Jass.com: Bert Williams & George Walker
Copyright (C) Thomas L. Morgan 1992 - 2013.
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Click on the picture to see how they looked when they performed.
George Walker was born around 1873 in Lawrence, Kansas. He began his show business career as a member of a troupe of black minstrels which traveled throughout his home state. He then decided to try his luck as a solo act and worked his way west to California in medicine shows.
Egbert Williams was probably born in Antigua, the West Indies, on March 11, 1875. In 1885, his family moved to California, near Los Angeles. He eventually moved to San Francisco where he gained experience performing in saloons, restaurants, and road shows.
Williams met Walker in San Francisco in 1893, and the pair spent two years playing different venues and putting together their act. During this time, they were employed by the Mid-Winter Exposition in Golden Gate Park to work at an exhibit of a Dahomeyan village intended to portray life in darkest Africa. Because the real Africans were late in arriving, Williams and Walker played Dahomeyans, wearing animal skins in a setting of potted palms. Once the Africans did arrive, the duo took time to study the natives' singing and dancing, an experience which was to become an important influence on their work
The two men made their way to Chicago in 1895 and tried out for Isham's Octoroons, one of the first African-American companies to break from a strict minstrel format. A week later, Williams and Walker were dropped from the show. Realizing that their act needed improvement, they decided to embrace the coon stereotype, billing themselves as The Two Real Coons. They based their act on standard minstrel routines reduced to a two-man performance: Walker played the part of a dandy and told the jokes, and Williams, dressed in mismatched, oversized clothes, played the straight man. After the audience reacted favorably to a performance in which he blackened his face, Williams donned the burnt-cork mask for the rest of his professional life.
In 1896, a musical farce called The Gold Bug made Williams and Walker famous. The play was weak, but the duo's performance of the cakewalk captured the audience's attention, and they soon became so closely associated with this dance that many people thought of them as its originators. After a 36-week tour with a stock company, they were booked into Koster and Bial's Music Hall in New York. Playing this well-known venue was a step up for them, and many doors opened as a result. For the next two years, Williams and Walker toured the country on the vaudeville circuit as the stars of the show. In 1897, they performed in London, but apparently the British audiences did not understand their comedic approach, and they were not well received.
Long before our run terminated, we discovered an important fact: that the hope of the colored performer must be in making a radical departure from the old time "darky" style of singing and dancing. So we set ourselves the task of thinking along new lines. The first move was to hire a flat in 53rd St., furnish it, and throw our doors....The Williams and Walker flat soon became the headquarters of all the artistic young men of our race who were stage struck....By having these men about us we had the opportunity to study the musical and theatrical ability of the most talented members of our race.
On October 11, 1901, when Williams and Walker made their first recordings for the Victor Company, they became the first African-American recording artists. Walker's voice sounded thin on the playback, and he was not pleased. William's voice, on the other hand, was strong, and the recordings he made over the next 20 years created a legacy of his comedic genius
During the next few years, Williams and Walker put together a number of small productions including A Lucky Coon, Sons of Ham, and The Policy Players, but their ultimate goal was to produce and star in their own Broadway musical.
A lack of original material combined with their desire to shift focus away from the coon stereotype gave impetus to their next big step. Remembering their job as "Dahomeyans" in San Francisco, they decided to set the scene of their next production in Africa, and in 1902, the duo teamed with Will Marion Cook, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and Jesse Shipp to produce In Dahomey, a highly successful musical which allowed them to achieve their dream of performing on Broadway. Williams, now an experienced actor and a mime with incomparable timing, emerged as one of the leading comedians in the country. At the time, George Walker was quoted as saying: "My partner, Mr. Williams, is the first man I know of in our race to attempt to delineate a darky in a perfectly natural way, and I think much of his success is due to this fact."
In the spring of 1903, the team achieved its greatest accomplishment when they took In Dahomey to England. Initially the show played to a sympathetic but not very spirited audience. However, on June 23, the tide turned after a lavish command performance at Buckingham Palace for Edward VII on the birthday of the Prince of Wales (later Duke of Windsor). The show, which ran for seven months, toured all of the British Isles and made the cakewalk fashionable in both London and Paris. On its return to New York, it played to receptive crowds at the Grand Opera House and toured for 40 weeks with performances in most major American cities.
In 1906, Williams and Walker were active in organizing an African-American actors' union called The Negro's Society. Two years later, the team produced and starred in two more successful plays, In Abyssinia and Bandana Land..
While touring with Bandana Land in 1909, George Walker began to stutter and suffer memory loss, both well-known symptoms of syphilis. Over the next few years such notables as Ernest Hogan, Bob Cole, Scott Joplin, and Louis Chauvin would succumb to this same scourge. An incurable disease at the time, it hit the ranks of African-American performers so hard that by 1911, most the small, close-knit group that had managed to bring their artistry to Broadway were dead, and it would be another eleven years before African-Americans returned to the stages of the Great White Way. Walker died on January 8, 1911 and was buried in his hometown of Lawrence, Kansas
Bert Williams, without a partner for the first time in 20 years, performed in vaudeville for a while and starred in Mr. Lode of Coal in 1910. Later that year, Florenz Ziegfeld asked him to join the famous Follies. Williams accepted and commissioned the African-American composer Will Vodery to write his songs, an association which paved the way for Vodery's engagement as arranger for the Follies from 1913 to the late 1920s.
Williams achieved great success performing in many of the Follies' productions, making as much money as the president of the United States by playing a character that could best be described as the black counterpart to Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp. During summer breaks, he traveled to Europe and studied with the great French pantomimist Pietro, who, according to Williams, taught him that "the entire aim of art in the theater was to achieve simplicity." In 1918, Williams discussed comedy as he understood it:
All the jokes in the world are based on a few elemental ideas....Troubles are funny only when you pin them down to one particular individual. And that individual, the fellow who is the goat, must be the man who is singing the song or telling the story....It was not until I could see myself as another person that my sense of humor developed. For I do not believe there is any such thing as innate humor. It has to be developed by hard work and...I have studied it all my life.
Bert Williams's last show, considered one of his best, was Under the Bamboo Tree. He died on March 4, 1922, while touring with the production in Detroit. He was the original comic who never got any respect, an individual of great personal dignity who was never allowed to show it on stage. Of him, Booker T. Washington once said, "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."