Or, some sources suggest Brooks’s song referred instead to a ball at the 1915 San Francisco Pacific-Panama Exposition. In any case, it was a real-life party that inspired his immortal Darktown Strutters’ Ball.
Darktown Strutters’ Ball was introduced in vaudeville by the trio of Benny Fields, Jack Salisbury, and Benny Davis, followed by Blossom Seeley and comedy singer Sophie Tucker (also known for Brooks’s Some of These Days). This success carried forward with the sheet music, published in January 1917 by Rossiter in Chicago and later by New York’s Leo Feist, which sold over three million copies.
The first recording of Darktown Strutters’ Ball was made by Canadian vaudeville band Six Brown Brothers in May 1917 for Victor Records in New York City, followed a few weeks later by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (Columbia A-2297) as an instrumental. The latter version, one of the earliest commercial jazz records and a No. 3 song of 1917, was later inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Darktown Strutters’ Ball reached the No. 2 position in Canada in 1917, including early 78-rpm recordings, piano roll and music sheet sales. It quickly became a staple of dozens of pop and jazz artists including Count Basie, Dave Brubeck, Fats Domino, Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Al Jolson, Django Reinhardt, the Savoy Quartet, Wilbur Sweatman’s Original Jazz Band, and Lieutenant James Europe’s 369th Infantry Jazz Band. Ted Lewis and His Band had a hit with it in 1927.
The irrepressible, bouncy, spirited song features a syncopated ragtime melody and was popular for dancing the shimmy (as Ella Fitzgerald sang in her later recording) and fox trot in crowded dance halls. These and other popular dances, such as Jelly Roll Morton’s 1915 fox trot Jelly Roll Blues, are featured in the lyrics:
“Remember when we get there, honey
The two-steps I'm goin’ to have ’em all
Goin’ to dance out both my shoes
When they play the Jelly Roll Blues
Tomorrow night, at the Darktown Strutters’ Ball
We’ll win that fifty-dollar prize
When we step out and Walk the Dog” (a reference to Brooks’s earlier song and its dance).
An ASCAP All-time Hit Parade selection of 1963, Darktown Strutters’ Ball has remained popular with countless jazz bands, barbershop quartets, and country and rock musicians, a hundred years after it was written: Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians, Chet Atkins, Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee Hank Snow, Arthur Fields, Dean Martin, Fats Waller, Lawrence Welk, The Beach Boys, Hoagy Carmichael, Bing Crosby, Bo Diddley, Les Paul, The Platters, Ricky Skaggs, Pete Seeger, Catherine Russell, Jeannie Seely, and The Beatles (who did not record it). Lou Monte’s “Italian style” parody was a Billboard chart hit in 1954, and The Ted Mulry Gang had an Australian hit in 1976.
Betty Grable sang it in the film “The Dolly Sisters,” as did Robert Redford in “The Natural,” and it has featured in TV’s M*A*S*H*.
Songwriter, pianist and actor Shelton Brooks (1886 – 1975) was born in Amherstburg, Ontario. Moving to the USA in his teens with his family, Brooks became a ragtime pianist in Detroit and Chicago. He wrote vaudeville songs for Al Jolson and Nora Bayes, and penned the jazz standards Some of These Days and Walkin’ the Dog.