Aida Overton Walker slide show, gallery, and links

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Aida Overton WalkerAida Overton Walker_4_tC

(below) An excerpt from A History of African American Theatre by Errol G. Hill, James Vernon Hatch (2003), in Chapter 5, “New vistas: plays, spectacles, musicals, and operas,” by Errol G. Hill, p. 166 [As of 29 May 2014 the Google eBooks preview of the book is no longer available.]:

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Aida Overton Walker biography and article:

Williams and Walker Company:

On In Dahomey: Williams and Walker Company pioneers new territory for African-American theater; Aida Overton Walker elevates the cakewalk and teaches her interpretation of the dance to society in New York and Great Britain

  • In Dahomey: a negro musical comedy — music by Will Marion Cook, lyrics by Paul Laurence Dunbar, book by Jesse A. Shipp  — The Google eBooks preview presently includes the score, apparently whole — I only scrolled about half way through and noticed no pages missing (though oddly there are two extra copies each of pages 12 and 13, one of the page 13 copies partially obscured by a ruler, and one duplicate each of pages 60 and 61) — digitized from an edition published in London by Keith, Prowse & Company Ltd., c. 1903. The script is not included (See the next link).
  • The Music and Scripts of ‘In Dahomey’ — Will Marion Cook, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Jesse Shipp, edited by Thomas L. Riis (1996) — Google eBooks preview: Presently available in the preview are 1. An introductory chapter by the editor titled “In Dahomey in Text and Performance” (33 pages) and 2. the first two acts (of three) of one of the extant versions of the script, by Jesse Shipp.
  • The Real Thing, essay by David Krasner, pp. 99-123 of the book Beyond Blackface: African Americans and the Creation of American Popular Culture, 1890-1930, edited by W. Fitzhugh Brundage (2011)

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Excerpt from the book Staging Race: Black Performers in Turn of the Century America by Karen Sotiropoulos, pub. 2006, pp. 176-177 (Page 176 is missing from the Google eBooks preview.):

 Aida Overton Walker as Salome, 1912, in Oscar Hammerstein’s revival of Salome, photograph by White Studio, NY (eyebrows and eyes retouched)Although Walker won praise for her classic performance of “Salome” as part of a black musical comedy, when she performed the same dance as a solo dancer at Hammerstein’s Victoria Theater in 1912, she was ridiculed. “Salomania” had, in effect, “domesticated” Salome, earning the “Dance of the Seven Veils” designation as a classical dance and opening the doors of Oscar Hammerstein’s opera house to a revival of the Strauss opera in the spring of 1909. Hammerstein and his son, Willie, had seen Walker perform the dance in Bandana Land [sic], and invited her to perform this newly ordained classical dance at their theater. Although white critics had praised Walker’s performance on the all-black stage, most of them rejected her inclusion as part of a “higher class” attraction. One critic announced that “a Salome of color” was “a direct smash in the face of convention.” Of Walker’s 1912 performance at Hammerstein’s, another critic wrote, “Ada Overton Walker’s single-handed ‘Salome’ was funny,” and that the music was “all wrong.” Instead of the “heavy classic stuff … the bunch should have been playing Robert E. Lee.” 34. Ibid., 117. These white critics missed the irony that the dance had earned more legitimate status because of the vaudeville-induced “Salomania,” and arguably, because of Walker’s magnificent performance in Bandana Land.

Ever conscious of the gaze of whites, Aida Walker, and the Williams and Walker Company, had carefully orchestrated her performance in Bandana Land so that it would not upset white patrons. Bert Williams followed her performance with a burlesque of the dance, one incorporating enough racial stereotype to distract white audiences from Walker’s serious performance.

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"Mandy, Make Up Your Mind" number, Dixie to Broadway, 1924

* Aida Overton Walker’s male impersonation for the number “That’s Why They Call Me Shine” in the revue His Honor, the Barber (1909-1911) inspired a tribute by Florence Mills in 1924, and the song (with a revised lyric written by Lew Brown in 1924) retitled “Shine”, eventually became a jazz standard. From the book Florence Mills: Harlem Jazz Queen by Bill Egan (2004), p. 110:

Florence’s third scene [in Dixie to Broadway, 1924] introduced one of her most successful songs, “Mandy, Make Up Your Mind.” To the audience’s surprise she appeared in male formal dress as the groom, with chorus girl Alma Smith the tardy bride. All the company got into the act, either as bridesmaids, maids of honor or groomsmen. Florence’s male attire was her tribute to Aida Overton Walker‘s famous “That’s Why They Call Me Shine” routine.

According to the “Friends and Associates” page of FlorenceMills.com, a Bill Egan website, Florence’s sister Olivia Mills (later Wiltshire), was known to impersonate Aida Overton Walker, before her retirement in 1915 to raise a family. This claim is partly corroborated in a paragraph on Egan, page 17, which quotes from a 1914 annual stage review in The Freeman (an African-American newspaper of Indianapolis, Indiana, published from 1884-1927): “Olivia succeeds nicely in her male impersonation.” Such impersonations, suggests Egan, “followed the tradition of Aida Overton Walker in her That’s Why They Call Me Shine routine.”

Also on the “Friends and Associates” page of FlorenceMills.com, Egan suggests that Mills had paid tribute to Walker much earlier in her career, at age 7:

Florence’s first professional engagement came in 1903 when, as “Baby Florence,” she featured in a guest spot singing Aida Overton Walker’s specialty number “Miss Hannah from Savannah” in the Avery and Hart production of the Williams and Walker show The Sons of Ham [sic].

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16 February 2014 addendum — several recent gallery additions:

(above) The image on the left was added to my Aida Overton Walker slide show and gallery last October. It appeared on the cover of the August 10, 1929 issue of the newspaper The Chicago Whip. At the time I published it here I thought the photograph was probably from around 1900, basing my estimate upon 1. the fact that she evidently wears the same necklaces, though in a different combination, and hair accessory as in the photo above right (which had been previously published here) and 2. her very youthful look in each of these two photographs — she was born in 1880. However, one of several sheet music covers featuring Walker that I added to the gallery in early February contains a portion of a signed photograph (see “Build a Nest for Birdie” sheet music below left), dated 1906, of the actress-dancer-comedienne wearing the same costume, necklace, and hair accessory — perhaps a comb or a band of some kind — as in the photo above right.* The inscription, partially lost in cropping, appears to have originally included the notation “Abyssinia — 06,” which would thereby approximately date the other two photographs as well. In addition to cutting the tail end off the word “Abyssinia,” it seems that cropping has also lopped off the married surname “Walker” from the signature.

I’ve found no evidence that Aida Overton Walker ever performed the song “Build a Nest For Birdie,” though ordinarily the use of her image on a sheet music cover would indicate that she performed the title song in a show.  In this instance, however, it appears that her image may have been used on the cover to hint at the presence of advertisements for sheet music for songs from Williams & Walker shows within the pages that follow. Two cases illustrate:

1. The sheet cover at left is from an edition of early sheet music for “Build a Nest For Birdie” that is available in the digital collections of the Performing Arts Encyclopedia at the Library of Congress website. The back page of this edition contains the notice “NOW READY: Our Williams & Walker Dance Folio, Containing All Their Recent Successes.” The page also contains small copies of the first pages of the sheet music for four songs. Among the four is “Why Adam Sinned,” which had been featured by Aida Overton Walker (hereafter referred to as AOW) in the Williams & Walker show In Dahomey, which opened on Broadway in February 1903.

2. Another early edition (dated c. 1906) of “Build a Nest For Birdie” sheet music, available at the Frances G. Spencer Collection of American Popular Sheet Music of the Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections, featuring the same cover, has a few bars of the Bert Williams song “Let It Alone” on page 2, followed by the music for the title song on pages 3 to 5. The back, page 6, has advertisements for “Six Song Successes from Williams & Walker’s New Musical Creation Abyssinia,” providing the titles and three to four bars of notation for each. The songs included, each with music by Bert Williams, are: “Here It Comes Again,” “The Tale of the Monkey Maid (or, Die Trying),” “Rastus Johnson, U.S.A.,” “Where My Forefathers Died,” “It’s Hard to Find a King Like Me,” and “The Jolly Jungle Boys.” According to IBDb, “Let It Alone” was not among the songs included in the score of Abyssinia on opening night. However, various sources describe it as a song from the show, suggesting that it was added later. See, for example, Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890-1919, by Tim Brooks (2004) 2010 edition, p. 118.

Note also that directly above AOW’s photo on the cover of the “Build a Nest For Birdie” (m. James T. Brymn, w. R. C. McPherson) sheet music is a reference to a previous song by the same songwriting team, “Josephine, My Jo,” which had been a late addition to an earlier Williams & Walker show, Sons of Ham (1900-1902), though evidently not sung by AOW.

Aida Overton Walker-pearls (2), signed-1a-f17Aida Overton Walker, possibly as Miss Hannah from Savannah, by White Studio, NYAida Overton Walker_1_d15

(above, left) Image from an undated, signed photograph of AOW by White Studio of N.Y., added to my AOW gallery on 9 February 2014, replaced by a different edit, this one, on 13 February 2014. AOW’s married surname “Walker” in the signature is difficult to read against the dark background and partially truncated. Walker wears the same dress and necklace as in the photo above right, which had been published at my AOW slide show and gallery page in June 2012. The hairstyle also appears to be virtually identical, though the hair is topped with an elaborately decorated headdress or hat in the left image. Both images are by White Studio of New York.

On 9 February 2017 I noticed that the headdress or hat worn in the center photo (added to the page in March 2013), appears to be the same one worn in the photo at the left. Also, the hairstyle in the center photo seems very similar to that in the other two. I’m still working on dating these.

(below) Added 9 February. Sheet music for two songs from the 1908 Williams & Walker show Bandanna Land, each containing a photographic image of AOW, and crediting her for performing the song in the show. The cover of “I’m Just Crazy ‘Bout You” indicates that it is “The Hit of Bandana Land” [sic] and that it had been “sung with great success by Aida Overton Walker.” The front of “It’s Hard to Love Somebody (Who’s Loving Somebody Else)” notes that it was “introduced by Aida Overton Walker in Williams and Walkers [sic] latest success Bandanna Land.”

The image of AOW used on the cover of the sheet music for “It’s Hard to Love Somebody” shows her in costume as Rosetta Lightfoot for the show In Dahomey. The image is evidently derived from the photograph at right, which I added to the AOW gallery about a year ago. The photo was probably taken in the period 1903-1904, during which the runs of several productions of In Dahomey occurred.

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* The same hair accessory seems to be worn by Walker in the image used on the cover of the sheet music for the song “I’ll Keep a Warm Spot In My Heart for You” below left, from the 1906 show Abyssinia, and in the photo of a scene from the show below right. “Warm Spot” was added to the AOW gallery in March 2013, while the scene has been in the gallery since October 2012 [replaced with an image of better quality on 16 December 2015].

Scene from Abyssinia (1906)-Aida Overton Walker and Bert Williams (right)-1a

(above left) images of George Walker and Aida Overton Walker in costume for the 1906 Williams & Walker show Abyssinia, on the cover of sheet music for the song “I’ll Keep a Warm Spot In My Heart for You”

(above right, l. to r.) unknown, Aida Overton Walker, and (in blackface) Bert Williams in a scene from Abyssinia

(below) two edits of images from a photograph, c. 1906, of Aida Overton Walker in costume for Abyssinia, added to the page on 13 February 2016

Aida Overton Walker, c. 1906, Abysinnia costume-1b2 Aida Overton Walker, c. 1906, Abysinnia costume-1b

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See also the following related Songbook pages on Bert Williams and George Walker, during the Walker & Williams years, 1896-1909:

19 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Taniya Carlock
    Aug 03, 2012 @ 04:48:18

    Appreciate you sharing, great blog. Much thanks again.

    Reply

  2. Monique Sauls
    Jan 13, 2013 @ 00:13:25

    Hey, Just wanted to say thanks so much for this great page! It has the most images I on the web. I came here looking for lyrics to Aida’s song/poem called “why Adam sinned” the net has basically nothing at all. If you know of any more links or info I would love to know about it. Either way, thanks again for the blog!!

    Reply

  3. Don
    Mar 06, 2013 @ 04:07:22

    You continue to amaze me Doc ! : )

    Reply

  4. Anonymous
    Dec 26, 2013 @ 21:50:19

    Music Covers knocked me out. Great job on the lady. Your research and website postings a joy. Thanks as always.

    Reply

    • doc
      Dec 27, 2013 @ 01:24:26

      Thanks, Anon
      Some interesting covers, I agree. As a stage comedienne, she surely acquired some artistic license not afforded to other ladies of the era, but even so she must have drawn upon extraordinary courage to appear, and be photographed, in such daring dress for the time (plunging necklines), with wild hairstyles. Some of the photographs of AOW make it difficult to believe, when you consider the typically stiff, formal look so common in photographs of people from this era, that she even belongs to it.

      Reply

  5. D' Lynn
    May 04, 2014 @ 01:32:21

    Are there any recording of Aida still in existance or films of her dancing?

    Reply

    • doc
      May 04, 2014 @ 14:45:12

      D’Lynn,
      I don’t think Aida made any audio recordings. Haven’t heard of any. And I’m not aware of any film footage of her dancing either. I’ll let you know if I do find anything. — doc

      Reply

  6. luanadancer
    Feb 03, 2016 @ 13:48:25

    This is Fabulous. Thank you for providing so many resources on a star who, unfortunately, has not been duly recognized yet paved the road for so many of us in the performing arts.

    Reply

    • doc
      Feb 06, 2016 @ 00:04:23

      Hi luanadancer,

      Thank you for the kind comments. The absence, as far as I’m aware, of audio recordings or film footage of Aida is unfortunate, but I believe she will eventually be well-known, esteemed, and duly honored. Her time is coming.

      Regards, doc

      Reply

  7. Daniel Atkinson
    Jan 24, 2017 @ 12:47:56

    I am writing what I believe to be the first biography of Aida’s husband George and in doing my research, no recordings or film of her have come to the surface. In fact, there are only 8 recordings of George that I know of, but I own several copies of their sheet music along with a few photographs and several postcards made between 1896 and 1903. In doing this research, I have come to understand the amazing effort that Aida brought to bear when George took ill and eventually died. When he was gone and could no longer protect himself, Aida took up for him and suffered greatly, mostly at the hands of Bert Williams’ manager who was trying to make a case for him to have honorary Whiteness and therefore, be allowed in the Ziegfeld Follies as a fly in the ointment. As a result, the feud between she and Bert was so great that he was not welcome at her funeral! I hoped that she was a part of Bert Williams’ recently discovered comedy Lime Club Kiln Field Day (1913), but that wasn’t the case. She was remarkable and like George, she deserves better!

    Reply

    • doc
      Jan 25, 2017 @ 20:30:20

      Daniel,

      Hi. Delighted to hear of your project, which is certainly a noble venture. Pease let me know if I can be of any assistance. Four or five years ago, while I was preparing my four pages on Bert Williams, George Walker, and Aida Overton Walker — see the top section of my index African-American musical theater, 1896-1926: feature pages and galleries — I planned to do a couple of additional pages, including one on George Walker. It was clear during the preliminary note taking process that the job would involve some meticulous digging and foraging. The other planned page was to have been on the American Tobacco Company advertisements which Williams, Geo. Walker, Stella Wiley, and (reportedly*) Aida Walker posed for c. late 1896. Anyway, for whatever reasons I never got so far as an outline for the page on George, and eventually put these plans on hold indefinitely as I moved on to other projects.

      I have read that Aida stepped into George’s role in Bandanna Land after he became too ill to continue performing in early 1909, but I wasn’t aware of the difficult relationship wrt Bert Williams’ manager, or the feud between Aida and Bert that you refer to.

      Regards,
      doc

      *reportedly — Neither of the females in the color lithographs (17 x 17 inches) and postcards derived from the c. 1896 American Tobacco Co. photo shoot resemble Aida, in my estimation, and — although this might be explained by the fact that the postcards were evidently created by painting over or colorizing black and white photographs, while the color lithographs seem to have been created as illustrations closely based on photographs — I remain unconvinced that she was one of the two women who posed with W&W for those photographs.

      Reply

  8. Daniel E. Atkinson
    Jan 26, 2017 @ 07:38:56

    George mentions that it is her in a few editorials that he wrote that feature the Williams and Walker origin story. I have all eight images from the postcard series plus a ninth that was previously unknown to me. I also discovered why Aida spelled her name with an “I” after 1903 among other things like George’s date of birth, their actual date of marriage and the house they shared with Aida’s family in Harlem.

    Reply

    • doc
      Jan 26, 2017 @ 16:06:04

      “George mentions that it is her in a few editorials…”
      That’s the sort of evidence I’ve been lacking until now. Thanks. Your first message here has inspired me to delve into the chronicles again. Books I’ve been reading that seem to have quite a bit on George, with some insights into his character, include:

      Bert Williams and George Walker, 1896 "Old Virginia Cheroots" costumes (1)

      Have you ever seen the original photographs that the lithographs and the postcards were created from? I’m only aware of a single photograph of Bert and George in those costumes (right; linked to full size image).

      On page 44 of Spreadin’ Rhythm Around, Jasen and Jones suggest that the 17 x 17 inch colored lithographs were created before the postcards, and that the postcards were at least the third series of advertising items issued that were created from the photographs taken by the American Tobacco Company, saying:

      The routine [Williams and Walker cakewalk] was so funny that in 1896 the American Tobacco Company asked to photograph them in dance poses for a series of eight trading cards to advertise their Old Virginia Cheroots cigars. For the photo session, Williams and Walker were paired with two actresses from the Black Patti Troubadours company, Stella Wiley (who was Bob Cole’s wife) and Ada Overton (who would soon mary George Walker). The pictures were so popular that the company re-issued them as lithographs and, later, on postcards.

      I’ve yet to find a trace of the “trading cards” that, according to Jasen and Jones, preceded the colored lithographs and postcards, or of the photographs from which all of the other items derive.

      Reply

      • doc
        Jan 26, 2017 @ 16:25:01

        Forbes’ version of the story, in Burnt Cork, differs from that of Jasen and Jones in that Forbes indicates that Williams and Walker handpicked Stella Wiley to pose with them for the photo session, and then she selected Ada Overton.

      • Daniel Atkinson
        Jan 27, 2017 @ 14:24:03

        Hello,

        It might be a little annoying for the other viewers of the thread to have such an in depth conversation. If you like, you can call me at 206-218-4206 and I can give you more detail on what I have on this subject matter. Long story short, I have come across quite a bit of data that contradicts a lot of what has previously been written simply by following the data trail as it relates to George and Aida rather than Bert. Though very thorough, I find much of Forbes’ work to be a little biased toward the accepted narrative of the relationship between Williams and Walker.

        Daniel Atkinson

      • doc
        Jan 27, 2017 @ 15:23:04

        Daniel,

        I was just about to suggest that we continue the conversation privately, but for other reasons, particularly that it might not be prudent to give away too much of substance regarding what might be otherwise be revealed in good time in the projected book. May I use the attached email address?

        doc

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