Good things happen when talent meets fateful opportunity, and that’s the happenstance that led to the big break for Shelton Brooks. A ragtime piano player, Brooks was already an accomplished vaudeville entertainer based in the Detroit-Chicago area when one day, in 1910, while seated in a restaurant, he heard a couple arguing. The angry woman told her companion, “Some of these days, you’re gonna miss me, honey.”
Her warning was like a prayer answered for Brooks. For days, he had been playing with a melody in his head but was stuck for words. Suddenly, he knew the lyrics to wrap around the tune. He printed up a sheet and, through a connection he had with Sophie Tucker’s maid, took the score to the burlesque-vaudeville singer. She performed it the next day on stage in Chicago. Some of These Days eventually sold more than two million copies on the sheet music market. Tucker took the first four words as the title of her autobiography years later.
But Brooks was no one-song wonder. He wrote songs over the course of four decades, he was an expert mimic and impersonator, and became an accomplished entertainer in his own right. At first, Brooks was well known in the Detroit-Chicago area. His career, however, took him much further afield, as he toured the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. During one appearance, on the European tour of the Harlem hit, Blackbirds, he performed before King George V.
Born in Amherstburg, Ontario in 1886, he taught himself to play on a pump organ at the church where his father was the preacher. When his family moved to Detroit, he developed a flair for music and comedy. He patterned himself after, and imitated, black comedian Bert Williams. In Chicago, he led his own band, which was hired to play at an annual ball that recognized the oldest profession in the world and their associates. It was tall hats, tails and spats despite the street image of the guests of honour.
The ironic image of the formal occasion inspired Brooks to write the song, The Darktown Strutters Ball. Published in 1916, the song became a vaudevillian hit, crossing race lines to become a favourite with black and white audiences. The rowdy novelty caught on with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band that recorded it in 1917.
A 1916 classic called Walkin’ the Dog inspired led to a dance craze that swept across the U.S. By the 1920s, Brooks had moved to New York. He performed in Broadway shows, up in Harlem. In 1922, he was the master of ceremonies in the cast of Lew Leslie’s Plantation Revue at the 48th Street Theatre, the first black (or Negro, as it was then known) production to be scored by whites. Florence Mills was the star.
A year later, a publishing company included Brooks in its stable of songwriters and he recorded for the Okeh phonograph label. He gained membership in ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. Brooks was appearing in movies and, by 1930, he had a twice-weekly radio show with Bird Allen on CBS called Egg and Shell. During the 1930s, he continued writing songs for recordings and for movies and he was still on the boards in vaudeville.
By the 1940s, he had moved to Los Angeles where he was honoured at the 25th anniversary of ASCAP. He moved easily from one coast to the other, appearing at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem and in the production of Blackouts in Los Angeles. More than two decades later, he was slowing down but not stopped: he headlined a ragtime concert along with Joe Jordan and Eubie Blake. He appeared in Johnny Carson’s Sun City Scandals in 1972 on NBC Television.
Brooks died in 1975 in Los Angeles. A 13-piece band played Just a Closer Walk With Thee and then broke into a lively rendition of Darktown Strutters Ball and Some of these Days.