Celebrating Jazz Appreciation Month with Spencer Williams

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“A jazz band posing with their instruments” (1940). Robertson and Fresh Collection of Tampa Photographs. University of South Florida Libraries Digital Collections.

You may not know Spencer Williams by name, but I bet you know “Everybody Loves My Baby, but My Baby Don’t Love Nobody but Me,” or maybe “Basin Street Blues.”  Perhaps you can even sing a few lines of “I Ain’t Got Nobody.”  Spencer Williams composed from 200-500 songs, many of which were imbued with a deep sense of nostalgia for the New Orleans he knew in the 1910s (Edwards, n.d.; Chilla, 2022).  He was known for being an original, and though some might warmly critique his ideas as ‘shortwinded’ and his harmonies as ‘modest,’ they would still agree “he could write a tune that got to the subject” (“Quite a Moment,” 1965).

Like many of his contemporaries, Spencer Williams’ early life is vague and contradictory.  We can say for sure that Spencer Walter Williams Junior was not the Spencer Williams Jr. of the same time period that played Andy on the Amos and Andy show; he was also not related to the song writer/publisher Clarence Williams with whom he would sometimes collaborate (Chilla, 2022).  Spencer Williams was born around 1886 likely in Selma, Alabama, though some reports say Louisiana (Edwards, n.d.; Chilla, 2022).  Wherever his birth place, by his teenage years he was living in New Orleans, teaching himself piano and composition in the style of Antoni Junius, Albert Carrol, and Jelly Roll Morton (Edwards, n.d.; “Basin Street Blues Composer is Buried,” 1965).  He may have been enjoying the hospitality of his famous aunt, Lulu White, who owned and operated a bordello called Mahogany Hall in Storyville on New Orleans’ famous Basin Street (Edwards, n.d.).

Williams himself has both claimed no formal musical education and reported that he was educated at St. Charles University in New Orleans, though no St. Charles University is known to exist (Edwards, n.d.).  By 1907, Williams would leave New Orleans for Chicago along with many other musicians (“Basin Street Blues Composer is Buried,” 1965).  There, he worked as a pianist, songwriter, and Pulman porter (Edwards, n.d.; Chilla, 2022).  From Chicago, he went to New York, then to Paris in the company of Josephine Baker (Spencer Williams, 2023; Chilla, 2022); then to London where he met and married his wife Pat Castleton (Stage name Agnes Bage); then back to New York again followed by Stockholm (Edwards, n.d.; Chilla, 2022; Spencer Williams, 2023).

Jazz as a Living Thing

Though Spencer Williams may have been known for his originality, a look at even his most famous songs paints a curious story of song origination, evolution, and duplication.  “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” one of Spencer’s most famous songs, could very well have started as a regional folk strain, known to many, but not yet written down (Edwards, n.d.).  The first copyright registration for a song of that title was written by Clarence E. Brandon, Sr. and Billy Smythe in 1911.  It is possible that this version never left the region of Missouri, where it was self-published.

Charles Warfield and David Young registered another version in 1914: “I Ain’t Got Nobody and Nobody Cares for Me.”  Spencer Williams’ take on the tune with lyricist Dave Peyton was registered in 1915 as “I Ain’t Got Nobody Much” (Edwards, n.d.).  It was Williams who has been primarily associated with the song as the composer.  Rather than a case of plagiarism or copyright infringement, the near simultaneous compositions may indicate how music developed in the streets, bars, and music halls of the United States. Bert Williams, a vaudevillian performer predating Spencer Williams, would ruminate on the way music, musicians, and songwriters would incorporate influences from each other, sampling bits and pieces of other songs to create something new.

“…the tunes to popular songs are mostly made up of standard parts, like a motor car… As a machinist assemblies a motor car then, I assembled the tunes to “Nobody,” “Crazy,” “Believe Me,’ and one or two others.”   –Bert Williams, “The Comic Side of Trouble,” 1918

After publication, a tune takes on another new and dynamic life as orchestra conductors and musicians breathe their own spirit into it, changing the sound with alterations to tempo, choice of instruments, and flourishes that may also hearken to other songs all together.  The two songs by Spencer Williams currently available in our Digital Collections Black American Sheet Music are perfect examples of this.

“Sim-Me-Sha-Wabble” (1917) and “Snakes Hips” (1923) were each recorded by several different artists and orchestras, many of which have been made available by the Internet Archive’s Great 78 Project.  A few variations on each are shared below.  Listen and you will find out how much one song can change in the hands of different performers.

Sheet music cover of Shim-me-sha-wabble.
Shim-me-sha-wabble. Black American Sheet Music Collection. University of South Florida Libraries Digital Collections.

• Ted Lewis and his Band (1928)

• The Original Wolverines (1928)

• Don Redman and his Orchestra (1940)

• Sidney Bechet’s Blue Note Jazz Men (1950)


Sheet music cover to Snakes Hips
Snakes hips: A Jungle Jazz. Black American Sheet Music Collection. University of South Florida Libraries Digital Collections.

• The Cotton Pickers (1923)

• The Memphis Five (1923)

• The Badgers (1923)


Spencer Williams’ Later Life

Some of his greatest successes came while Williams was living in Paris and working with Josephine Baker.  He travelled all over prior to WWII, intermittently returning to New York for short bursts.  Wikipedia (2023), unique among all other sources, recounts that Spencer Williams was tried and acquitted for murder in the late 1920s, citing the 1995 Guinness Who’s Who of Blues by Colin Larkin.   Though the 1995 Guinness Who’s Who of Blues gives no citation for this incendiary tidbit, it did at least make the front page of the San Antonio Register in 1931.  Williams was in a fight that his friend Hal Bakay attempted to break up.  Hal Bakay was stabbed later in the evening, perhaps as retribution for getting involved in the earlier conflict, and died of his wounds before he could positively identify his assailant.

By the time he was living in London, sometimes working with Fats Waller and meeting his wife, Agnes, he was paying most of his bills with song royalties.  He stayed in London through WWII, and Agnes gave birth to two girls (Edwards, n.d.).  After residency in Sweden where he had eye surgery, Williams made New York his final place of residence and spent several years prior to his death in 1965 struggling with cancer (“Basin Street Blues Composer is Buried,” 1965).  He continued composing songs throughout all his travels and medical struggles.  His wife registered several more pieces he had composed after his death, but never published these herself (Edwards, n.d.).

More composer bios, jazz history, and sheet music can be found at the USF Libraries.  Continue your explorations into jazz during this Jazz Appreciation Month:


  1. Basin Street Blues Composer is Buried (1965) Pittsburg Courier.  31 Jul 1965 pg 13.  https://www.newspapers.com/image/38486931/?terms=Spencer%20Williams&match=1
  2. Chilla, Mark (2022) The Two Williams:  Spencer and Clarence. Indiana Public Media.   https://indianapublicmedia.org/afterglow/the-two-williams-spencer-and-clarence.php
  3. Edwards, Bill. (n.d.). Spencer Walter Williams, Jr. (October 14, 1886 to July 14, 1965). com http://ragpiano.com/comps/swilliams.shtml
  4. ‘Quite a Moment’ (1965) Lebaon Daily News 29 Jul 1965
  5. “Spencer Williams, 75, Composer of Song Hits” (1965) Omaha World Herald 17 JUl 1965.
  6. Spencer Williams (2023) Wikipedia.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spencer_Williams
  7. Williams, B. (1918) “The Comic Side of Trouble” The American Magazine.  85:  33-35  https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=inu.32000000494239;view=1up;seq=43


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