Today is the birthday of Big Joe Williams (Joseph Lee Williams, 1903-1982). It’s so tempting to include him in my Stars of Vaudeville series since he seems to have gotten awfully close to the black vaudeville circuits, working in minstrel and medicine shows and all-black revues — but unless I come across the word vaudeville per se I won’t make the leap. A Mississippi native, Williams had a grandfather and two uncles who were musicians and he took to it himself naturally from childhood, designing his own one-string guitar…which led naturally to the distinctive nine string guitar he designed for himself in adulthood, adding 3 strings to an ordinary 6 string guitar, and often embellishing it with pieces of foil or other metal to make the instrument buzz. Charley Patton was among his early influences.
He started out busking and playing in work camps and bar rooms, and tent shows of various kinds. By the 20s he toured with the famous Rabbit Foot minstrels; in the early 30s he recorded with the Birmingham Jug Band on the Okeh label. In the mid 30s, now based out of St. Louis he began cutting his own records, such as signature tune, the much-ceovered “Baby Please Don’t Go” (1935). Over time, he gradually moved his base to Chicgao and continued recording all through the 30s and 40s (“Crawlin’ King Snake”, 1941, was another big one), and enjoyed a huge resurgence of popularity during the folk and blues revival of the ’50s and ’60s. (One of Bob Dylan’s first jobs in 1962 was playing on one of his records.).
I don’t know when this footage was taken but it’s bloody incredible:
To find out more about show business past and present (including television variety), 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 my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc