Bert Williams, the first black entertainer to become a headlined Broadway star, was born on November 12, 1874 in Nassau, West Indies. His family moved to California in 1885 and by 1893, he had teamed with George Walker honing his talents in and around San Francisco.
The duo debuted on Broadway in 1896 in the “first ‘Negro’ production on the Broadway stage,” Oriental America. The partners turned their hand to songwriting and by the turn of the century began recording. Their first hit was a #1 in 1902, ‘Good Morning, Carrie’ and in the summer of 1902 they began work on a new prduction entitled In Dahomey, which would become the first major musical written and performed by black entertainers to run on Broadway. The show became a great success, not just in New York but on a tour, which took in most of the country as well as England, including a performance at Buckingham Palace.
While Williams and Walker had a couple more hit recordings, Bert Williams' solo performances were soon eclipsing them and by 1910, Williams had become one of the country’s most popular comedians and singers in the country. Williams and Walker continued to be successful on Broadway as a team, but by 1907 George Walker was becoming too ill from syphilis to continue performing, (he died in 1911).
As a solo act, Williams joined the Ziegfeld Follies, performing with Eddie Cantor and W.C. Fields, however it was in his recordings that Williams’ legacy remains. He had over 30 top ten hits with #1 recordings in ‘Nobody’ (1906), ‘Let It Alone’ (1906), ‘He’s a Cousin of Mine’ (1907), ‘Play That Barber-Shop Chord’ (1910), ‘O Death, Where Is Thy Sting?’ (1919) and ‘It’s Nobody’s Business But My Own’ (1919).
One of the giants of the era, Bert Williams died on March 4, 1922 in New York City.