Blog of Miscellaneous Bits of Musicological/Historical Research by Bob Pinsker


 

Clarence Williams's Date of Birth
Posted 20231111

Clarence Williams, a key jazz figure of the 1920s, was born in Plaquemine, Louisiana sometime before 1900, of that there is no doubt. However, remarkably for a person who was interviewed many times during his lifetime by jazz historians, the year of his birth has not been universally agreed upon. One might think that his wife Eva Taylor would know, and she began her biographical article "My Husband Clarence Williams" published in Storyville #13 (Oct.-Nov. 1967) with the straightforward statement "Clarence Williams was born on October 8, 1893 in Plaquemine, Louisiana."

Still, Williams's gravestone shows the year of his birth as 1898 (see Find-A-Grave, Clarence Williams Grave in St. Charles Cemetery, East Farmingdale, New York, though oddly that listing gives an 1896 date of birth at variance with what is engraved into the headstone shown) and that is reportedly in agreement with what it says on his Queens County death certificate (footnote on page 1 of "Clarence Williams" by Tom Lord, Storyville Publications, 1976). Various online sources commonly list the 1898 date of birth, while the Wikipedia article on Williams states the date of birth as either October 8, 1898 or October 6, 1893 and mentions that "sources differ."

When one looks at the activities Clarence reported having engaged in in New Orleans in the early 1910s, particularly when he says "I became manager of a a cabaret in 1913, a place on Rampart Street right across from Union Station, a very rough place where the railroad fellows would hang out . . . The man who owned the place came to me and asked me to run it.", it does seem quite implausible that he could have done this at age 15, despite Eva having described him as "Clarence was old for his years, and he always hung around with an older group." Hence one is driven to agree with Tom Lord's statement from page 1 of "Clarence Williams" that says "The dates of later accomplishments in New Orleans and the probable age needed for their responsibility suggests the 1893 birthdate."

We examine the available documentation to see to what degree it supports a particular birthdate. While I have not yet been able to locate Clarence Williams in either the 1900 census, which would certainly be the best source, or the 1910 census, Williams's 1917 WWI draft registration card is probably the best early source for his date of birth. It appears below.

Here we see the October 8, 1893 date of birth.

Williams has moved to Chicago by the time of the 1920 federal census in January 1920, where he is rooming on the South Side near The Stroll at 3034 Wabash Avenue. This address is a couple of blocks north of where Lemuel Fowler was to live a few months later (3306 Wabash Avenue), in the area razed in the 1940s for the expansion of the Illinois Institute of Technology. In this 1920 enumeration, Williams said he was 26 years old in January 1920, which is consistent with an October 1893 date of birth as shown on his WWI draft card.

When Williams follows the same general pattern of moving from the south to Chicago around 1920 then to the center of music activity in New York by the early 1920s that so many of the musicians like King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Spencer Williams, Lemuel Fowler, etc. did, he appears in the New York State census of June 1, 1925, at 171-09 Cumberland Street, in the Jamaica section of Queens:

Again Clarence's reported age of 31 is consistent with an October 1893 date of birth, and by this time he has married Irene Gibbons (marriage license recorded on November 4, 1922), whose stage name was Eva Taylor. Eva's age is given as two years younger than her husband's.

In the 1930 federal census (April 21, 1930), the growing Williams family of Clarence, Eva (as usual using her given name of Irene) and their children Clarence Jr., Spencer and two-year-old Irene, appear at 171-37 108th Avenue in the same neighborhood of Jamaica, Queens. Once again, Clarence's and Irene's reported ages of 36 and 34 are consistent with their being born in late 1893 and 1895 respectively.

Hence the 1940 federal census (April 12, 1940) is a surprise, in which the Williams family is enumerated at the same address on 108th Avenue, because suddenly Clarence's reported age is 40, implying a birthdate in 1899! But Irene's age is given as 44 as expected. One might speculate that perhaps the "40" entered by the enumerator might have been a slip of the pen where what was meant was 46.

By 1940, Clarence's friends James P. Johnson and Fats Waller had moved to the neighborhood - Johnson and his family lived exactly across the street from Clarence, at 171-38 108th Avenue, and Waller lived a few blocks away at 173-19 Sayres Avenue.

The next appearance of a birthdate for Clarence in the record is in the first post-Pearl Harbor WWII draft registration, which was on February 16, 1942. Men born after February 17, 1897 and before January 1, 1921 were required to register for this third draft, and having been born in 1893, Clarence would not be required to register. But one again might speculate that the patriotic Clarence wanted to register so he made himself younger by five years, stating that his date of birth was October 8, 1898 for the first time in the record. Not being used to this date of birth, Clarence at first wrote his age as 44, then crossed it out and replaced the age as 43.

Having gone on the official record with this October 8, 1898 birthdate in the 1942 draft registration, Clarence seems to have stuck with this date for the rest of his life. By the 1950 federal census, recorded on April 15, 1950, Clarence seems to have temporarily separated from his family, living at a row house at 717A Madison Street in Brooklyn with his kid brother William. He gives his age as 51, consistent with the 1898 birthdate. He gives his occupation as "Consultant [to] record co.", while his brother is a "clerk antique shop", certainly that being Clarence's junk shop in Harlem that occupied his time in his later years after he had sold his entire catalog of copyrights for a reported $50,000 (in an era when that was quite a lot of money). William Alvin Williams registered for the WWII draft on October 16 1940, at which time he said that he had been born on September 24, 1909 in Plaquemine, and he gave Clarence, his brother, as both his employer and the person who will always know where he is.

Meanwhile, back at 171-37 108th Avenue, at first Irene gave the enumerator Clarence's information as head of the household, saying that he was 56 (again, consistent with the October 1893 date of birth) and that she was 54, that he was the head of the household, and that his occupation was the proprietor of a "retail antique furniture" [store], i.e., the Harlem junkshop. But then the whole line about Clarence is crossed out, and instead of "wife", Irene's role is changed to "head" of the household. (Probably the enumerator asked if Clarence was living at the address and Irene told him that he was not.) The house seems to have been pretty full of people at this point, with daughter Irene Joy now listed as a "professional singer" and "featured entertainer", sons Clarence Jr. and Spencer, respectively a taxi driver and involved in the phonograph record business, their wives, Spencer's children, apparently a pair of 2-year-old twin girls, and two "friends" of the family, all listed in the household. (The house is currently listed [2023] as having 1662 square feet of living space.)

Len Kunstadt and Bob Colton interviewed Clarence Williams at his home at 717A Madison Street on August 18, 1952, and they published a somewhat rambling article entitled "Pioneer - Clarence Williams" in Record Research based on the interview (Record Research #10, Nov./Dec. 1956). In this article, Clarence sticks with his new birthdate of Oct. 8, 1898.

According to several sources, Clarence moved back to 171-37 108th Avenue by the end of the 1950s, as his health deteriorated. (Probably his children and their families had moved out by that time, so it was more reasonable to do so.) All of the obituaries following his death on Saturday, November 6, 1965 mentioned that his age at his death was 67, so were all using the October 8, 1898 date of birth. This misinformation is accompanied in the stories by other errors of fact, such as the listing of song hits by Williams including "Jelly Roll Blues", certainly a peculiar error.Another song mistakenly credited to Clarence in the obituaries was "Everybody Loves My Baby", though this is perhaps more understandable, since the composer was Williams's friend (though not related) Spencer Williams, the song was pubished by Clarence's firm, and the song was recorded by groups bearing Clarence's name.

In summary, I hope to have shown that the overwhelming likelihood is that Clarence Williams's date of birth was, just as his widow clearly stated, October 8, 1893.