Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Early Years, 1901-1909

Treasures from before Mr. Nobody became America's first great black Broadway star

As history alone, the final installment of Archeophone's complete digitization of Bert Williams's recordings is a triumph. Not only was comedian-singer Williams the first African-American stage and recording star with 33 hits between 1902 and 1922, but he's also lasted better than most of his bigger white peers. Given the limited dynamics of these expertly restored acoustic discs and cylinders (which brighten as the three-CD series moves forward), that's not to claim he still sounds as vivid as he must have then. His perfectly delivered loser's lament, "Nobody," however, retains extraordinary irony and pathos, and throughout his tone and timing are a wonder. Though compelled to perform in blackface, Williams never downplayed intelligence, craft or edge. It's impressive that he ever got the subtly barbed "She's Getting More Like the White Folks" past his bosses.

Blender, Apr. 2005