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Bert Williams

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Biography

Bert Williams (November 12, 1874 – March 4, 1922) was the pre-eminent African American entertainer of his era.

Williams was born Egbert Austin Williams on the island of Antigua, then part of the British West Indies. In 1888 his family moved to Los Angeles, California. He began his entertainment career in 1892 in San Francisco.

Bert Williams became one of Vaudeville’s top artists, both as a solo performer and as part of the successful double-act “Williams & Walker” with partner George Walker. Together they popularized the Cakewalk. Williams was also famous for his performances in blackface. After Walker’s death he for some years performed with Eddie Cantor; he also performed with the Ziegfield Follies.

Bert Williams was a key figure in the development of African American music. In an age when racial inequality and stereotyping were an ‘accepted’ part of life, he became the first black American to take a lead role on the Broadway stage, and did much to push back the racial barriers during his career. His songs (mostly self-written and displaying a dry wit and observational humor) such as “Nobody” and “All Going Out And Nothing Coming In” proved popular with audiences of all races, paving the way for future generations of black artists. Fellow vaudevillian W.C. Fields described Williams as “the funniest man I ever saw—and the saddest man I ever knew.”

In 1915, the Biograph Company made history by being the first movie company to give complete creative control to Bert Williams as a filmmaker, who produced, directed and starred in the Biograph films “Fish” 1915, and “Natural Born Gambler” 1916.

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