Bringing Back Bert Williams, the First Black Superstar

Bert Williams was, according to his friend W.C. Fields, “the funniest man I ever saw and the saddest man I ever knew.” Williams was probably the most popular African-American entertainer at the turn of the twentieth century, a man of many talents, and many firsts – a major star in vaudeville and on Broadway,  an early recording artist, the first known Black film actor; a song-and-dance man, comedian, songwriter.  Yet he is little known today.

Larry Marshall, a long-time Broadway veteran, knows the reason why Williams was so sad. It’s the same reason, Marshall says, why Williams’ star has faded. “It’s because he wore blackface.”

“He had a huge career, the first Black superstar. At the same  time he was very depressed because he hated doing blackface.”

Marshall believes it’s time to bring Bert Williams back to the public. On Sunday, he’s performing a concert of Williams’ songs entitled “The Black King of Vaudeville,” the second of this month’s Black History Trilogy being presented by Flushing Town Hall, simultaneously in person in Queens and live on their YouTube channel.

“Blackface is no longer acceptable, but you have to put yourself in his place at that time.  It was the norm then, a tradition that began with minstrel shows.”

Marshall first heard of Williams as a child growing up in New York. “My grandfather would  talk about having  seen him and how funny he was, and then he would start laughing.”

  Soon after, Marshall launched his own eclectic career as a singer,  beginning in the fourth grade singing Gregorian chants in a church choir. He formed a doo wop group as a teenager, studied opera at a conservatory, sang the American songbook in nightclubs, did musical theater in summer stock and on national tours, joined an all-Black ensemble, opened for Stevie Wonder at the Apollo. By the time he made his Broadway debut in the original Broadway production of “Hair,” he had been singing professionally for a decade.

Larry Marshall making his Broadway debut in “Hair,” 1969

His initial experience in “Hair,” he says, offered just a small taste of what Bert Williams must have felt like. “I had come from this all-Black company, and here I was playing the part  of Hud, who had to sing this song  ‘I’m a colored spade/A negro, a black nigger/A jungle bunny, Jigaboo coon…’ All that stuff. It took me a little time to wrap my head around what they were doing – that they were being sarcastic, throwing it  back in people’s faces.”

Marshall’s professional interest in Bert Williams was ignited in the 1990s, when he was cast as the performer in a musical put together by Woody King entitled “Williams and Walker.” George W. Walker was Williams’ partner for about a decade; they created and performed in several shows together on Broadway beginning in 1899.  “Walker never did blackface. He was dark-skinned. The story is that neither of them did at first, but the show they were in  wasn’t go anywhere. One night as a joke.  Burt Williams  put on black face, and it went over like a house on fire.  That’s how he got stuck with it.”

Walker died in 1911, and Williams launched a successful solo career that included becoming the only Black performer cast year after year in the Ziegfeld Follies. “At first the cast threatened to strike because they didn’t want to work with a Black performer.  Florenz Ziegfeld called them all together.  He told them ‘I can replace any one of you except the man you want to fire.’  Of course  they didn’t go on strike.”  

Despite such support,  and his star status, Williams was denied his dignity in many ways, both big  and small.

“He wanted to be a serious actor, but nobody would let him”

“When he was on tour, when he would leave the theater,  applause in his ears,  he couldn’t go through the lobby of his hotel.  He had to enter through the back.  He couldn’t  eat in the dining room.  There is a story about his going to  the Plaza Hotel and ordering a drink, and the bartender breaking the glass afterwards because they didn’t want anybody else to have to drink from it. All these things he had to go through.  It was just  crushing to him.” He died in 1922 at the age of 46.

Over the years, as Marshall has continued to perform on Broadway – his latest, “Waitress,” was his fifteenth musical on the Great Bright Way – he has continued to research Williams,  little by little putting together a one-man show that he hopes soon to perform. As part of that research, he got ahold of several of his recordings. It’s those songs he’ll be singing on Sunday, as he has on some previous occasions (See video below of his singing at Tin Pan Alley Day.)

 “His songs are very clever.  They’re not stereotypical at all – which made them different from what was going on at the time. His style was very – well, his style was what we have today. He spoke-sung a lot of his material. It sounds like rap.”

When life seems full of clouds and rain
And I am full of nothin’ and pain
Who soothes my thumping, bumping brain, uummm?

When winter comes with snow and sleet
And me with hunger and cold feet
Who says, “Here’s twenty-five cents, go ahead and get somethin’ to eat, go on why doncha”?

I ain’t never done nothin’ to nobody
I ain’t never done nothin’ to nobody, no time
So until I get somethin’ from somebody sometime I’ll never do nothin’ for nobody, no time

When I was in that railroad wreck
And thought I’d cashed in my last check
Who took the engine off my neck?

One time when things was lookin’ bright
I started to whittle on a stick one night
Who cried out, “Stop now, that’s dynamite”?
Not a soul!

I ain’t never done nothin’ to nobody
I ain’t never done nothin’ to nobody, no time
So until I get something from somebody, sometime
I’ll never do nothin’ for nobody, no time

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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