Billy Williams (1878–1915)
  “The Man In The Velvet Suit”

 


Billy Williams, "The Man in the Velvet Suit"
(Documentation Collection,
National Film and Sound
Archive, Canberra, Australia)

In the seven or eight years prior to World War One, Richard Isaac Banks, a draper’s son from Melbourne, Australia, was probably the most popular recording artist in the British Empire. Performing under the name “Billy Williams,” he churned out huge numbers of recordings for many different labels, both British and foreign. His discs and cylinders sold well on both sides of the Atlantic and in Australia and South Africa.

Billy began his singing career in Broken Hill, Kalgoorlie, and other rough mining towns in the Australian Outback. In 1899, he decided to try his luck in England, and soon found work in pantomime and in provincial music halls. In 1906, fellow Australian star of the Music Halls Florrie Forde steered Billy into the recording studio by introducing him to the Edison people in London. In December of that year, Billy recorded his own composition, John, Go And Put Your Trousers On, and the Edison cylinder quickly became a big hit. Billy soon began recording prolifically, often doing half a dozen songs in a session, and usually in one take. His records sold so well that virtually every label in Britain was after him, and Billy did his best to oblige.

At the same time, Billy was pursuing an incredibly busy Music Hall career. The usual schedule was two turns a night at each of three halls, with mad dashes from one hall to another to be on time for the next turn. He also toured extensively around Britain and, in 1910, embarked on an overseas tour of Australia and South Africa. His countrymen, already familiar with Billy’s work through recordings, were thrilled to see him in person and gave him a thunderous reception.

The work and stress caught up to Billy in 1914, when he suffered a breakdown from sheer exhaustion. Recovering, he bought property in Shoreham-by-Sea, on the Sussex coast, and moved there for a bit of peace and quiet. He was still performing as late as February 1915, according to Music Hall bills, but in March Billy fell ill with pneumonia and died soon after in a nursing home in nearby Hove. He was only 37, but, popular though he was, the announcement of his death takes up very little space in newspapers among all the dark news from the Western Front. He was buried in Shoreham after his funeral at St. Mary’s Church in the seaside town. (By coincidence, this author, whose grandfather Fred Godfrey wrote so many of Billy’s songs, was born just a few hundred yards from the site, though 35 years later.) Here is how Britain’s show business paper, The Stage (“Variety Gossip,” 18 March 1915, p. 16) reported Billy’s death:

We regret to announce the death of Billy Williams, who passed away on Saturday after an operation in a nursing home at 88, Lansdowne Place, Hove. Deceased was an Australian who came to England in 1900 and quickly found himself in the good graces of London and provincial audiences. His bright style was particularly attractive, and his several chorus songs, notably...‘Letís All Go Mad’, hit the popular fancy. In addition to his music-hall work he was a popular gramaphone artist, and was accounted one of the best makers of records among the principal comedians of the day. He...leaves a widow and four children to mourn his loss at the early age of 37. The funeral took place on Tuesday at Shoreham, where deceased had a bungalow during the last three or four years of his life....Naturally, business engagements prevented deceased’s professional friends from attending the funeral in any large numbers. Among those who were present at the gravesite were...Mr. and Mrs. Fred Godfrey.

What accounted for Billy’s popularity? His own comedic gifts, of course; his clear enunciation of the lyrics in recordings (unusual in those days of primitive recording techniques); and the infectious laugh that punctuates most of his songs. Billy also had considerable talent as a whistler, easily the equal of that other well-known whistling comic singer of the era, Al Jolson. And he had a captivating presence on the Music Hall stage: even Marie Lloyd admitted she had a tough job following Billy’s turn. Billy didn’t rely on lavish productions or gimmicks — his only concession to those was to wear a specially made outfit of blue velvet; he was soon dubbed “The Man in the Velvet Suit.” Instead, Billy captivated audiences simply through the force of his vital personality. Here is how one newspaper described his act:

The most remarkable thing about Billy Williams, who heads the bill at the Hippodrome [Leeds] this week, is the contagion of his high spirits. Like a big, happy boy, he romps to the front, the embodiment of healthy youth and mischief. His generous smile, and the roguish twinkle of his eyes set the spirit of carnival abroad among his audience,who sang and whistled as merrily as he. He gives a similar impression to the jovial youth at a picnic who comes and tells a funny story—in confidence —then claps his hands to his sides and shares the laugh with you. (“Round the halls: Billy Williams at the Hippodrome,” Yorkshire Evening Post, 22 July 1913, p. 3)

Another newspaper, also in the North of England, noted that “[f]ew artists attain the height of popularity to which Billy Williams has ascended with Liverpool audiences, and he is ever a welcome visitor with his catchy songs and easy-going manner” (“Entertainments,” Liverpool Echo, 24 February 1914, p. 7). A Coventry newspaper review from October 1914 was equally full of praise:

Few comedians hold so high a place in the esteem of local audiences as Billy Williams....The reception he was given on Monday night at the Hippodrome amounted to a demonstration, and the cheer he received on making his first appearance was a high tribute to the reputation he has built up. In response to the third encore, “Billy” gave the audience the choice of the next song. Among the most popular items he contributed were his well-known songs: “Save A Little One For Me,” “I Wish It Was Sunday Night,”...“Where Does Daddy Go When He Goes Out,” and the sentimental item “Why Don’t Santa Claus Bring Something To Me.” Each went with the greatest success. It is not so much his songs, though they are excellent, which accounts for his great popularity, as his charming personality and distinctive manner. The audiences on Monday were particularly large ones, and the familiarity of the greeting which Billy Williams receive[d] showed that he is an old favourite who has lost none of his charm. (“Coventry entertainments,” Coventry Evening Telegraph, 27 October 1914, p. 4)

Billy was still going strong as late as November 1914, as this extract from a Burnley, Lancashire, newspaper attests:

There are few artists on the vaudeville stage who can surpass Billy Williams in evoking spontaneous and sustained roars of laughter. The “Man in the velvet suit” can derive the maximum amount of fun out of what would prove very ordinary fare in the hands of less capable members of the profession and the large audience at the first house at the Palace and Hippodrome on Monday evening were obviously expecting a rare treat, for there was accorded him such a reception as is extended only to those in the very first rank of public favour. Nor were they disappointed. Billy Williams has always a wonderful repertoire of songs and as he contributed one after another in accordance with popular demand, the laughter and applause increased in volume. After giving one or two of his new compositions, in his usual breezy style, which provoke[d] unrestrained laughter, he acceded to the demand of the audience for several of the old favourites, the refrains of which, and especially the whistling responses, were joined in with gusto in all parts of the house. As a matter of fact the audience were insatiable and even after an unusually long turn Williams had to appear before the curtain several times. He is indeed a prime favourite in Burnley. (“Burnley amusements,” Burnley News, 4 November 1914, p. 3)

Fred Godfrey (with lyricist Harry Castling) penned his first song for Billy Williams in 1907, less than a year after Billy’s recording career began. Asked in a 1968 interview how Billy and Fred Godfrey got together, Amy Jennings, Billy’s widow, recalled that “Fred...was a big writer at the time. He was writing for all the big artists, and he saw Billy and said ‘Can I write for you?’ and [Billy] said ‘certainly.’...They got on well together.” Fred had a genius for catching the individual styles of the artists for whom he wrote, and Billy increasingly turned to him for new material. From 1911 on, virtually every single number that Billy recorded or performed on stage (and there were scores of them) was a Fred Godfrey composition, and Williams and Godfrey were a remarkable one-two punch until Billy’s death.

In a 1938 article in The Stage, entertainer and writer Clarkson Rose wrote about the Williams and Godfrey relationship:

[Fred] speaks most highly of that great, and to my mind unsurpassed, gramophone artist Billy Williams. Fred wrote Billy the bulk of his successes, including such famous comedy songs as “Save A Little One For Me” and “When Father Papered The Parlour.”

“We used to go on tour for weeks together,” reminisced Fred. “Billy liked to have me near him. He was one of the best judges of a comedy song in the raw that I ever knew and unstinting in every way in his recognition of it.” I often think some of our comic-song writers never get the laurels due to them, and yet, except in a few cases, the artist’s material is probably 75 per cent of his or her value. Billy Williams was a great personality; he projected that cheeriness and “let’s-all-have-a-party” feeling right over the footlights better than most people I knew, and his gramophone records, some of which I still play, are examples of his uncanny flair for sending his personality through the wax. And this, mark you, was done when gramophone recording was a primitive job compared to the highly sensitized microphones of to-day. And as Fred Godfrey says, what a nice chap Billy Williams was, with always a helping hand for a brother who needed it. (Clarkson Rose, “Peradventure: Being More Leaves from a Pro’s Log Book,” The Stage, 3 February 1938, p. 2)

Billy Williams recorded the following Godfrey songs (note that the year of recording occasionally differs from the year of composition found elsewhere on this website):

1907:
 It’s The Only Bit Of English That We’ve Got

1908:
Oh! The Girls Of Gottenberg

1909:
The Colliers
Come Into The Garden, John
In The Land Where The Women Wear The Trousers
Oh! Oh! Oh! (A Tale Of Paris)
Put A Bit Of Powder On It Father
Save A Little One For Me
We’re All Waiting For A Girl

 

 

1910:
My Girl From London Town (She’s Never Seen The Swanee River)
She’s Coming Home Tonight

1911:
Come And Have A Look At What I’ve Got!
Don’t Go Out With Him Tonight
Here We Are Again
I Do Wish I Were A Ladies Man
I Don’t Care
If The World Belonged To Me
I’ll Lend You My Best Girl
In The Land Where There Are No Girls
John James Brannigan
Let’s All Go Mad
Let’s Go Where All The Crowd Goes
Let’s Have A Song On The Gramophone
My Father Was Born In Killarney (Don’t Run Down The Irish)
My Lass Frae Glasgae Toon
My Sweet Rosetta

Oh, Chanticler
Sally O’Malley
Sing Me An Irish Song
Soap And Water
Take Me Back To U.S.A.
There’s Something Nice About A Girl
Wake Up, John Bull!
Why Can’t We Have The Sea In London?
You’re The One

1912:
All The Houses Were Going Round And Round
All The Silver From The Silvery Moon
Don’t Let Me Get Any Better, Nurse
Don’t Sing A Song About A Rose To Me
Give My Love To Scotland, Maggie
I Don’t Know What To Do
I Keep On Toddling Along
I Never Heard Father Laugh So Much Before
I Wish It Was Sunday Night
It’s A Far Better Thing I Do Than I Have Ever Done
It’s A Grand Old Song Is Home Sweet Home
It’s Mine When You’ve Done With It
The Kangaroo Hop
Oh! Mister Macpherson
Oh! Molly McIntyre (I’ll Be A Scotchman For You)
One Girl’s As Good As Any Other Girl (If That Little Girl Is Yours)
Sandy Macadoo
She Does Like A Little Bit O’ Scotch
Take Me Where There Are No Eyes About
Tell Them You’re A Londoner
Wait Till I’m As Old As Father
Where Does Daddy Go When He Goes Out?
Why Don’t Santa Claus Bring Something To Me?

 

1913:
All The Ladies Fell In Love With Sandy
Are We All Here?
Call Me Early In The Morning
Giving A Donkey A Strawberry
Good-bye, Rag-time!
I Come Frae Scotland
I Don’t Know Where You Live
I Wish I Were Back In Lancashire
Jean Loves All The Jockeys
Let’s Have Another One Together
Mr. John Mackenzie, O
My Young Man Is Not A Chocolate Soldier
Nobody Knows How To Kiss Me
Oh, For Another Day At Margate!
Oh, That Ragtime Waltz! (Waltzing Ragtime With You)
Oh! The Sailors Of The King
On Her Pic-Pic-Piccolo
The Ragtime Wedding
She Is My Best Girl Now
Sheila O’Neil
Squeeze Her, Ebenezer
There Must Be Something Nice About The Isle Of Man
We All Live At No. 24
What Time Tomorrow Night?
Where Are The Girls We Used To Know?
The Worst Of It Is, I Like It

1914:
Blame It Onto Poor Old Father
I Can’t Keep Still Tonight
I Don’t Know How You Do It
I’ll Have To Ask My Mother If She’ll Let Me
I’m Out For The Day Today
Our Little Kiddie Sings The Best Song Of All
There’s Life In The Old Dog Yet
They Can All Do As They Like With Me
When Mother Backed The Winner Of The Derby
Who’s Your Friend?

Billy Williams also recorded several songs that Fred Godfrey may have had a hand in composing (sources differ; see under the song titles for details): Postcards (1908); I Must Go Home Tonight (1909); Since Poor Father Joined The Territorials (1909); Why Do You Think I Look So Gay? (1910); and Billy’s most famous song, When Father Papered The Parlour (1910).

Despite this enormous recorded output of Godfrey material, Billy seems from sheet music covers to have performed still more Godfrey songs on stage but not in the recording studio. One such is He Used To Play The Oboe (1909).