Brooks, Hadda 1916–2002
Hadda Brooks 1916–2002
During the post-World War II years, Hadda Brooks burst on the scene as the “Queen of the Boogie,” releasing hot piano numbers that burned up jukeboxes across the country. Soon she picked up a microphone and let loose her smoky bedroom voice on chart-topping ballads that had couples swooning on dance floors nationwide. She sang for Humphrey Bogart, the Queen of England, and the Pope. Her talents landed her on both the big and small screens and sent her soaring around the world on tour. She was hot, but by 1971 she’d had enough and retired into semi-obscurity. However, someone remembered her soul-infused singing and by the 1990s she had reemerged from retirement to enjoy another round of celebrity. She became a darling of the club circuit, seducing packed audiences with her piano virtuosity and vocal passion. At the age of 79, she signed with Virgin records and released two albums. She appeared opposite Jack Nicholson on the big screen and counted some of Hollywood’s hottest talents among her close friends. Hers was a talent that transcended generations. As her official website noted, “She continued to delight her fans up until her death, at age 86, with the same impassioned brassiness as she did in her recordings and performances from the 1940s to the 2000s…. From Analog to Digital…. From 78 Records to MP3’s.”
Brooks was born Hadda Hopgood on October 2, 1916, to fairly affluent parents in Boyle Heights, a subdivision of Los Angeles. Her mother was a doctor—a rarity for a black women in the early 1900s—and her father was one of the first African Americans to be named a deputy sheriff. Brooks mercifully was spared the horrible racism that so many African Americans endured during that time. However, The Independent quoted her as once saying of her father, “People thought he was white. I took his colour mostly, and my sister’s a little darker, like my mother. It wasn’t until folks saw him taking us out for walks that they started wondering what colour he was.”
The Hopgoods had emigrated from Georgia where Brooks’ grandfather, Samuel Alexander Hopgood, had worked as a Pullman porter and had managed to save enough money to buy land in California. The house Brooks was raised in was built by her grandfather. Brooks told Offbeat, “My grandfather was a big influence on me.” He introduced Brooks to classical music and opera at an early age and took Brooks and her sister to musicals and concerts. “We had a tall standup RCA Victor Victrola and my grandfather had the records and used to bring them out every Saturday after we finished dinner,” Brooks recalled to Offbeat.
By the age of four, Brooks decided she wanted to play piano and begged her father for lessons, however, her prospective teacher told her she’d have to wait until her hands could span an octave, or eight keys. “She showed me how I could reach an octave by stretching my hands on the piano and finally in a week’s time I got an octave, barely, and she took me,” Brooks recalled to Offbeat. Her musical abilities landed her a spot at Los Angeles’s Polytechnic High School, a school for aspiring
At a Glance…
Born Hadda Hopgood on October 2, 1916, in Los Angeles, CA; died on November 21, 2002, Los Angeles, CA; married Earl “Shug” Morrison, 1941 (died 1942). Education: Attended Northwestern University, Chicago, IL; attended Chapman College, CA.
Career: Singer and pianist, 1945-71, 1987-2002; television show host, 1951-1960s; actress, 1947-2000.
Awards: Hall of Fame and Pioneer Award, Rhythm and Blues Foundation, Smithsonian Institute, 1993.
musicians. Following graduation she attended Northwestern University in Chicago and then returned home to Chapman College in California, where she continued her musical training. Brooks first professional employment was as a piano player for the Willie Covan Dance Studio in Los Angeles. She earned $10 a week. “I thought that was a lot of money because I had never worked in my life,” she told Offbeat. She was soon tinkling the ivories for students who included Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and Shirley Temple. Through the studio’s owner she met Earl “Shug” Morrison, a member of the Harlem Globetrotters and in 1941 they were married. However, a year later Morrison died suddenly of pneumonia at the age of 21. Brooks would never remarry.
Though she had trained as a musician, Brooks was not actively seeking a career as a performer. Nonetheless, a career found her. In 1945 she was browsing through a music store and began playing one of the pianos, trying to nail down a boogie sound. “There was a man standing near me while I was playing, and he asked me if I could do a boogie. I said, ‘Well, I’m trying. ‘And he said, I’ll give you a week. If you can work up a boogie, I’ll record it. I have $800, and if it goes, then we’re in business. If it doesn’t go, I’ve lost $800,’” the Los Angeles Times quoted Brooks as saying. That man was jukebox repairman Jules Bihari. A week later, Brooks had written a boogie for piano and true to his word, Bihari recorded it. Thus, Modern Records was launched.
With World War II just over, the country was in the mood for something fun and boogie music was it. Brooks’ first recording “Swingin’ the Boogie” was an instant hit. She dropped Hopgood and adopted the stage name Brooks and began churning out records. She soon earned the title of “Queen of the Boogie.” “I was making on the order of three boogie recordings a month,” she told Offbeat. Over the next five years, Modern would release more than 60 of Brooks’ recordings. In the process the record company became the West Coast’s premier R&B label, signing artists such as B.B. King and Etta James. Meanwhile, Bihari and Brooks began a love affair that lasted many years. In many interviews she referred to him as “the love of her life.”
Brooks became a regular on the club circuit and performed with big names such as Artie Shaw and the Count Basie Orchestra. At the time she was performing strictly as a pianist. However, after a 1947 performance, band leader Charlie Barnett asked her what she would do if she was asked for an encore. When she replied “another boogie,” he suggested that she sing. She tried to protest saying she wasn’t a singer, but according to The Times, Barnett told her to “fake it.” On her next foray onto the stage she sang “You Won’t Let Me Go.” The fans went wild and the song promptly became her first vocal recording. “Hadda had a throaty, gritty voice that had a seductive, after-hours quality,” record producer Lester Sill told The Times. Her voice made hits out of the songs “That’s My Desire,” “Trust in Me,” and “Dream,” and soon she had a new nickname, “The Empress of the Torch Blues.”
In 1947 Brooks made her film debut as a nightclub singer in the comedy Out of the Blue. The film was forgettable but the title song became a top ten hit for Brooks. In 1950 Brooks beat out Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan to appear in the Humphrey Bogart film, In a Lonely Place. In the film she sang “I Hadn’t Anyone ‘Til You” as Bogart looked on. She recalled to Los Angeles Magazine that Bogie intervened with a studio mogul who “kept asking me to play the song this way, play it that way. Finally, Bogart said, ‘Why don’t you let her play it the way she wants?’” She also appeared as a singer in The Bad and the Beautiful starring Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner.
Brooks’ sultry singing style combined with her stunning looks made her a hot property in Los Angeles and in 1951 she became the first African-American woman to have her own weekly television show. The Hadda Brooks Show was a typical low-budget local production. “They sat me at the grand piano and opened up the top,” Brooks told the Los Angeles Times. “They had this great big ceramic ashtray—because I was smoking at the time—and they opened the show with a close-up on a cigarette in the ashtray, and then came in on my face. They pointed to me, and I sang maybe eight bars of ‘That’s My Desire.’ From that point, I was on my own. That was the whole format.”
When her records stopped topping the charts, Brooks left Modern—despite her relationship with Bihari—and signed with Columbia’s OKeh label in 1952. She also recorded briefly for London Records. She found little success at either label and returned to Modern in 1956. She and Bihari teamed up in 1957 to record her full-length album Femme Fatale. Meanwhile she toured around the world including a performance for the Queen of England and a private audience with Pope Pius XII. She also traveled with the Harlem Globetrotters, performing for half-time audiences. By the 1960s she had become fed up with America’s growing appetite for raucous rock-and-roll. “I couldn’t keep an audience of 25 quiet,” she told Los Angeles Magazine. After a stint in Hawaii, Brooks emigrated to Australia. There she found success with another television show, “In Melbourne Tonight,” and kept up an active performing schedule. In 1971 Brooks returned to Los Angeles and retired.
Many stories might end there, with a well-deserved retirement after a nearly 30-year long career. However, Brooks was set to make a comeback. “I’ve always said I’d keep performing until the day that I can’t walk to the piano unassisted,” she told The Clarion-Ledger. In 1987 she was coaxed out of retirement to perform at a high-profile restaurant opening. Los Angeles’s newest crop of clubsters were immediately seduced by her still strong, sultry-as-ever voice. With the reemergence of lounge music as the preferred sound of the terminally hip, Brooks became a star once again. Of her new young fans, Brooks was enamored, claiming they kept her young. “It’s like a second chance,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “And I’m very happy about it, because I am not going to be wheeled up to a piano to sing to people who are 60 and 80 years old.” In 1989 she performed a series of shows in New York City prompting a New York Times music critic to write, “Her voice, velvety and drenched with an after-hours smokiness, is familiar with deep emotions.” During performances, she toyed with the audiences, relishing the raised eyebrows she’d get when she’d croon numbers such as “You Can’t Tell the Difference After Dark.”
After nearly half a century of performing, it was obvious that Brooks had only gotten better. The Smithsonian’s Rhythm and Blues Foundation agreed and in 1993 inducted her into its Hall of Fame and awarded her its Pioneer Award. In 1994 she was back in the studio recording the album Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere. The following year she performed the title track for the film The Crossing Guard starring Jack Nicholson. She also became a regular performer at Johnny Depp’s Hollywood hot spot The Viper Room. A writer from the Los Angeles Times reviewed one of her performances there commenting, “Often, as Hadda Brooks—the woman who practically invented the torch song—slumped over the keys at the Viper Room on Thursday and tickled the ivories with dazzling expertise, her voice hushed in a sultry whisper and eyes clenched in the rapture, many in the audience had to wonder: If this tiny, 79-year-old woman can still manage to fill a room with her sex appeal at this age, just imagine what she must have been like when she performed for Humphrey Bogart.”
In 1995, exactly 50 years after making her first recording with Modern, she returned full-circle by signing with Virgin, the mega-label that had acquired Modern. In 1996 she released Time Was When, a CD of new recordings, and in 1998, I’ve Got News For You, a double-CD retrospective of her work. In 1999 Brooks appeared back on the big screen as a singer in The Thirteenth Floor and in 2000, she had her first speaking part in John John in the Sky. Brooks continued to perform to packed audiences and music festivals throughout the country right up until her death on November 21, 2002. Her last performances were two months earlier at a Los Angeles club. “She played three or four weekends in a row,” the manager told the Los Angeles Times. “It was packed every night she played, and the crowd would go wild. This was a woman who knew how to work the crowd.”
“Swingin’ the Boogie,” 1945.
“That’s My Desire,” 1947.
“Out of the Blue,” 1948.
“I Hadn’t Anyone ‘Til You,” 1949.
“Trust in Me,” 1954.
“Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere,” 1994.
“The Crossing Guard,” 1995.
“Need a Little Sugar In My Bowl,” 1996.
Femme Fatale, Modern, 1956.
Boogie, Crown, 1958.
Sings & Swings, Crown, 1963.
Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere, DRG, 1994.
That’s My Desire, Virgin, 1994.
Time Was When, Virgin, 1996.
I’ve Got News for You, Virgin, 1999.
Romance in the Dark, Ace, 2002.
Swingin’ the Boogie, Ace, 2003.
Out of the Blue, 1947.
In a Lonely Place, 1950.
The Bad and the Beautiful, 1952.
The Crossing Guard, 1995.
The Thirteenth Floor, 1999.
John John in the Sky, 2000.
The Hadda Brooks Show, 1951.
In Melbourne Tonight, 1960s.
Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, MS), July 8, 1999, p. F15.
Independent (London, England), November 26, 2002, p. 22.
Los Angeles Magazine, December 1998, p. 46.
Los Angeles Times, August 10, 1996, p. 6; February 1, 1998, p. 5; November 23, 2002, p. B20.
New York Times, November 24, 2002, p. 40.
Times (London, England), November 29, 2002, p. 40.
“Backtalk with Ms. Hadda Brooks,” Offbeat, www.offbeat.com/ob9910/backtalk.html (February 25, 2003).
The Official Hadda Brooks Website, www.haddabrooks.com (February 26, 2003).
Hadda Brooks emerged in the 1940s as the “Queen of the Boogie,” recording such piano tunes as “Swinging the Boogie” and “Hadda Swings” on the Modern record label. She became known for her smoky-voiced torch songs a few years later, scoring hits with “Trust in Me,” “Don’t Take Your Love from Me,” “Dream,” and her signature tune, “That’s My Desire.” She sang in several films during the 1950s, and became the first black entertainer to host her own show, the Hadda Brooks Show, in 1957. She lived abroad for a while, and enjoyed ebbs and flows of popularity until her death in 2002.
Brooks was born Hadda Hopgood on October 29, 1916, in Los Angeles. She was raised in the Boyle Heights area of the city by her parents, who had migrated to California from the South. Her mother was a doctor, her father a deputy sheriff. Her grandfather, Samuel Alexander Hopgood, moved to California from Atlanta, Georgia, and proved to be an enormous influence on Brooks. He introduced her to theater and the operatic voices of Galli-Curci and Caruso. She also came to love the subtle comedy of black theater and vaudeville entertainer and singer Bert Williams.
Brooks asked her father for piano lessons when she was just four years old. Her hands were too small to reach an octave, however, and the teacher refused to teach her until she could. Brooks practiced stretching exercises for a week before she was able to reach an octave on the piano, and the teacher, an Italian woman, agreed to take her. Brooks remained with the same teacher for 20 years. Given her aptitude, Brooks studied a special music curriculum at her Los Angeles high school. There, she nearly gave up playing the piano in favor of the pipe organ. “I loved the organ so much…,” Brooks said in an online interview at offbeat.com, “all the different tones I could get out of it…” She then attended Chapman College, and refused to study with the German teacher there who made her play Bach.
Brooks began playing piano professionally in the early 1940s at a tap-dance studio owned by Hollywood choreographer and dancer Willie Covan. For ten dollars a week, she played the popular tunes of the day while Covan worked with such stars as Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and Shirley Temple. Brooks was married briefly during this period to a Harlem Globetrotter named Earl “Shug” Morrison in 1941. She toured with the team when they traveled, and once was almost kidnapped into sexual slavery when staying in Algeria. Morrison developed pulmonary pneumonia, however, and died about a year after they were married. It was Brooks’s only marriage.
To increase her range at the studio, Brooks was constantly trying to work the same songs into new and different rhythms. She had turned the classical composition “The Poet and the Peasant” into both a rumba and a waltz, and was looking to turn it into a boogie tune along the lines of those composed by Fats Waller, Count Basie, and Pete Johnson. She was working the cash register at a restaurant when Jules Bihari offered her a record deal if she could get the boogie together in a week. She did, and Bihari spent his last $800 recording the song in 1945. From then on, Brooks was known as the “Queen of the Boogie.”
If Brooks was the Queen of the Boogie, Bihari was her king. He took a great interest in her career, gave her the stage name Hadda Brooks, and built the Modern record label around her. He went on to record such acts as B.B. King, Etta James, Charles Brown, and Jimmy Witherspoon, among others, and Modern became the preeminent R&B label of its day. Brooks’s and Bihari’s professional relationship became a romantic one, and Brooks was recording up to three boogies per month, which sold well in the American South. At this point, she was only playing the piano on her recordings; she had yet to record as a vocalist.
Brooks began singing in 1947 with encouragement from bandleader Charlie Barnet. When she offered to play another boogie as an encore, Barnet suggested, “Why don’t you sing and break the monotony?” according to the Chicago Tribune. Her first recorded song was “You Won’t Let Me Go.” Though she had sold scores of records with her piano playing alone, she would sing
For the Record…
Born Hadda Hopgood on October 29, 1916, in Los Angeles, CA; died on November 21, 2002, in Los Angeles, CA; married Earl “Shug” Morrison (died c. 1942). Education: Attended Chapman College.
Released debut single, “Swingin’ on the Boogie,” 1945; scored top ten hits with “Out of the Blue” and “That’s My Desire,” late 1940s; left Modern record label for major label London, 1950; returned to Modern, early 1950s; hosted her own television show, 1957; Virgin record label released compilation, That’s My Desire, 1994; “Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere” included on the Crossing Guard soundtrack, 1995; recorded and released Time Was When, 1996; Virgin released a two-disc retrospective, I’ve Got News For You, 1999.
Awards: Induction, Rhythm & Blues Foundation Hall of Fame and awarded the foundation’s Pioneer Award, 1993.
her most popular hits. “That’s My Desire” and “What Have I Done?” are among her signature vocal tunes. “Her voice, velvety and drenched with an after-hours smokiness, is familiar with deep emotions,” critic Peter Watrous wrote in the New York Times in 1989.
Clarinetist and bandleader Benny Goodman recommended Brooks to a film director friend of his who placed her in the film Out of the Blue in 1947. She usually played the small part of a lounge piano player in films, and often sang the title song. “Out of the Blue” became a top hit for Brooks. Boogie Woogie Blues followed in 1948, and she appeared in In a Lonely Place (1950) starring Humphrey Bogart, and in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) with Lana Turner and Kirk Douglas. Brooks became the first African-American woman to host her own television show in 1957. The Hadda Brooks Show, a combination talk and musical entertainment show, aired on Los Angeles’ KCOP. The show opened with Brooks seated behind a grand piano, cigarette smoke curling about her. She appeared in 26 half-hour episodes of the show.
As music audiences of the 1950s became more and more taken with rock ‘n’ roll, Brooks found herself at odds trying to entertain them with her blues boogies. “I couldn’t keep an audience of 25 quiet,” she told Los Angeles magazine. So, in search of a more blues-savvy audience, she set off on a two-week tour of Australia, but ended up living there for six years. She enjoyed playing for audiences abroad. “They’re very intent,” she said in her biography on the Virgin Records website. “I’ll be playing in front of 800 people and it’s so quiet you can hear a rat walk on cotton. I love it…. It’s difficult to reach out to the audience when they’re fidgeting and shouting out requests.”
Unwilling to compete any longer with rock ‘n’ roll, Brooks retired in 1971, but reemerged in 1987 to open a new club in Perino’s restaurant in Los Angeles. She returned to playing nightclubs regularly in Los Angeles and New York, receiving rave reviews. She enjoyed another resurgence of popularity in the mid-1990s, fueled by actor-director Sean Penn’s use of her song “Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere” in his 1995 film The Crossing Guard, starring Angelica Huston and Jack Nicholson. She began playing at hip night clubs like actor Johnny Depp’s Viper Room, New York’s Algonquin Room, and at Hollywood haunts like Goldfinger’s and the Cinegrill. Her eightieth birthday party was held at the Viper Room, and included such guests as actors Uma Thurman, Johnny Depp, and Jack Nicholson.
Brooks’s newfound popular appeal fueled her return to the recording studio for the first time in decades. In 1995 she recorded Time Was When for Virgin Records. The label had released the greatest-hits compilation That’s My Desire in 1994, and put together a retrospective, titled I’ve Got News for You in 1999. The two-CD set features classic instrumentals like “Hadda Swings” and vocal numbers like “Hadda Sings.” Also included in the collection were newly recorded duets with Charles Brown and Carla Bozulich of the indie-rock group Geraldine Fibbers. Though she was popular with a young and modern crowd, Brooks maintained that she worked from the past. “I try not to put anything new into my songs,” she is quoted as saying in 1989 in the New York Times. “I go back 20 years to find me.”
Brooks died on November 21, 2002, in Los Angeles, at age 86, a few weeks after undergoing heart surgery. She was survived by a sister, Kathryn Carter. She played her last engagement at Michael’s Room, a Los Angeles nightclub in September of 2002. “She played three or four weekends in a row,” Austin Young, who was making a documentary on Brooks, told the Boston Globe. “It was packed every night she played, and the crowd would go wild. This was a woman who knew how to work the crowd.”
“Swingin’ the Boogie,” Modern, 1945.
“Polonaise Boogie,” Modern, 1945.
“Blues in B Flat,” Modern, 1945.
“Nightmare Boogie,” Modern, 1945.
“Rockin’ the Boogie,” Modern, 1945.
“Bluesin’ the Boogie,” Modern, 1945.
“Ridin’ the Boogie,” Modern, 1945.
“Society Boogie,” Modern, 1945.
“Morocco Blues,” Modern, 1946.
“Grieg’s Concerto Boogie,” Modern, 1946.
“Basin Street Blues,” Modern, 1947.
“That’s My Desire,” Modern, 1947.
“Trust in Me,” Modern, 1947.
“Don’t Take Your Love From Me,” Modern, 1947.
“That’s Where I Came In,” Modern, 1947.
“Minuet in G Boogie,” Modern, 1947.
“Hollywood House Party Boogie,” Modern, 1948.
“The Best Things In Life Are Free,” Modern, 1948.
“Night Life,” Modern, 1948.
“Bully Wully Boogie,” Modern, 1948.
“Variety Bounce,” Modern, 1948.
“Out of the Blue,” Modern, 1948.
“What Have I Done?,” Modern, 1948.
“Nightmare Boogie,” Modern, 1948.
“Roses of Picardy Boogie,” Modern, 1948.
“Melody in F Boogie,” Modern, 1948.
“Juke Box Boogie,” Modern, 1949.
“Take Me,” Modern, 1949.
“I’ll Never Know Why,” Modern, 1949.
“Anna Lucasta,” Modern, 1949.
“I Hadn’t Anyone ‘til You,” Modern, 1950.
“This Time We’re Through,” Modern, 1950.
“I See a Million People,” Modern, 1950.
“Maggie’s Boogie,” Modern, 1950.
“The Man With the Horn,” Modern, 1950.
“It Hadda Be Brooks,” London, 1951.
“Keep Your Hand on Your Heart,” Modern, 1951.
(With Count Basie) “When a Woman Cries,” Modern, 1951.
(With Count Basie) “I Feel So Good,” Modern, 1951.
“Ol’ Man River,” Modern, 1956.
“The Thrill is Gone,” Kent, 1957.
“Stolen Love,” Alwin, 1957.
“The Song Is Ended,” Alwin, 1957.
“House of Boogie Woogie,” Kim, 1987.
“Mama’s Boogie,” Kim, 1988.
Femme Fatale, Modern, 1956.
Boogie, Crown, 1958.
Sings & Swings, Crown, 1963.
Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere, DRG, 1994.
That’s My Desire, Virgin, 1994.
Time Was When, Virgin, 1996.
I’ve Got News For You, Virgin, 1999.
Romance in the Dark, Ace, 2002.
Billboard, December 7, 2002, p. 8.
Boston Globe, November 23, 2002, p. E13.
Chicago Tribune, November 26, 2002, p. 8.
Jet, December 16, 2002, p. 62.
Los Angeles, December 1998.
New York Times, July 3, 2001, p. E4; November 24, 2002, p. 40.
Village Voice, July 10, 2001, p. 110.
Washington Post, November 25, 2002, p. B6.
“Hadda Brooks,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (February 20, 2003).
“Hadda Brooks,” Off Beat, http://www.offbeat.com/ob9910/backtalk.html (February 20, 2003).
“Hadda Brooks,” Virgin Records, http://www.virginrecords.com/hadda/ (February 20, 2003).