The Playlist • More Forgotten Vaudevillians: Bert Williams’ Imitators (1921–1924)

MSP_OK-434-B_brooks.

SHELTON BROOKS: Murder in the First Degree

New York: c. April 1921 — Released: July 1921
Okeh 4340 (mx. S 7878 – A)
With “Rega Orchestra” (Okeh studio orchestra conducted by Fred Hager)

Neither F. Wallace Rega nor Milo Rega were actual recording artists or conductors, contrary to some discographies.“F. Wallace Rega” was a pseudonym for Fred Hager, as confirmed in the federal Catalog of Copyright Entries. “Milo Rega” was a composite alias (“Justin Milo” being a pseudonym for Justin Ring, which in turn was the professional name of Justus Ringleben), as disclosed in the same source.

.

HAM TREE HARRINGTON: Nobody Never Let Me In on Nothin’

New York: March 11, 1924 — Released: June 1924
Brunswick 2588 (mx. 12674, 12675, or 12676*)
With uncredited orchestra (conductor unlisted in files)

*The selected take is not shown on the pressings or in the Brunswick files.

.

EDDIE HUNTER (piano by C. LUCKEYTH “LUCKEY” ROBERTS): Hard Times

Camden, NJ: November 16, 1923 — Released: July 18, 1924; Deleted: 1926
Victor 19359 (mx. B 28897 – 2)

.
Capsule Biographies from the Mainspring Press Website:

Shelton Brooks
Shelton Brooks, with his prodigious skill as a songwriter and two successful decades on stage, is an undeservedly forgotten pioneer in black entertainment. Born in Amherstburg, Ontario (not Amesburg, as cited in Rust’s Complete Entertainment Discography) in 1886, Brooks left school in the early 1900s to play piano in Detroit cafes. His first break as a songwriter came when Sophie Tucker introduced his composition, “Some of these Days,” which she recorded in 1911 (Amberol 691). Over the next decade, Brooks wrote a string of hits that included “There’ll Come a Time” (1911), “Ruff Johnson’s Harmony Band” (1914), “The Darktown Strutter’s Ball” (1916), “Walkin’ the Dog” (1917), and “Saturday” (1921). By 1915, Brooks was touring successfully on the Keith and Orpheum vaudeville circuits as a Williams mimic.

In 1922 Brooks was featured as the master of ceremonies in Plantation Revue with Florence Mills (opened July 17, 1922). A European tour with Lew Leslie’s Blackbirds — including a royal command performance before George V — followed in 1923, but in November of that year Brooks returned to the United States. He co-starred with Ham Tree Harrington and Florence Mills in the Broadway production of Dixie to Broadway (opened October 29, 1924). A review of the show in The Messenger for January 1925 predicted that Brooks was “in a fair way to surpass the late Bert Williams, if he can find a producer who can keep him at work and give him his head.”

Apparently, Brooks didn’t find that producer, and he began to fade from public notice after his Okeh recording contract ended in late 1926. There were more vaudeville appearances, including a 1928 tour with band leader Ollie Powers, but in 1931 Brooks made his final appearance in a Broadway musical, a long-running production of Brown Buddies (opened October 7, 1930), with Bill Robinson, Adelaide Hall, and Ada Brown. He died in 1975.

Okeh released 27 sides by Brooks from early 1921 through late 1926 that ran the gamut from comic routines to Williams-style recitations of his own songs and included one race-series release (Okeh 8062) with blues singer Sara Martin. In March 1922, the Chicago Defender announced that Brooks and several other popular black stars would make Echo records as soon as their current contracts expired. But no Echo records, by Brooks or anyone else, have ever surfaced.

Ham Tree Harrington
A diminutive and sometimes cantankerous individual, Ham Tree Harrington developed a following in the Harlem nightclubs, billing himself as “The Pint-Sized Bert Williams.” Louis Hooper, pianist and mainstay of the Elmer Snowden and Bob Fuller bands in the 1920s, recalled Harrington’s ongoing feud with cornet star Johnny Dunn in a 1966 Record Research interview: “Now Johnny was no trouble maker…but there was something on his mind he didn’t like about Ham Tree, and Harrington knew it. Dunn got up and…said something to Harrington. Ham Tree stood up and WHAM! He hit him! The next day they were still ribbing each other.”

After several years in vaudeville, Harrington got a major break with a starring role in the 1922 Broadway productions of Strut Miss Lizzie. Another feature role followed in 1924’s Dixie to Broadway with Shelton Brooks and Florence Mills, about which the New York Post commented, “Harrington pulls off one of his most original pantomimes of ghost-fright seen in a long day…it is effective beyond words.” Despite good reviews, Harrington returned to club and vaudeville work and didn’t appear in another Broadway musical until the ill-fated 1930 production of J.C. Johnson’s Change Your Luck, in which he co-starred with Alberta Hunter for all 17 performances.

Eddie Hunter
Thanks to his association with Alex Rogers (Williams’ collaborator as far back as 1900), Eddie Hunter is more closely linked to Bert Williams than the other performers listed here.

Hunter seems to have appeared on the scene suddenly, first attracting notice in 1923 for his starring role in the Broadway production of How Come? He also wrote the show’s libretto, which was criticized at the time for borrowing too liberally from Sissle & Blake’s Shuffle Along. The show opened on April 16, 1923 to generally poor reviews and ran for only 32 performances. The New York Sun huffed, “It’s getting dark on Broadway. But not very dark, as the young people who make up the personnel of How Come? have hardly the shade of darkness.”

Hunter’s next Broadway appearance came with newcomer Adelaide Hall in My Magnolia during the summer of 1925. Reviewers liked Hunter and Hall but weren’t enthusiastic about the show itself, which closed after only four performances. Hunter did not make another Broadway appearance until Blackbirds of 1933, in which he starred with Edith Wilson and Bill (Bojangles) Robinson. The show opened on December 2, 1933 but survived for only 25 performances.  More Eddie Hunter recordings…