I don’t expect the heroes at Archeophone, whose archival mission is built into their label name, to concoct a best-of from the painstakingly restored complete works of America’s first great black recording star. But maybe some other noble indie could slip them some cash. Dim acoustic recording as well as insulting blackface stereotypes, not to mention comic genius Williams’s melodic limitations, mean these collections require some work; although the early material may be more committed, the later stuff brightens on engineering alone. From 1901’s “The Phrenologist Coon,” in which the big butt may be “the Williams character” or may be phrenology itself, to 1917’s “No Place Like Home,” a raceless Ring Lardner-penned family burlesque, to 1920’s “I Want to Know Where Tosti Went,” where the opera being parodied provides a big fat stolen hook, Williams holds up—previously unnoticed touches had me chuckling harder many listens in. Any aficionado of pop history should make an effort to hear him.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 8, 2005