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Bert Williams - Biography

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Burt Williams Egbert Austin Williams was born in 1875 in the Antigua. He moved to California with his parents at the age of 12 and later became a popular comedian.

Bert, as he is widely known, took to music and entertainment as a way to survive after the death of his father. He went from café to café in San Francisco singing minstrel ditties and passing the hat.

While in Antigua, his interest in people's mannerisms, especially those of peasants, became evident in his performances. He later shifted his attention to a similar type of African American - the humble, shiftless, slouching Negro, who could neither read nor write but who had a certain hard, and not altogether inaccurate, philosophy of life. He would study this type patiently and rejoice whenever he discovered a new twist of dialect or expression. From this Bert would go on to develop what became his trademark character - "Mr. Nobody" (Charlie Chaplin would later develop a white character who was similar), and the accompanying song he composed, "Nobody," became his signature work.

He later teamed up with George Walker whom he groomed. They went on to become a successful vaudeville team staging shows such as Bandana Land, Abyssinia, and The Policy Players. When George took ill, Bert continued working and shared his earnings with him until he died in 1911.

Bert continued working alone and later joined the Ziegfeld Follies. It was the top production of its kind in America, and Bert was its highest paid star for ten years. He often had to use his "Mr. Nobody" routine to save the show's reputation.

Bert Williams enjoyed full popularity until his death. While in Chicago he fell seriously ill, but continued to perform rather than have the promoter suffer financial loss. He would later suffer a complete breakdown because of this behavior to the point that even doctors could not help. He died on March 4, 1922.

Bert Williams was one of the greatest pantomimists of all time. He read many of the great literary masterpieces, and could discuss the works of Darwin, Voltaire, Kant, and Goethe among others. It was said that next to the stage his greatest interest was the history of Africa and of his people in America and the West Indies. Booker T. Washington once modestly observed, "Bert Williams has done more for the race than I have. He has smiled his way into people's hearts. I have been obliged to fight my way."

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Detroit Public Library   |   The E. Azalia Hackley Collection   |   Detroit Area Library Network

Detroit Public Library The E. Azalia Hackley Collection Detroit Area Library Network