He is considered to be the greatest vaudeville performer in the history of the American stage. At a time when racial inequality flourished in the United States, Williams became one of Vaudeville’s top solo artists. He is one of the greatest pantomimes that ever lived. He made close to 80 recordings from 1901 to 1920, that made him the biggest selling black recording artist of the early 1900’s.
Williams was born in New Providence, Nassau, in the Bahamas in November 12, 1874. His family moved to New York in 1885 when he was ten years old. Two years later the Williams family moved across the country to Riverside, California where Bert attended Riverside High School. His father fell in poor health and was unable to provide for the family. This left Bert with no other choice than to abandon a Stanford University education to study civil engineering and help provide for the family.
Williams went to work at the San Francisco Museum. He got his start in entertainment on the musical hall stage in 1892, where someone was needed to sing in front of the curtain while the sets were being changed backstage. He followed through in 1893, when he joined Martin and Seig’s Mastodon Minstrels. While performing with the Minstrels he met African American song-and-dance man George Walker, and the two men teamed up to form a comedic duo.
Together they performed song-and-dance numbers, comic dialogues and skits, and humorous songs. They went on to become a successful vaudeville team. They performed in several shows, including Bandana Land, Abyssinia, and The Policy Players and had tremendous success. By this time, Williams desire to study to become a civil engineer had vanished.
In 1899, Bert married Charlotte “Lottie” Thompson, in a very private ceremony. She was a singer he had previously worked with. Lottie was a widow 8 years Bert’s senior and a homebody. Williams maintained a gregarious schedule and was mostly touring his shows, yet they stayed happily married for a long time. The Williams adopted three of Lottie’s nieces and frequently sheltered orphans and foster children in their homes.
In early 1909, Walker was in ill health due to contracting syphilis, and was forced to drop out of Bandanna Land stage show. That was the last stage performance of the duo. Walker died in 1911. Walker meant a lot to the team. In his absence arose uncertainty, but Williams pushed on. He built upon a new found solo career.
Williams accepted an unprecedented offer to join Flo Ziegfeld’s Follies. His initial reception was mediocre. But by the time the show finally debuted in June, Williams was a sensation. He became the first African American performer in the Ziegfeld Follies from 1910 to 1920. It was the top production of its kind in America, and Williams was its highest paid star.
In 1920 Williams left the “Follies” and signed with another New York company, the Shubert’s. On February 27, 1922 Williams collapsed during a performance in Detroit, Michigan while touring with the production of “Under the Bamboo Tree.” He had developed pneumonia, but did not want to miss performances. He returned to New York, but his health worsened. He died on March 4, 1922 at the age of forty-seven.
The news of his death was a shock to many, as it appeared to have surfaced all of a sudden. More than 5,000 fans filed past his casket, and thousands more were turned away. Williams was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York. He was survived by his wife. They had no children of their own.