Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Williams Sisters - The Vaudeville and Broadway Years

The Williams Sisters - The Vaudeville and Broadway Years (English) The Jazz Age (English) Hannah's Career (English) The Life of Dorothy (English) The Williams Sisters - De Periode van de Vaudeville en Broadway optredens (Nederlands) De Jazzjaren (Nederlands) Hannah's Carriere (Nederlands) Het leven van Dorothy (Nederlands)

THE WILLIAMS SISTERS Discography - Hans Koert

Vocal trios have always fascinating me: The Boswell Sisters, The Mills Brothers and The Andrew Sisters are the three most well known. But what about those numerous unknown an obscure forgotten groups like the Brox Sisters, the Paull Sisters, the Trix Sisters or the Keller Sisters? Bill Schoerner is fascinated by The Williams Sisters. He made an in-depth investigation about this Pennsylvanian vocal duo and sent me a lenghtly contribution he loves to share with the visitors of this Keep Swinging blog. Today the first part: The Vaudeville Years.

The Vaudeville and Broadway Years
Bill Schoerner

The Williams Sisters entered the scene as child performers on the vaudeville stage, then progressed to the Broadway Stage. They also participated in the early excitement of the Jazz Age in the 1920's and met and performed with some of the biggest jazz legends and actors of the stage and music industry. Sadly, their careers peaked in their early twenties. Even though Hannah married wealthy men, they did not encourage her career in show business, so we may never know what she could have achieved. It's a story with an exciting beginning but an unhappy ending.

The first time I became aware of the Williams Sisters was from a Ben Pollack 78 rpm recording of the song "He's the Last Word." This recording was noteworthy for other reasons as well because it was the first solo recording of the young 17 year-old Benny Goodman on clarinet, and 22 year-old Glenn Miller, who had just joined Pollack as a trombonist and arranger. This was December 17, 1926, and the vocal refrain by the Williams Sisters was real jazz, in a vocal style unique for that time. It would be six months later that Rhythm Boys would release their first recordings with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. The Williams Sisters reminded me a little of the Boswell Sisters, who didn't start recording their jazzy vocal styles until 1930.

"He's The Last Word".

But who were these Williams Sisters? The discographies show they made only 5 recordings and a few that were never released. The sisters were Dorothy Williams, 17 and Hannah Williams, 15 in this Ben Pollack recording session. From information that I would learn later, they were from Scranton, Pennsylvania, the daughters of Welsh immigrants, and whose father was a coal miner.
Indeed, the history of Pennsylvania does confirm the fact that Scranton was the destination of many Welsh immigrants who were employed in the coal mining industry. The earliest documentation I could find on the family was from a search of the 1920 Federal Census records which gives us some interesting facts about the Williams family. The census indicates that Hannah was 9, Dorothy was 11 and an older sister Leona was 14. There is no information that Leona was ever a performer or part of the act. Their mother, Mattie, was identified as married and the head of the household, but no father was noted as living in the home. They lived on Wyoming Avenue in Scranton, Pennsylvania and they were renting their home. A most interesting bit of information was that mother, Mattie, was employed as an usher in the theatre. This might explain their early exposure to the entertainment business.
The Dainty Duo
Exactly how the sisters entered show business, I was unable to determine. The first indication that they were performing was from an article in the Utica (New York) Herald Dispatch of August 16, 1918, for a vaudeville stage show which included an act with the Williams Sisters at the Majestic Theater. It stated, "The Williams Sisters are a petite and dainty duo of misses, with an act of exceptional vivacity and charm."

By October 18, 1918, the act was reported at the McVickers Theater in Chicago, but the reviewer didn't seem to be impressed: "...the Williams Sisters failed to make much of an impression in the morning program with their singing and dancing." During this time most of their acts centered primarily in northeast Pennsylvania and in upstate New York.
By 1922, advertisements listed the Williams Sister as a singing and dancing act with the "Troubadours" performing in Binghamton New York, which is about 60 miles north of Scranton.
In October 1923 several advertisements appeared with the Williams Sisters being featured with the "Sirens." This was the famous Scranton Sirens Orchestra, which was directed by Billy Lustig. This is the band that gave Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey their big start. The band was very popular and could easily attract more that 1000 persons to their dances. The sisters must have had an impressive song and dance act because the advertisements in the newspaper were billing them as "World's Greatest Juvenile Entertainers."
The news of the Williams Sisters charm and talent must have reached New York City because they were chosen to perform in George White Scandals of 1924. The Scandals were a long running series of Broadway reviews patterned after the Ziegfield Follies. George Gershwin wrote the music for the show and introduced his song "Somebody Loves Me" for this production. The Williams Sisters performance was in the opening song called "Just Missed the Opening Chorus" in which they scold the confused latecomers that they had just missed the opening act. The show ran at the Apollo Theater on 42nd Street for 196 performances between June 30, 1924 and December 13, 1924 ( to be continued)
Bill Schoerner -

Bill Schoerner is an American living in Arizona. He was a research engineer but now retired. He has been a collector of vintage records for more than 40 years and has always been interested in the names on the record label, the musicians, the song writers and the instruments. His interests range from Gershwin to Jobim, but he is also a fan of opera. He is particularly interested in the history of American popular music and jazz from the first half of the twentieth century, musical casts, songs, composers and popular recordings.

Hans Koert

Chicago 10th of March, 1926
What A Man - Hi-Diddle-Diddle (Brunswick)
(both tunes also on the CD: Brunswick-Vocalion Odds & Bits (Timeless))
Chicago 15th of December, 1926
I've Grown So Lonesome Thinking of You - Sunday ( Victor (rejected))
Chicago 17th of December 1926
He's The Last Word (Victor)
( this tune also on the Jazz Oracle release Ben Pollack Volume 1)
Chicago, 18th of December 1926
Nothing Else Matters Any More - Sam, The Old Accordion Man (Victor)

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice piece on the Williams Sisters!

I had been in touch with Dorothy's son Sergio Michael Gomez several years ago, as I too am interested in the sister acts--have been working with Vet Boswell's daughter for years on a biography. I knew Vet Boswell very well, also met Bobbe Brox, and spoke to Dorothea Ponce and Patti Pickens on the phone.

Best regards,

David McC
Washington, NJ

6:57 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I have come across an original Christmas card from the Williams Sisters. Beautiful card with a pasted on photo of the two sisters sitting side by side.
Would like to know more about them.

Ed Jacoby

11:32 PM  

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