In the 1980s and 90s, the American vocalist Denice Brooks mesmerized thousands, when she performed in Berlin, Hamburg, all over Germany and other parts of Europe all the time, delivering breathtaking Soul. Now, she is moving back to Berlin.
When Denice Brooks performed in Germany, France, Spain and England during her first long stay on the continent, the venues she hit stages at were always sold out. Those gigs of hers were a lasting experience. They included uplifting Funk and fascinating Soul sung by one of the most gifted singers, and truckloads of energy.
With her sensational shows, Denice Brooks also gave people memories to keep. Some fans danced like crazy, others may have kissed their crush for the first time during her concerts. And there were fans who just followed her powerful performances in disbelief. Some had never seen concerts of this kind before.
In 1998, Denice moved back to Texas. Now, twenty-four years later, she is returning to Germany. Yes, none other than Denice Brooks is moving to Berlin, for the second time in her life, and preparing new projects. She will be in Germany in the late summer of 2022. In this interview with Imanuel Marcus, she talks about her history and gives an insight into her plans.
You are Texan, but throughout your life you have had ties to Germany. It all started in Augsburg, right? How did you get to Bavaria from America?
Denice Brooks: I was probably around seven years old. My father was in the Army. He was stationed in Augsburg while we still lived in Austin, Texas. When he was settled, he called my mom and said “Ok, I’m ready for you guys to come over.” It was our first plane ride. What about a first-time plane ride taking 12 hours? That was really something.
Do you remember anything from Augsburg? Sights? Smells? Food?
Denice Brooks: I vividly remember the apartment where we lived. When I returned to Germany decades later, I remember seeing some of those same types of apartments, and this brought back floods of memories. I also remember the lady who lived across the hallway always baked wonderful bread. She made the best ‘Brötchen’ in the neighborhood. When we came home from school, we would always walk through the hallway and take a deep breath because we could smell her bread. Her name was Frau Genzling.
When you were seven and lived in Augsburg, did you pick up any German during your very first stay in this country? Did you attend a German or an American school?
Denice Brooks: We went to an American school but they taught German. That was one of the requirements. Yeah, I picked up a lot of German. My father was learning it as well, being in the Army. When we were home, he made sure we would spend at least one hour in the evening speaking nothing but German. As broken as it may have been, we were all trying to learn the language.
Before you hit countless stages with your own band, and with fellow artists, you were an athlete. Are there strategies or approaches both athletes and artists should follow? What do athletes and singers have in common?
Denice Brooks: I think what they have in common is that you have to be so very focused and determined, in both professions. In order for me to win races, I had to train properly. I had to train the muscles in my body so I could be faster and faster and faster. I already have the ability to be fast. That runs in my family. I’m from a family of athletes, both professional and amateur. And, as a singer, I had to do the same thing. I had to train my voice, to make sure that I could sing six concerts in a row without getting hoarse or losing my voice. That took training. It took rehearsing every single day. So, it’s very similar.
Back then in the days, you performed at beauty pageants and became Miss Black East Austin and Miss Black Texas. What was the significance of those contests? What did it mean to have pageants that focused on Black women?
Denice Brooks: Well, I’m from Texas and beauty pageants are very popular here. That’s the Texas way of life. But yes, I actually was Miss Black East Austin and Miss Black Texas, and then I went on to the Miss Black America pageant which was nationally televised and I placed third. Pageants teach young women, especially young Black women on how to build self-worth and self-confidence. Being part of a minority, sometimes life is not the same as it is for other people. Sometimes, we do not get the same opportunities as other people, whether we are deserving or not. So, especially back then, getting into these pageants was very important because I was surrounded by other women that looked like me. And I was surrounded by people who told me: ‘You are just as beautiful as any other woman on this Earth.’ Little Black girls need to hear things like that, which we do not get to hear often. So, those pageants instilled confidence in us.
In the 1980s, your late brother Jason Brooks called you from Germany and told you to come over. You followed his advice. What happened then?
Denice Brooks: Jason has since passed on. I miss him so very much. But, yes, he was in New York with me briefly and then joined the Army and was shipped off to Berlin. He and I were very, very close. We lived together in New York, we performed in shows together whenever we could because he was a professional dancer with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. He arrived in Germany in 1984, and I remember getting letters from him all the time. And when he could call, he did, but it was very expensive at the time. He was saying: ‘Oh, my god, you’ve got to come to Berlin. Oh Necie, they would love you here.’
So, finally, after my last show in New York, when I did not have another show on the horizon, I did not really know where my next dinner was coming from, quite frankly. So, I thought ‘hmmm’, this might be a good time to go to Germany. (Laughing) So, I called him and said ‘You know what? I’m gonna come.’ My parents helped me with the plane fare, Jason did too. So, I packed up my little clothes, got on that plane to Germany and never looked back.
When I got there, Jason had already lined up a couple of musicians that he had heard play around West Berlin. He had told them: ‘Listen, my sister is coming into town. She’s a great singer.’ He told me that they had responded by saying ‘Oh, o.k. Your sister. O.k.. And she sings. O.k..’ I don’t think they were too thrilled to see me. But, when I got there, I met them at one of their rehearsals. I walked into the rehearsal room and Jason said ‘This is my sister.’ They were all German musicians and very kind. They said: ‘O.k., we’d like to hear you. What song would you like to sing?’ I said: ‘What songs do you play?’. We ended up doing ‘Sweet Love’ by Anita Baker. They started playing it and I started singing, and the rest is history.
With your band First Take, you performed all over Germany, but also in Paris and other European cities, as well as in Morocco and South Africa all the time, in front of thousands of people. You became a star rather quickly, halfway around the world from Texas. What did that feel like?
Denice Brooks: I don’t know about star, thank you for that, but I did have a pretty good following. Every show I did in Berlin was sold out. I was very grateful for that. I was so grateful to the German people, the audiences, for loving what I did and how I sang. They also loved my brother, because of his artistic dancing on stage, coupled with the fact that I was able to find some really dope musicians.
Then, after a while, word started to get out and I was starting to receive calls from promoters and club owners who lived in Paris, Spain or Morocco. They would say to me: ‘I was visiting Berlin, stopped at your show and loved it. Hey, I have a club in Paris. Would you like to come?’ (Laughing). That is kind of how it happened.
Was there a point at which you thought ‘Well, I am here now, I have this following and I will stay’?
Denice Brooks: Yeah! (Laughing) That moment came before I even had a huge following. I think it was six months after I arrived. I looked at my brother one night after we had just finished a show, we were having dinner, sitting outside at this café, and I looked at him and said: ‘Yeah, I’m staying.’ (Laughing)
You know everyone in the Soul and Funk world. You met Norman Connors at a Phyllis Hyman performance in New York, you sang with Roy Ayers, Anita Baker, Natalie Cole, Earth, Wind & Fire, Patti LaBelle, Elton John, Jennifer Rush and Tina Turner. You also starred in Broadway musicals. Just days ago, you were part of recordings for Gloria Estefan. What performance with other artists did you enjoy most? Is there a moment, apart from the Prince gig, which you will always remember?
Denice Brooks: Gee, you’re gonna get me into trouble. I am not gonna pick one particular artist that I worked with. They were superstars when I got to Germany and I was lucky and happy that they wanted me to come on tour with them. I enjoyed all of them, but I will say that I really enjoyed working with Jennifer Rush. On two major tours, I was a background singer for her. I enjoyed working with Tina Turner. When she would come to Europe, I would do a couple of shows with her. Briefly, I did some work with Elton John. He flew me to London when one of his singers became ill. So, I spent three weeks there, in the rehearsals with him. Elton always remembered me and gave me opportunities throughout my career. That was very kind of him, also because I ended up not going on the tour because the singer who had been unwell felt better.
Dr. Alban was wonderful too. He was an African singer who was a dentist by profession and started rapping at home. Just on a fluke, somebody heard him and said: ‘Hey, you know what? You should record some of your raps.’ He did and became a superstar.
So, I was very lucky. I had the chance to travel with artists who were established stars.
You also sang with Prince. What was that moment like? Did you have stage fright at first? Was this before or after you recorded ‘Purple Rain’?
Denice Brooks: Oh, my god. I don’t think I had stage fright at all. If I was afraid of anything, it was Prince. Let me back up, because there is a short story behind that. Before I could even do a cover version of ‘Purple Rain’, I had to get his permission. That had already happened like months before. At that time, there had never been a female singer that had covered the song, and I was the first one that he allowed to do so. I am patting myself on the back for that because he was quite a businessman and very protective of his music.
He had said: ‘I wanna speak to that singer who sang ‘Purple Rain’. So, I got on the phone with him and I was flattered, I guess. I could hardly speak. He said: ‘Wow, you are very quiet for a singer’. My brother Jason was in the room and said: ‘Oh, no, she is not, Sir.’ (Laughing) It was a 15-minute phone call and he said that he loved my version of the song. He said he had given permission for the song, that he wished me luck and I said: ‘If you are ever in town, please drop by the studio for the recording.’
Months later, we saw Prince was going to be on tour, and that he would be in Berlin, performing at a huge venue. His manager called me and said: ‘Hi, Denice. This is Chip. Do you know? Prince is in town.’ I told him we knew, but could not get tickets. He said: ‘No, no, no . You and your brother will have VIP tickets and backstage passes. Don’t worry about trying to get tickets.’ (Laughing)
So, we went backstage to meet him and we talked for five minutes. It wasn’t long at all. He mentioned nothing about coming on stage. Nothing! He told me he loved my version of the song, all of his people loved it. They thought it was going to be a big hit. He met Jason and told him: ‘Hey, I understand you dance’, and Jason did a little dance for Prince. He was like ‘Oh! My god!’ He was clapping his hands and said it was great to have the kind of sibling love Jason and I had. And he said: ‘O.k., you guys can go back to your seats.’ So, we left.
Prince comes out and we are yelling, because we’re up close and had these nice seats to sit on. All of a sudden, after about four or five songs, he said: ‘You all know this one’, and he starts to play the first guitar riff. I was like: ‘Oh my god!’. He then said: ‘Before we start, I have to tell you there is a young lady in the audience’. I almost peed my pants. He continued: ‘She doesn’t know this, but I’m gonna have her come up. I want her to sing one of these verses.’
I could not move. My brother Jason was looking at me, saying: ‘What in the heck are you waiting for? Get up!’. When I tell you I literally couldn’t move, I couldn’t move. Then, I remember him pinching my arm. I said: ‘Ouch!’ and I hit him. Then I got up and he said: ‘Necie, this is it!’ before he walked me to the stage stairs.
I remember some security guards helping me up the stage. Prince handed me a mike and said: ‘I will sing the first two verses. How about you round up?’ I was like: ‘O.k.’. So, we did it. And when it was my turn to come in, after that bridge, the audience started clapping and going crazy. A lot of that is kind of fuzzy. (Laughing) I don’t remember much because I was so thrilled. But I remember finishing it. I’m very tall, 6 feet, and Prince was probably 5’2. I remembered they had said that he does not like to hug. So, I put the microphone back on the stand, looked at him and said ‘Thank you’. I was beginning to walk away and grabbed my arm and said: ‘Bend down here, so I can give you a hug.’ And he hugged me. I don’t remember walking down the stairs but I must have because I was sitting on the chair.
In 1998, you returned to the United States. What did you do between then and now?
Denice Brooks: I was actively singing and recording. I also contracted for some tours when I got back. Both of my parents became ill, a couple of years apart. So, I took some time off to take care of them. They have since passed on, but there was a good five years when I didn’t sing. Then, of course, I lost my brother Jason. Again, I took some time off before I could go back to singing again.
I stayed pretty active, I was always in the studio. People would ask me to come to the studio to do demos with them. I stayed pretty active. It was nice to know that I was still relevant, and that I was still being asked to come and help out musicians and engineers in the studio. That is always a huge compliment, for any singer.
Now, you have new plans. The big news is that you are coming back to Germany in the late summer. Your fans will be thrilled to hear about this. What do you have in mind?
Denice Brooks: Well, I don’t want to give away any secrets, but yeah, I plan to come back and I’d like to put together an amazing group of musicians who have the same vibe and the same love for music and perfection on stage as I do. I am one of those really picky singers. I work hard and I want the musicians to work just as hard as I do. When I go on stage to sing and people come in to enjoy their evening, I want to make sure they have a wonderful experience. So, I work very hard at my craft. Now, I am hoping to find a great group of musicians who think the way I do when it comes to performance, when it comes to how to treat the music, whether you are doing your cover version or your own original music. You have to treat it with such love, care and respect. That’s part of my brand.
I’m also looking forward to possibly performing once again at the Quasimodo in Berlin, where I probably played twice a month for years. I loved the people at the Quasimodo. The staff and the audiences were just wonderful. I am also hoping to revisit some of the same venues where I performed back then.
You used to be a Berliner, and you will be again, for the second time in your life. And you will be living in Germany for the third time in your life. What aspects about Berlin do you cherish?
Denice Brooks: I love the culture, I really do. I love the city. When I first got there, the Wall was still up. I don’t know what it feels like now, but I remember that the culture was always very hip, very musical. The folks were friendly, they enjoyed my shows. I am an avid bike rider. Jason and I would get on our bikes on weekends on which we weren’t performing and just go, without a destination in mind. And we would bike for hours. When the Wall was already gone, we would sometimes end up in some cute village in Brandenburg. We wouldn’t know where in the heck we were. We would have to go around and ask people: ‘Excuse me, where are we?’ (Laughing)
You did not live in the reunited city of Berlin, at first, but in West Berlin. What was that like? What do you remember? Were you there when the Wall came down?
Denice Brooks: I was in Berlin. I actually went there that night and I still have a piece of the Wall, my brick. One of the first things Jason and I did after about a week, wed went across Checkpoint Charlie, just to see what it was like not to have to go through that security check.
There had been a cute little Jazz club we went to, in East Berlin. We had heard those beautiful Jazz singers there. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, we wanted to see whether that Jazz club still existed. So, I was able to experience that.
(In German): Wie ist Dein Deutsch? Verstehst Du die Sprache noch gut?
Denice Brooks (in German): Ich verstehe ein bisschen Deutsch, vielleicht auch viel. Es geht manchmal gut, aber es ist eine lange Zeit. Ich habe früher jeden Tag Deutsch gesprochen. Ich brauche vielleicht ein bisschen mehr Zeit. Und dann, denke ich, I’ll be there. (Laughing) Siebenundzwanzig Jahre habe ich nicht in Berlin gewohnt.
You sound good. You’ll just need five minutes and you’ll be there.
Denice Brooks (in German): Ich hoffe es.
What about the German cuisine? Do you like it?
Denice Brooks: I love German food, including Kartoffeln, Wiener Schnitzel. (In German): Pommes mit Mayo habe ich oft gehabt. Currywurst, German chocolate cake and Brötchen. Oh, my goodness, I love German food.
I have one more music question for you: If you had to pick a fellow singer who influenced you most, who would it be, and for what reason?
Denice Brooks: Oh, that’s easy for me. Her name is Rachelle Ferrell. If there was a dictionary that included singers only, it should have her pictures beside the word ‘singer’, because Rachelle Ferrell is the personification of what a singer should be able to do musically. Your voice is an instrument and you should be able to sound like an instrument. And that is what Rachelle Ferrell does. Her melodic tones, the way she is able to enhance her melody, the way she takes her range from basso profundo to soprano. She is the personification of what a true singer should be able to do vocally.