Around this time, Williams hooked up with George Walker, a black Kansan with a similar wanderlust for the stage. They gigged around California for a bit as the Walker and Williams duo, working their way eastward through Denver and Chicago. At an engagement in Detroit, Williams blacked up again just to see what would happen. What happened was a life-changing epiphany: he discovered that being in blackface allowed him to play a character, instead of defining him as a person. Williams, a proud and thoughtful man off stage, began developing the on-stage persona of a put-upon everyman who just so happened to have really, really dark skin. The character became a hit, and the duo switched its billing to Williams and Walker.
They landed in New York City in 1896, just in time for the first period of major black cultural activity there (no, not the Harlem Renaissance; that wouldn’t come for another 20-odd years). This was the moment when blacks first made inroads on the vaudeville stage as performers and songwriters, as formal minstrelsy (but not necessarily some of its more demeaning depictions of blackness) faded from vogue. Granted, the musical style of the moment wasn’t necessarily the most flattering. Coon songs, catchy ditties set to a ragtime beat, traded on the worst of black stereotypes, telling stories of razor-toting, chicken-eating darkies; the genre’s breakthrough hit was “All Coons Look Alike to Me”. which was actually written and recorded by a black man, Ernest Hogan (who spent much of the rest of his career backpedaling from that achievement). For their first gig in the Big Apple, the duo dusted off a tune Williams debuted at that fateful Detroit engagement, “Oh! I Don’t Know, You’re Not So Warm!” The show ran only a week, but Williams and Walker were proclaimed a hit, and off they went.
They started blowing up on the nascent vaudeville circuit, performing musical and comic routines as “Two Real Coons”, without pandering to the most egregious racial stereotypes and caricatures. Their original songs sold well as sheet music, and they even picked up some side money doing an advertising photo shoot for a tobacco company. That proved to be fortuitous beyond the immediate cash and exposure.
One of the women on the shoot, Ada Overton, had just split from the Black Patti Troubadours, a popular touring ensemble, and had vowed to leave the stage for good. Walker convinced her to join the duo on their NYC gigs, and she relented (they would soon marry, and she would re-spell her name as Aida). Second, the photo depicted two black couples dancing up a citified storm, and Williams and Walker’s manager encouraged them to recreate the scene in their live act.
Thus did the cakewalk, a high-steppin’, hand-wavin’, jolly promenade of a dance, become a black vaudeville staple, with Williams and Walker its most famous proponents (and Mrs. Aida Overton Walker its most famous teacher). But the cakewalk also played close to the still-prevailing stereotypes of happy darkies mugging for white audiences; Williams would walk this balancing line throughout his performing career.
Williams and the Walkers found themselves at the center of a burgeoning black musical theater scene at the turn of the century. Poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and composer Will Marion Cook collaborated on the musicals Clorindy, or The Origin of the Cakewalk and, starring Williams and Walker, Senegambian Carnival (1898). Performers Bob Cole and Billy Johnson made some hay with the hit A Trip to Coontown; Cole would go on to form a more significant partnership with the brothers J. Rosamond and James Weldon Johnson (no relation to Billy; the Johnson brothers would also write “Lift Every Voice and Sing”). The aforementioned Hogan starred in Clorindy, and broke ground as an independent-minded artist and entrepreneur. Black talent gravitated to New York City for opportunities to work and perform, and the growing cadre of black actors, musicians, and songwriters formed a tight, nurturing community.
Several groundbreaking productions starring Williams and Walker emerged from that community. The breakthrough hit was Sons of Ham (1900), which ran for two seasons. It was followed by In Dahomey, which toured for six months in late 1902 before becoming the first black musical on Broadway in 1903. Two months after opening on Broadway, the production toured to England, and gave a command performance for King Edward VII.
By now, their styles were patented. Walker portrayed variations on the smart-talking schemer, while Williams developed an Everyman character, Jonah Man, as the prism for his musical numbers and comic bits. Williams continued to perform in blackface – the only member of the ensemble to do so. Far from reducing Williams’ performance to caricature (as if his innate personal dignity and awareness would let that happen), the makeup allowed him to create an archetype that would go on to influence generations of American stars. Some of Williams’ artistic choices would be problematic for some of his black audience, but at the height of the duo’s popularity, Williams was winning acclaim as a top-notch comic performer.
An extension of the Jonah Man character became the vehicle for Williams’ signature song. In 1906, he recorded “Nobody,” a wry lament co-written by Williams and Alex Rogers (Williams and Walker had been recording their compositions since 1901). Williams’ half-spoken, half-sung delivery intoned the hard times and bad luck of the classic down-and-outer:
When life seems full of clouds and pain
And I am full of nothin’, and pain,
Who soothes my thumping, bumping brain? Hmmm?
When winter comes with snow and sleet
And me with hunger and cold feet
Who says here’s 25 cents, go ahead get something to eat?
The song was quickly added to the current musical Abyssinia, and was marketed heavily by Columbia (even though it was labeled a coon song, a branding the lyrics didn’t merit). Williams performed the song at virtually every show for the rest of his life, and recorded a remake 10 years later to satisfy audience demand.
Throughout the decade, Walker emerged as the partner more business-minded and outspoken about the state of black entertainment, with Williams taking on a less vocal profile. Everything changed one night late 1908, after Walker collapsed on stage after suffering a stroke. He gave his last performance in 1909 (and died in 1911), leaving Williams to carry on as a solo performer.
And carry on he did. He began his career as a solo vaudevillian in 1909, and starred in the musical Mr. Lode of Koal later that year. But despite Williams’ fame as a performer, he was not immune from racial indignities at the hands of white audiences, critics and performers. He persevered, crossing over from the black musical theater world to the mainstream exposure of Flo Ziegfeld’s Follies of 1910. The Follies were well on their way to becoming an A-list destination for vaudeville performers; Williams became the first black performer to join the revue. While a major boon for his career, joining the Follies lineup meant Williams had to contend with consternation from the black community that he’d, in essence, strayed too far from his roots.
Williams starred in several incarnations of the Follies throughout the 1910s, achieving star billing and influencing young performers Eddie Cantor and W.C. Fields. He continued to record, and made a handful of short films. He also became more forthcoming about his craft and his industry, picking up where Walker had left off.
He took great pains to note that he was a studied performer, and that any talent blacks displayed for the performing arts was the result of practice and devotion to those arts, not of some racially-specific predilection. Still, he was often treated like a second-class citizen, or worse: when Actor’s Equity struck the Follies in 1919, the union did not bother to inform Williams; he found out when he showed up to an empty theater.