Stella Brooks

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This smoky-voiced jazz vocalist enjoyed modest success, primarily in the 1940s.
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During the '30s and '40s, the music press was full of items such as these: "Art Hodes and Stella Brooks at Billy Skully's Pirate's Den in the Village. Stella sings blues backed up by Arty's beautiful piano...Stella Brooks, who opened at the Onyx Saturday night, will continue as featured singer...a very successful engagement at the Upstairs at the Downstairs nightclub, co-billed with a brazen singer named Stella Brooks." The last item is in reference to a double bill with Annie Ross, and surely any practitioner of jazz vocals who could be described as brazen alongside her must have been a truly memorable character.

Brooks may not have been memorable enough, however, as she was pretty much forgotten as a performer by the time of her death in 2002. Much of this obscurity can be traced to the fact that she gave up singing in the early '60s; the rest can be blamed on the fickle pickle called the music business. This singer seems to have made quite an impression on the people that mattered. Two names that inevitably come up in regards to Brooks are the great jazz vocalist Billie Holiday and the important American playwright Tennessee Williams, both of whom were apparently fast friends of Brooks in the years when her gig calendar was full. Brooks was sometimes known as "the white Billie Holiday," but a much more complimentary take on the issue came from Lady Day herself, who praised Brooks as the only white singer who she admired.

As for Williams, he wrote about Brooks in his Memoirs, and this is not the only literary reference to the singer. The release of her kooky original song "I'm a Little Piece of Leather," coupled with "I'll Never Be the Same," was just bound to reverberate somewhere, such as in William Gaddis' reference-packed novel entitled The Recognitions. "She was quite a dish," is how this author recalls Brooks, whose professional career began in San Francisco in the early '30s. Following 1937 she was based in New York City, 1946 being a memorable year that included her debut at the important Town Hall venue. Many greats of classic jazz accompanied her during this period -- the aforementioned Hodes, bandleaders Georg Brunis and Joe Sullivan, and brilliant soprano saxophonist and clarinetist Sidney Bechet.

During the '50s, something about this singer's style was apparently not clicking any longer with the public. The onset of rock and roll is as instantly blamable as the guy with the dented fender is when naming those responsible for a traffic accident. From Town Hall she was diminished to the New York City cafe scene, and at that, the bookings were only sporadic. She went back to San Francisco in 1962 and dropped out of the music business. Folkways reissued some of her material in 1981 on an album entitled Songs of the 1940s: Diverse Songs and Moods.