Forgotten Vaudeville Stars on Records • William H. (Billy) Tascott

Forgotten Vaudeville Stars • William H. (Billy) Tascott

By Allan Sutton

 

Known for most of his career simply by his last name, William H. Tascott specialized in the “coon song,” which merits some discussion here. These syncopated songs were the vocal counterpart to ragtime, and the subject matter was the supposed foibles of black folks.

There has long been a tendency to dismiss coon songs as racist trash, and not without some justification. Many exploited the worst stereotypes — corrupt preachers, razor fights, crap-shooting, cheating spouses, chicken-coop raids, and lusting after watermelon are recurring themes. And yet, many of the best (and, generally, least offensive) coon songs were written by blacks, including Bert Williams, Alex Rogers, Will Marion Cook, Jim Europe, and other notable figures.

The lyrics to “Shame on You,” which is posted here in Tascott’s rendition, were written by Chris Smith, a prolific black songwriter and vaudevillian who two decades later was featured on the earliest Ajax race records. If accounts of the period are any guide, many coon songs were enjoyed by black and white audiences alike. It was primarily white songwriters (like Paul Dresser, whose “Nigger Loves His Possum” was a hit for Collins & Harlan) who sullied the genre.

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One of the earliest mentions of Tascott appears in the Boston Post for June 16, 1901, which noted that he “excels as a singer of coon songs.” Newspaper reports and advertisements from 1901 give his name variously as William H. Tascott, Will H. Tascott, or W. H. Tascott. By 1902, Tascott was using only his last name on stage — perhaps to avoid confusion with William B. Tascott, a suspected murderer who was the subject of a headline-grabbing manhunt at the time.

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Singing between horse-races (Boston, August 1901)

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Tascott traveled extensively in vaudeville, where he was billed as “The World’s Greatest Coon Shouter” (and much less often as “The White Coon,” the billing used for his Edison recordings). He spent the summer of 1901 playing vaudeville houses in Boston and even performing between horse race at Combination Park.

Tascott seems to have been especially popular in Washington, D.C., where The Washington Times for October 28, 1902, reported that his act “is a novel one, in that he does not appear in ‘black face.’” The Washington Evening Star observed that Tascott’s delivery “would doubtless cause many of his hearers to believe that he is in reality a colored singer, were it not for the fact that he does not resort to burnt cork.” This is certainly borne out by the straightforward delivery we hear on Tascott’s recordings, in which he largely avoids the annoying, stereotypical “darky” mannerisms that mar the work of Arthur Collins and some others who specialized in the genre on records.

Tascott’s total known recorded output consists of two Edison cylinders — “Shame on You,” recorded on April 22, 1905, and “You Must Think I’m Santa Claus,” from May 12, 1905. They bear out several reviews of the period that remarked on Tascott’s auditorium-filling voice. There are any number of possible explanations for such a short recording career — a busy touring schedule, Arthur Collins’ and Bob Roberts’ stranglehold on coon-song recording, or a voice that produced records prone to wear out prematurely are all certainly possibilities.

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WILLIAM TASCOTT: Shame on You

New York: April 22, 1905  (released July 1905; deleted December 1, 1908)
Edison Gold Moulded cylinder 9033

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At some point, Tascott received a Richard K. Fox medal, an award originally bestowed upon boxers by the owner of the Police Gazette, which was later expanded to include entertainers. Tascott shifted his activities to the Midwest around 1907 and began touring on the Keith vaudeville circuit. The Suburbanite Economist reported on April 2, 1909, that he had purchased a home in Chicago, at 6230 Throop Street. Now billed as Billy Tascott, he toured widely throughout the Midwest during 1909–1910 and even ventured into Canada, where he appeared at Winnipeg’s Dominion Theatre in March 1910.

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“Billy” Tascott in the Midwest (Dekalb, Illinois, February 1910)

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A mention of Tascott’s Richard K. Fox medal
(Moline, Illinois, May 1908)

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The summer of 1910 saw Tascott back on the East Coast for a string of appearances in the Washington–Baltimore–Philadelphia corridor. From there, he swung westward to Altoona, Pennsylvania, and Akron, Ohio, after which his trail grows cold for a time. He resurfaced in December 1913, when he performed at a “smoker” in Brooklyn for fifteen-hundred supporters of politician James P. Sinnott. There are other occasional mentions of Tascott as late as January 1915, when he played a small-time theater in Trenton, New Jersey. By then, however, the coon song was becoming passé, and Tascott fades from the picture.

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© 2019 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.