Oct. 11, 1901
Bert Williams and George Walker recorded their music for the Victor Talking Machine Co., becoming the first Black recording artists.
One of the most successful comedy teams of all time, they performed the first Black musical comedy on Broadway.
After Walker’s death, Williams became a star in his own right, with Theatre Magazine calling him “a vastly funnier man than any white comedian now on the American stage.” He became the first Black actor to appear in a movie, writing, directing and starring in the 1916 films, “A Natural Born Gambler” and “Fish.” He was so popular he even performed for King Edward VII at Buckingham Palace.
Although he managed to break down barriers, much prejudice remained. He couldn’t reconcile the praise he received onstage with the racist treatment he received offstage.
Barred from joining the Actors Equity in New York, he became depressed and drank heavily. He performed the song, “Nobody,” later covered by artists from Nina Simone to Johnny Cash. W.C. Fields called Williams “the funniest man I ever saw and the saddest man I ever knew.”
Williams put it this way: “A Black face, run-down shoes and elbow-out make-up give me a place to hide. The real Bert Williams is crouched deep down inside the (one) who sings the songs and tells the stories.”
He never missed a performance, and on Feb. 25, 1922, collapsed halfway through an evening show in Chicago. He died a week later at his home in New York City. He was only 47.
Booker T. Washington said of Williams: “He has done more for our race than I have. He has smiled his way into people’s hearts; I have been obliged to fight my way.”
In 1940, Duke Ellington composed and recorded, “A Portrait of Bert Williams.” The Broadway musical, “Chicago,” adapted Williams’ personality for the character of Amos Hart.
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