Williams, (Egbert Austin) Bert(?1874–1922) stage actor, singer, songwriter; born in Nassau, Bahamas, British West Indies. Part African in descent, he was raised in Los Angeles and went on the road with the Mastadon Minstrels in 1891; he was so light-skinned that he had to use blackface to maintain his role as an African. In 1893 he formed a partnership with another African-American song-and-dance man, George Walker; their New York City premiere in 1896 in the farce, The Gold Bug, made them into a hit team and they appeared in a number of musicals until Walker retired in 1909. Williams was the first black comic to record with Victor Records (starting in 1901); he was one of those behind the early all-black musical, In Dahomey (1902); and he was one of the founders of the first African-American actors' society (1906). Williams continued as a solo act and became the most celebrated "black" actor on Broadway, appearing in the annual Ziegfield Follies between 1910–19 (except for 1913 and 1918). His last Broadway appearance was in Broadway Brevities in 1920. Although he had appeared in blackface throughout his career and often played a shuffling fall-guy, he was credited as one of the first African-Americans to defy some of the stereotypes of the minstrel-show Negro, especially in his own songs such as "Nobody" and "That's a-Plenty." He was the subject of Duke Ellington's "Portrait of Bert Williams" (1940).
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.