The Early Years, 1901-1909
The Middle Years, 1910-1918
His Final Releases, 1919-1922

The genius of Bert Williams echoes on, eight decades after his death. When we talk about something being (or not being) a cakewalk, we're referencing the dance Williams and his partner George Walker popularized in the 1890s. If we laugh at the "Mr. Cellophane" song and dance of Chicago, we're getting buzzed off a whiff of Williams. And from some source or other, we probably recognize his most famous refrain from 1906: "I ain't never got nothin' from no-oh-body."

Williams was a giant somebody, the funniest man W.C. Fields said he ever heard, and arguably the greatest stage comedian of the early 20th century. Along with Walker, the comedic singer was part of a generation of African-American performers who corked up to compete with white minstrel performers. Williams and his peers changed the pop culture game of their time, expropriating the expropriation of African-American culture. Which is to say that Williams' story is an earlier round of the American cultural collision still going on today.

Williams hasn't been heard clearly for generations. His recordings were reissued only once in the LP era (for the Smithsonian's label in the '70s), but there are 76 of his 78s and cylinders expertly transferred to these new discs. The songs are both entertaining and enlightening as a whole, not to mention prescient and sometimes perplexing. (Try not to hear "All Going Out and Nothing Coming In" as a forerunner to Ray Charles' "Busted." On the other hand, the racial self-laceration of a black man singing a song like "The Phrenologist Coon" is hard to bear.) The echoes of Williams' career may be faint, but these discs turn up the volume.

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