Often referred to as a “vaudeville singer” or a “singing comedian”, Al Bernard (Alfred Aloysius Bernard, 1888-1949) was primarily a recording artist, one who was both prolific (4,000 recordings according to his NY Times obit though that sounds like a stretch) and hugely successful. His career as a live performer, prior to recording, is murky. It’s said he started out as a blackface minstrel** and there are some publicity photos of him in the cork, but I have yet to come across a specific reference to him in a major minstrel show, or performing on the major vaudeville circuits, for that matter. He is known to have come from New Orleans. It may be that his early career was spent in “below the radar” venues, like saloons, tent shows, medicine shows, and the like. At any rate, he was no relation to Sam Bernard, Mike Bernard or Barney Bernard. There were a lot of Bernards running around in those days.
By the mid teens he had begun making records; he would become associated with Edison, Victor, Okeh, and other early major labels. He was an early proponent of styles we think of as black (blues and jazz) and styles we think of as white (country and hillbilly) as well as styles that bridge both (western swing). He is said to have been the first person to record W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” as well as several other Handy compositions, and was the first American to sing “Frankie and Johnny” on record. He co-wrote and recorded with J. Russel Robinson, and performed with collaborators as diverse as the Dixieland Jazz Band and country music pioneer Vernon Dalhart. He recorded comical duets with Ernie Hare, taking the wench part, and cowrote tunes with Jimmy Durante. He was truly a transitional figure, an artist who looked both backwards (as when he recorded old minstrel routines in the 1920s), and forwards, as in his landmark 1930 recording of “Hesitation Blues” which marries C&W to Chicago blues.
Old and new definitely smashed together in one of his last projects. In 1945 he appeared on WOR television in New York (then affiliated with the Dumont Network), performing old minstrel routines and Gus Edwards material on a show called Bob Emery’s Rainbow House. 1948 is extremely early in television history, three years before guys like Ed Sullivan and Milton Berle launched their groundbreaking shows. From riverboats to electronic media. That’s the 20th century in a nutshell.
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.
To find out more about vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,