams (1874-1922) for the first time. Born in Antigua, Williams was a brilliant vaudeville singer, really the first true black pop star. He was the only black performer to ever perform with the Ziegfield Follies and at one time made over $100,000 annually.

For many years, he teamed with George Walker, and as Williams and Walker, they billed themselves as "The Two Real Coons," in order to stand out in the crowd of white entertainers performing in blackface. The legendary comedian W.C. Fields said that Williams was "the funniest man I ever saw and the saddest man I ever met."

His biggest hit was a song called "Nobody." According to a 2004 Washington Post article :

In 1906, Williams teamed with black songwriter Alex Rogers to compose what would become his signature number. Recounting a litany of troubles with which the singer received no offers of assistance, "Nobody" provided Williams with a woebegone but winning persona that reached beyond the stereotypes of minstrelsy and appealed to audiences of all races. It remains the single enduring item in the Williams songbook, having been recorded by figures as varied as Perry Como and Ry Cooder. As recently as 2000, Johnny Cash reinterpreted it.

Ladies and Gentlemen, here is Bert Williams in 1906 singing his biggest hit, "Nobody."

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