US stage actor, singer, and songwriter. He was noted as one of the first black American actors to break free of the stereotyped black roles.
Born in Nassau, in the Bahamas, part of the British West Indies, and part African in descent, he was raised in Los Angeles, California, and went on the road with the Mastadon Minstrels in 1891. He was so light-skinned that he had to use blackface makeup to maintain his role as an African. In 1893 he formed a partnership with another black American song-and-dance man, George Walker, and they made their New York, New York, premiere in 1896 in the farce The Gold Bug. This made them into a hit team and they appeared in a number of musicals until Walker retired in 1909.
Williams was the first black comic to record with Victor Records (starting in 1901) and was one of those behind the early all-black musical In Dahomey (1902). He was one of the founders of the first black American actors' society (1906). Williams continued as a solo act and became the most celebrated black actor on Broadway, appearing in the annual Ziegfield Follies many times between 1910 and 1919. His last Broadway appearance was in Broadway Brevities in 1920. Although he had appeared in blackface throughout his career and often played a shuffling fall-guy, he was credited as one of the first black Americans to defy some of the stereotypes of the minstrel-show Negro, especially in his own songs such as ‘Nobody’ and ‘That's a-Plenty’. He was the subject of Duke Ellington's ‘Portrait of Bert Williams’ (1940).
Bert Williams and George Walker
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He began in minstrel shows , where he had to affect blackface to conceal his light complexion and to learn the standard...