A neglected titan of popular culture gets his due.
Forbes (Literature/Univ. of California, San Diego) presents the life and career of Bert Williams (1874–1922), a protean figure in American entertainment and the pre-eminent black performer—arguably one of the most popular comedians of any hue—of the early 20th century. She charts with scholarly earnestness Williams’s path from the island of Antigua through his partnership with the similarly talented and driven George Walker to solo success. Williams performed in burnt-cork blackface and in performance embraced such racial stereotypes as “the coon”; his biographer’s treatment of the difficult subject of minstrelsy is trenchant and insightful. Unfortunately, Forbes’s academic prose is dryly analytical and somewhat soporific as she doggedly catalogues Williams’s successes, defeats and social milieu. Still, this electrifying performer remains an underaddressed subject, and Forbes’s diligence yields much of value. A wealth of detail illuminates the evolution of show business during Williams’s era, and the artist himself is quoted at length, revealing an articulate and thoughtful man beneath the burnt cork. Forbes also covers Williams’s contribution to popular music. He was the bestselling black recording artist before 1920, and his massive hit “Nobody” demonstrated a keen understanding of the mechanics and evanescent effects of song. When Williams joined the Ziegfeld Follies, it cemented his status as a superstar whose appeal transcended race. He became one of Columbia Records’s consistent top sellers, free at last from the degrading “coon” tropes that had defined his early career. Among his colleagues in those heady days were Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor, Will Rogers and W.C. Fields, who called Williams “the funniest man I ever saw—and the saddest man I ever knew.”
A worthy, if a bit ponderous, contribution to entertainment history.