Billy Williams (1878–1915)
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. In March 1915, however, Billy fell ill with pneumonia and died soon after in a nursing home in nearby Hove. He was only 37. He was buried in Shoreham. (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.)
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.
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. Godfrey 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.
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):
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 Billys 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).