Black History Month got off to a good start for lovers of acoustic sound when Vulture named “The 100 Jokes That Shaped Modern Comedy” this week. There in pole position was “Nobody” by Bert Williams from 1906. The compilers note that they weren’t looking for “one-liners” necessarily, as much as for “a discrete moment of comedy.” They contend that Bert’s performance of “Nobody” gains its power from the tension between its upbeat musicality and its mournful lyrics. It seems a stretch to call the music “upbeat”—it’s fairly doleful throughout—but we’ll grant that the chorus has a certain whimsical flavor that adds irony to Bert’s lament. Of course, the biggest musical joke in the piece lies in the trombone swoops that imitate human wailing.
Vulture got it right by saying it’s the self-deprecation of the unfortunate loser that makes “Nobody” so funny. The fact that a black man would give comedic voice to his trials and tribulations, the indignities and put-upons suffered at the hands of others really was revolutionary. Williams was the highest paid African American (well, Caribbean by birth, actually) in show business and had more leeway in what he did on stage than others who looked like him. When he spoke-sang the words of “Nobody”—when he made those irresistible mugging faces and did his shuffling dance—he worked his way with laughter into the hearts of white Americans who may not have thought much about social equality. Lots of other people recorded the song—from Arthur Collins to Johnny Cash—and those versions aren’t as funny as Bert’s.
For the record, “Nobody” came from the Williams and Walker show, Abyssinia. Williams first recorded it probably late spring of 1906, and it was released in July 1906 on 10-inch, single-sided Columbia 3410 (as well as on Columbia client labels such as Standard, Diamond, and Star). A different take with some amusing differences was released on Marconi 0303 (Marconi was an experimental flexible record that was supposed to have a quieter surface). Black-wax cylinder Columbia 33011, a shorter version, was released in October 1906; there were at least two takes of the cylinder issued. In the era of double-sided discs, which began in 1908, Columbia wanted to reissue “Nobody” but found the original master insufficient and called Williams back to do a new version, which he did on January 7, 1913. Take 3 was issued on the flip-side of “My Landlady” as Columbia A1289 in May 1913. The company wrote in its promotion: “’Nobody’ without Bert Williams to sing it would be ‘Hamlet with Hamlet left out.’”
Williams’ 1906 recording of “Nobody” was inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1981, and he remains one of the most beloved artists in our catalogue.