Who can give the kids hope? The Candy Man can

News-DemocratSeptember 22, 2013 

Sammy Davis Jr. is ancient history for students at Sister Thea Bowman Catholic School in East St. Louis.

But they whooped and hollered when impersonator Nicholas Brooks sang Sammy's 1972 hit "The Candy Man."

"That was one of my favorite assemblies ever," said Christina Burrell, 13, of Fairview Heights. "I want to be in showbiz, and he gave me pointers on how to be myself and stick with it."

Nicholas, 33, of Las Vegas, returned to his old neighborhood to encourage children to follow their dreams.

Ninety percent of Bowman students live below the poverty level, but most go to college. The school is big on the arts.

"This discipline and focus (they gain) then transfers over to learning math and the sciences," said Daughters of Charity Sister Marge Clifford, director of advancement.

Nicholas stressed the importance of faith, family, friends and mentors in entertainment. He advised students to practice, be original and grab opportunities to take the stage.

"Singing in church is where it all starts (for many stars)," he said. "Beyonce, Usher, Whitney Houston, Diana Ross ... They all sang in church."

For seven years, Nicholas has portrayed Sammy in "The Rat Pack," a tribute show at Rio Las Vegas that also tours the country. It's about Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford and Sammy, who performed together in the 1960s.

Sammy also was a solo singer, dancer, TV and movie actor, who overcame racial barriers.

"Sammy Davis Jr. was a pioneer," Nicholas told Bowman students. "He was one of the black entertainers who paved the way for you and paved the way for me."

Nicholas was in the St. Louis area this month to visit his parents, Victor and Connie Brooks, of Florissant, Mo., and appear at Robbie's House of Jazz in Webster Groves.

He lived in East St. Louis until age 4. The family moved to the Chicago suburbs when his father, a prison warden, was transferred.

"(Nicholas) never forgot his roots," said friend Jackie Settles, 67. "No matter where he goes, he says, 'I'm from East St. Louis.' That's the most beautiful part of it."

Nicholas began singing in church at 8, playing piano at 10, drumming at 12 and performing with show choir in high school. He attended Northern Illinois University on a music scholarship, touring with its renowned jazz ensemble.

"Ron Carter kind of took me under his wing," he said of the NIU professor who formerly led Lincoln High School's jazz program.

After college, Nicholas drove straight to Las Vegas. He headlined his own show for a time then earned cash by singing commercial jingles and the national anthem at Major League ballgames.

A string of rejections in the mid-2000s made him consider quitting show business and going to law school. Then came his big break: An invitation to join "The Rat Pack."

Nicholas did extensive research on Sammy, reading books, listening to records and watching YouTube videos.

"It fueled my love and respect for him," he said, noting Sammy faced many obstacles, including a tough childhood and 1954 car accident that caused him to lose an eye.

Nicholas gets into character by wearing snug suits with short pants, a slight pompadour, a mustache, glasses and flashy rings.

He hunches over a bit, speaks more nasally and "smokes" fake cigarettes filled with powder.

"(Sammy) smoked three packs a day," he said. "His nickname was 'Smoky.' He always had a cigarette. I'm not sure how he sang like that. He died of throat cancer."

Nicholas showed up at Bowman with his father, who remembers Sammy in his heyday. He's fascinated by his son's job.

"There's been a couple of emotional moments, especially when he sings 'Mr. Bojangles,'" said Victor, 63. "There's a story in that song, and you really feel Sammy's presence. Nicholas has it nailed. I think Sammy would be proud."

During a question-and-answer session, Bowman students seemed most interested in stories about crazy things that happen in Las Vegas theaters.

Nicholas told of screaming hecklers, waitresses spilling drinks and audience members fighting. One man even vomited on his shoe.

"If you want to sing or act, you have to start out at the bottom and work your way up," said eighth-grader Allisha Anthony, 13, of O'Fallon. "It's not always going to be easy. You have to go through challenges. But if you really want to do something, you can do it if you put your mind to it."

Jackie, a Catholic Urban Programs board member, thinks it's important for local children to meet East St. Louis natives who have succeeded in the world. Sister Joan Kuester agrees.

"(Nicholas') message was, 'You are unique. You are your own person. You are important,'" she said. "I think kids need to hear that. There are so many challenges in childhood these days."

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