Bert Williams was perhaps the most famous American performer who you’ve never heard of. He was the Jackie Robinson of American entertainment, appearing in the first African American Broadway show, was the first African American member of the legendary Ziegfeld's Follies, and was the best-selling African American recording singer for the first two decades of the 20th Century. He played for presidents and kings, literally – Woodrow Wilson and King Edward VII, respectively – and was famously hailed by W.C. Fields as “The funniest man I ever saw – and the saddest man I ever knew.” Duke Ellington immortalized him in music as part of his groundbreaking Carnegie Hall concert in 1943, while Booker T. Washington hailed Williams as having “done more for our race then I have. He has smiled his way into people's hearts; I've been oblidged to fight my way.”
Williams' biggest hit was a half-spoken comedy song called “Nobody” that epitomized his popular persona as a down-on-his luck loner. It was a hallmark work in the canon of American deadpan, with each word slowly considered for maximum melancholy effect:
When life seems full of clouds and rain...And I am filled with naught but pain...Who's there to sooth my thumping, bumping brain?
“In picking a song I always consider the words,” Williams once wrote. “The tune will take care of itself. I should feel sorry for a song that depended on its tune if I had to sing it!” He claimed that he didn't take proper care of his voice and that, as a result, “now I have to talk all my numbers.” But Williams' is underselling his voice. While the verses of “Nobody” were indeed spoken, they unknowingly point the way to the future in the deadpan vocals of Lou Reed, Johnny Ramone, and Beck, making Williams a sort of grandfather to postmodern American singing.
Williams’ singing in the refrains, however, was something else altogether. “IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII—ain't never done nothin' to nobody,” he sings, riding out the word “I” to mimic the sliding trombone that plays just before it. Though unremarkable to modern ears, this put Williams’ at the innovative forefront of popular singing, helping to lay the first ground-stones for instrument-influenced “scat” singing that would explode some twenty years later. Regardless of whatever innovations the song contained, audiences ate it up simply as a clever and catchy song – much to Williams’ eventual dismay. “Before I got through with ‘Nobody’ I could have wished that both the author of the words and the assembler of the tune had been strangled or drowned or talked to death...” Williams once wrote. “Month after month I tried to drop it and sing something new, but I could get nothing to replace it, and the audiences seemed to want nothing else. Every comedian at some time in his life learns to curse the particular stunt of his that was most popular. ‘Nobody’ was a particularly hard song to replace.” Not that he didn't try. There were rewrites like “Somebody” and “Everybody,” but people saw right through these for the rip-offs that they were. Everybody wanted “Nobody.”
As a light-skinned native who was born in the Bahamas, Williams always wore blackface makeup on stage, even when he was the only member of an entirely African American cast to do so. To a modern audience this may seem racist if not redundant, but regardless of Williams’ reasoning for doing so, it spoke of the hall of mirrors that is American entertainment: a black man imitating a white man imitating a black man. However, Williams never lost sight of who he was under the makeup. When asked if he would rather be a white man, he always answered a firm no. “There is many a white man less fortunate and less well equipped than I am,” he explained. “In truth, I have never been able to discover that there was anything disgraceful in being a colored man. But I have often found it inconvenient – in America.”
[This is from the continuing series “100 Years of American Recordings, 1891-1991.”]