Bert Williams, the most popular black entertainer of the early 20th century, recorded this in 1919 as a sequel to his huge hit, “Nobody.” It was credited to Williams and James F. Hanley, with lyrics by Ballard MacDonald, and I learned it from Dave Van Ronk, who added the third verse and made it the title song to his second Philo Records LP, following Sunday Street.
Born in Nassau in 1875, Williams came to the United States as a child and started out singing around the saloons of San Francisco, before joining a touring minstrel company and teaming up with the dancer George Walker in the 1890s. Williams and Walker became the most popular team in African American theater when they wrote, produced, and starred in the groundbreaking Broadway show In Dahomey, the first “legit” New York hit to feature an all-black cast. They went on to write and star in more shows, and after Walker died in 1909, Williams embarked on an even more successful career as a solo act, featured in the Ziegfeld Follies. Though best known as a live performer, he was also by far the most successful African American recording artist before the blues wave of the 1920s.
That sounds like a pretty wonderful career, but in later years Williams has been remembered almost as much for his trials as for his successes. A brilliant man, he was never happy with the options presented by U.S. show business, where he became famous as a shambling, slow-talking clown in blackface make-up. His fellow Follies star W.C. Fields famously described him as “the funniest man I ever saw – and the saddest man I ever knew
Though Williams was a decent singer, his best-known performances were comic recitations, sometimes with a sung chorus. Through the early twentieth century there was a lot of overlap between recitation and song — many of the lyrics now recalled as cowboy songs, for example, were routinely performed as recitations, and an evening of saloon entertainment was as likely to include recitations of Rudyard Kipling or Robert W. Service as the songs of Stephen Foster or “She’s Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage.” My father, who was born in 1906, was an inveterate singer of pop songs, but also had some favorite recitations, such as a Yiddish dialect version of “The Face on the Barroom Floor” called “Jake the Plumber.” And one of my favorite Greenwich Village memories is waiting in line to hear Dave Van Ronk at Folk City, and having an aging and somewhat toothless gentleman come up and, after a memorable introduction, recite “The Boy Stood on the Burning Deck,” with suitably dramatic gestures. (His introduction was to point to the missing letter in the club’s sign and announce: “I can remember when there was a C in the Folk City marquee… that was twenty years ago, when I was a young alcoholic.”)
Dave was a great fan of Bert Williams and had been thinking about recording “Nobody” for years, but Ry Cooder beat him to it, so he went with this one instead. The only problem was that it was too short, and he solved that by writing the third verse — an excellent example of his much-overlooked talents as a lyric doctor, which I’ve already discussed in reference to his reworking of Blind Blake’s “That’ll Never Happen No More.” (Which, incidentally, is another song that walks the borderline between melody and recitation.)