Shelton Brooks was a member of the second generation of African-American songsters, artists who came into prominence in the teens. His compositions fueled the era's dance craze and were performed by some of its best-known white singers including Nora Bayes and Al Jolson. They also were popular among the new breed of musicians who introduced jazz first to the United States and then to the world. These melodies became some of the earliest jazz standards, songs musicians knew so well that they could be played without rehearsal, like line drawings other artists colored in.
Shelton Brooks was born to Native American & Black parents in Amesburg, Ontario, on May 4, 1886. His father was a preacher and as a child he played the organ in his father's church, while his older brother pumped, since the bellows were below his reach. When he was 15, his family moved to Detroit and it was there that he had his first professional music job playing self-taught piano. In 1910, Sophie Tucker's maid introduced the singer to both Brooks and the song which would become Tucker's theme when she insisted that Brooks be brought to sing for her employer in Tucker's dressing room in a Chicago vaudeville theater. It was the start of a friendship was to last a lifetime in the process enabling more than a few musical careers.
The song was Some of These Days, which Tucker liked and began using immediately. I've turned it inside out, she was to write, singing it every way imaginable, as a dramatic song, as a novelty number, as a sentimental ballad, and always audiences have loved it and asked for it.. 1
In 1911, Brooks appeared in his first musical comedy, Dr. Herb's Prescription, or It Happened in a Dream. Performed in Chicago's famous African-American owned Pekin Theater, the comedy was produced by its star, Jesse Shipp, who had previously been involved in the Williams and Walker shows in New York.
Brooks quickly became known as an outstanding entertainer whose talents included singing, piano playing, and mimicking his fellow black vaudevillian Bert Williams. He also traveled as a trap drummer with Danny Small's Hot Harlem Band for several months during this period.
The second decade of the twentieth century was an era of tango teas where whisky, not tea, was the drink of choice, and parties that lasted til dawn, and Brooks's songs captured its moods perfectly. His 1912 publication, All Night Long, evoked the nightclubs that literally never closed their doors; in fact, their owners often did not even have front door keys. His 1916 instrumental called Walkin' The Dog inspired a dance that swept dance-mad Manhattan and the rest of the country as well.
Brooks knew how hard it was for African-Americans to get their music heard, published, and eventually sung by the white stars of the day, and his own success did not blind him to the struggles of others. When he let it be known to other African-American songwriters that his friend Sophie Tucker was regular and would do what she could to help them, among those to benefit were Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake. Their first song, It's All Your Fault, was published in 1915 as a direct result of the Tucker-Brooks connection. This arrangement was advantageous to both Tucker and the songwriters: the new material they provided her helped the singer's career as well as their own.
At the time, New York City was said to have the best black pianists and drummers in the country, but Chicago reputedly had the best black bands. Around 1915, Brooks led a large syncopated orchestra in Chicago's Grand Theater, only one of many great African-American theaters in the Windy City.
Brooks' most famous song was Darktown Strutter's Ball. Published in 1917 and introduced to the public on record by The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, it became an instant success. The story behind the song according to grand-son Geoffrey Brooks was that: " there was a formal dance held in Chicago once a year for those who you might say "practiced the oldest profession in the world" and their associates. Each year they dressed in the proper attire of tall hats,coats and tails, and spats. This was their night that they suffered no oppression and were not bothered very much if at all by the local authorities. It was if they were ignored and as long as "they" were all in one place, no bother! Granted these people did have some clout of their own and were the pride of their people,even though some of them were practicing illegal moonlighting in their illicit affairs after their day jobs. It was a marvelous occasion looked forward to each year by thousands and to be a guest was by all means a pride of honor. In their minds, they were (and who could disagree) the bottom of the social ladder. But with the likes of a Shelton Brooks, Fats Waller and some of the most talented musicians to grace one place in one night would be a great honor in any human book."
The song has been recorded countless times since on the way to becoming one of the first standards in Jazz.One of the most unique recordings was in 1919 by Lieutenant James Reese Europe's 369th Infantry Band.
When the first blues recordings were being made in the early twenties, Brooks became interested in this new medium. He asked Perry Bradford, who had connections in the business, to help him get a recording session. The result was a comedy record called Darktown Court Room. The flip side carried a song by the comedy team Miller and Lyles called You Can't Come In, and the record sold over 80,000 copies.
During the twenties, Brooks performed in many small African-American shows including Miss Nobody From Starland in 1920 and K of P in 1923. He was a prominent song-and-dance man in the show Dixie To Broadway, which featured the very talented Florence Mills, who died in 1927 at the peak of her career. In the thirties, he appeared in other shows and went to Europe with Lew Leslie's Blackbirds of '32. It was during this tour that he appeared in a command performance before George V.
Along with W. C. Handy and William Grant Still, the dean of black classical composers, Brooks was honored in San Francisco at the ASCAP-sponsored Festival of American Music in 1940. He died on September 6, 1975.