Clarence Williams: One of the First Jazz Singers

Today is the birthday of Clarence Williams (1893-1965), one of the first artists to use the word “jazz” to publicize his work. The Plaquemine, Louisiana native ran away from home to join Billy Kersands Traveling Minstrel Show, then settled in New Orleans where he became a popular piano player, singer and M.C. By the mid teens, the entrepreneurial Williams was writing his own music, publishing his own tunes and those of others, and managing acts in black vaudeville (including his own partnership with Armand Piron.) From here he broke into the recording industry, producing records, playing piano on sessions, and cutting deals as manager and publisher. Important artists he worked with over his career included Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith, Bunk Johnson, Sidney Bechet, King Oliver, the Boswell Sisters, W.C. Handy and Williams’ wife after 1920 Eva Taylor. In 1943 he sold his catalog of published music and retired. He passed way in 1965. If he’d lived only a few years more, he would have seen his grandson Clarence Williams III become a tv star on The Mod Squad.

To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold. And don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, to be released by Bear Manor Media in 2013.


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