Retrospective for a Black Vaudeville Star

Bert Williams, photographed in 1922.

Bert Williams, photographed in 1922. Library of Congress hide caption

itoggle caption Library of Congress

W.C. Fields called Bert Williams "the funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest I ever knew."

Williams was an African-American vaudeville star in the early 1900s, and an influence on many future comedians, black and white.

The customs of the times forced him to perform in blackface, playing a sad, luckless clown... but also a figure of wisdom. Comparisons to Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp are inevitable.

As Elizabeth Yate McNamee reports, a small record company, Archeophone, has released a collection called Bert Williams: His Final Releases, 1919-1922.

Williams had become wealthy and popular at the time of his death in 1922. But author Mel Watkins says Williams remained sad because of racial disparities.

"He was a very intelligent man, who listened to operas, who read Nitzche," Watkins says. "He was basically a kind of elite individual... and had he been not black, he would have been accepted as such."

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