Shelton Brooks (1886-1975)
Shelton Brooks taught himself to play pump organ at his father’s church in Ontario, Canada (Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, n.d.), and was considered a child prodigy by the scholars who have studied his career (Larkin, 2006). As the son of a black mother and Native American father with a partial upbringing outside of the United States, Brooks’ background has been termed ‘complex’ but not unusual among his contemporaries (Garber, 2010). When he moved to Detroit with his family in 1901, the 15 year old Brooks continued to develop what would become his stage act, working as a café pianist (“Shelton Brooks,” 1976). After Detroit, Brooks appeared in Chicago, participating in the Pekin Stock Company, an early African-American owned and operated venture that employed more than thirty actors between 1906 and 1908 (Garber, 2010).
Newspapers alternately billed Brooks as a popular song writer or “The Funniest Comedian in America.” He starred in several 1920s musical comedies (“Shelton Brooks,” n.d.) and toured Europe performing musical theatre (Larkin, 2006), where he appeared in Lew Leslies’ Blackbirds in a command performance for King George of England in 1923 (“Shelton Brooks,” 1976).
His performances on the vaudeville circuit were often in imitation of Bert Williams. However, his act stood well on its own, and when Bert Williams once attended one of Brooks’ performances, he said, ‘If I’m as funny as he is, I got nothin’ to worry about’ (Jasen, 2003).
Shelton Brooks in the news:
Songs in the USF Libraries digital African American Sheet Music Collection: