Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Bert Williams

  • His Final Releases, 1919-1922 [Archeophone, 2002]
  • The Middle Years, 1910-1919 [Archeophone, 2003]
  • The Early Years, 1901-1909 [Archeophone, 2004]

Consumer Guide Reviews:

His Final Releases, 1919-1922 [Archeophone, 2002]
Williams wasn't just a success--he was a major star, the cultural equivalent of Hendrix in the '60s, the black man epitomizing a supposedly white entertainment culture. As he got older he grew impatient with the limitatins of the role he'd carved out for himself. Like many comedians before him he wanted to do drama, go legit, only in this case there's clearly a racial dynamic as well. But though some believe that his records weakened, as so often happens, I don't hear it. Improved recording certainly compensates. In any case, it's estimated that between 1918 and 1922 he moved nearly two million pieces, including two of the Elder Eatmore sermons Louis Armstrong imitated and adored, and the enduring opera parody "I Want to Know Where Tosti Went." [Recyclables]

The Middle Years, 1910-1919 [Archeophone, 2003]
Not only was comedian-singer Williams the first African American stage and recording star, with 33 hits between 1902 and 1922, he's lasted better than most of his bigger white peers, and beat them easily at their own games. The Ring Lardner-penned family burlesque "No Place Like Home" is conspicuously raceless. So is "Play That Barber Shop Chord." "The Darktown Poker Club" not so much, but kind of. The re-recorded "Nobody," who knows--or cares? [Recyclables]

The Early Years, 1901-1909 [Archeophone, 2004]
The final installment of Archeophone's complete digitalization of Bert Williams's recordings covers his earliest, dimmest recordings, and as history alone it's a triumph. Given the limited dynamics of these expertly restored acoustic discs and cylinders, that's not to claim he still sounds as vivid as he must have then. But his perfectly delivered loser's lament, "Nobody," retains extraordinary irony and pathos, and throughout his tone and timing are a wonder. It's impressive that he ever got the subtly barbed "She's Getting More Like the White Folks" past his bosses. "I'm Tired of Eating in the Restaurants," however, proves surprisingly universal. "Never Mo'" rhymes with Edgar Allen Poe. And the big butt of "The Phrenologist Coon" may be "the Williams character," or may be phrenology itself. [Recyclables]

See Also