Spencer Williams was one of the earliest black composers to shape jazz as popular music. Many of his songs including "Royal Garden Blues," "Everybody Loves My Baby" and "I Ain't Got Nobody" became anthems of the Jazz Age and the Swing Era—and remain standards today.
Spencer Williams was born in 1889 in New Orleans. Educated at St. Charles University, Williams worked in Chicago as a vocalist and pianist as early as 1907. There, he often performed with another pianist, composer, and bandleader: Clarence Williams—no relation. About the time of WWI, Spencer Williams began writing pop songs, such as "Squeeze Me," which he co-composed with Fats Waller.
In 1925 Spencer Williams traveled to Paris and wrote songs for the voluptuous and exotic American expat, Josephine Baker, a star of the famed Follies Bergére. In 1930 Spencer made several recordings, singing and playing the piano with the highly regarded blues guitarists Teddy Bunn and Lonnie Johnson. In 1932 he vacationed in France with his friend Fats Waller. When Waller returned to the U.S., Williams moved to England, where he remained in residence until 1951, after which he made Sweden his home.
Our special guest is the Obie Award-winning actor Vernel Bagneris, who plays the part of Spencer Williams in this musical biography of Williams' life.
"Basin Street Blues," Williams' 1928 song, celebrates the center of New Orleans' nightlife, which took its name from the "basin" formed back of town from the excavation of building materials by the city's early inhabitants. The great trombonist and singer Jack Teagarden later made it one of his signature songs.
Basin Street Blues
Words and Music by Spencer Williams 1928
Won't you come along with me,
To the Mississippi,
We'll take a boat to the land of dreams,
Steam down the river to New Orleans.
The band's there to greet us,
Old friends there to meet us.
Where the rich and the poor folks meet,
Let me take you down to Basin Street.
That's the street,
Where the elite
In New Orleans,
The Land of Dreams,
You'll never know how nice it seems or
Just how much it really means,
I'm glad to be,
Where the welcome's free.
They're so good to me,
That's where I can lose,
My Basin Street Blues.
"Tishomingo Blues" was named after a northeast Mississippi town. The song, which also serves as Garrison Keillor's theme song for A Prairie Home Companion, was a hit in 1917.
Words and Music by Spencer Williams, 1917
My heart cries out for
You in sadness
I want to be where
The wintry winds don't blow
Down where the southern
Moon swings low
That's where I want to go
Photo credit for home page teaser image: Spencer Williams, "Whip-Dipple" sheet music, public domain.
Text based on Riverwalk Jazz script by Margaret Moos Pick ©2006