It is surprising indeed that the songwriter behind fluffy Americana such as "You Came a Long Way from St. Louis," written with lyricist Bob Russell, would wind up penning a tune entitled "Sirhan's Blues,"…
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John Benson Brooks Biography

by Eugene Chadbourne

It is surprising indeed that the songwriter behind fluffy Americana such as "You Came a Long Way from St. Louis," written with lyricist Bob Russell, would wind up penning a tune entitled "Sirhan's Blues," not to mention an entire musical suite entitled "Alabama Concerto." The career of John Benson Brooks is intriguing, his skilled craftsmansip evident as his music's aesthetic content undergoes an inspiring journey. He started with the Randy Brooks Orchestra, contributing arrangements and also providing them for the groups of Les Brown and Tommy Dorsey. Lyricist Eddie DeLange was an important collaborator when it came time to sit down at the piano and make up a song. "Just as Though You Were Here" was a smash for Tommy Dorsey's band with vocals from one Frank Sinatra and the Pied Pipers.

"You Came a Long Way from St. Louis" was originally recorded by Ray McKinley and his orchestra in 1948, but less than a decade later its composer was ready to put his feet forward as a band leader, finding as might be expected a series of piano pedals underneath them. He got going in grand style, launching a septet that included the killer saxophone pairing of Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, a group that like many in this genre was legendary but never made any money. It was in the context of modern jazz that Brooks began to be taken more seriously as a composer, though. When he assembled an orchestra to record the extended "Alabama Concerto," it meant among other things that he would never be regarded as "just" a songwriter again. It also meant, because some of the sidemen were very famous, that the work would later be co-opted by record companies eager to promote the recordings under a name that might glow in lights somewhat brighter than John Benson Brooks. There were plenty of choices among the star players such as Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, Art Farmer, Barry Galbraith, and Milt Hinton, but Adderley eventually was the no-brainer when he landed on the hit parade.

Thus there are many jazz listeners who think of the Brooks work as one of Adderley's concoctions, not only because it was reissued in his name but since it actually inspired the alto saxophonist and bandleader to create other ambitious, lengthy jazz suites with political and social themes. An early-'70s panel of British critics chose "Alabama Concerto" as one of 200 essential jazz albums from a 25-year period.

Brooks' impressive jazz credits include an ongoing collaboration with the equally thoughtful arranger Gil Evans, who included "Sirhan's Blues" in the repertoire of his '70s band. The Evans orchestra had a 1960 release of "Where Flamingos Fly," one of the songs Brooks co-wrote with Harold Courlander and Elthea Peale. Helen Merrill did the first recording of this song in 1956, and the vamp part of the tune later showed up as a section of the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby," although it has never been established that John Lennon and Paul McCartney consciously lifted it, since a more likely culprit would have been their arranger, George Martin. Of much more interest is Brooks' relationship with Courlander, an anthropologist who had recorded a wealth of hollers, spirituals, children's game songs, and blues on a field trip to Alabama.

Brooks took on the job of creating musical transcriptions of this material for a book, Negro Folk Songs of Alabama, in 1960, a task that altered his musical goals and directly led to pieces such as "Alabama Concerto." Brooks had earlier been pushed in an opposite direction from roots music by the original Birth of the Cool discussions in New York, playing piano in a new Miles Davis band that also included his friend Evans and Gerry Mulligan, among many jazz hotshots. The latter artist referred to Brooks as "our dreamer of impossible dreams."

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