This past April, overshadowed by the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Hadda Brooks made her first appearance in New Orleans at the Shim Sham Club. On October 29th and 30th she is returning to this venue for a two night engagement and to celebrate her 83rd birthday. Known for years as the “Queen of the Boogie,” Ms. Brooks has had an amazing career as a pianist, performer, recording artist and actress. Born on October 29, 1916, her story is not the typical one. She was the first black woman to have her own TV show and has performed with no less than Humphrey Bogart in the film “In A Lonely Place” and Jack Nicholson in “The Crossing Guard.”
In the mid ’90s, Virgin Records issued That’s My Desire, a collection of her early recordings, and I’ve Got News For You, a two CD set that includes recordings from the late 1940s through 1998. In the process Hadda was married to a Harlem Globetrotter and had a long time love affair with Jules Bihari, the man behind Modern Records. In 1993 she was inducted into the Rhythm and Blues Foundation’s Hall of Fame. She is creative, intellectual and humorous and her performances combine elements of classical, boogie and popular music into a very unique and individual expression full of wit and charm. She comes at you from so many directions at once that it’s sometimes difficult to keep up, but Ms. Hadda is always entertaining.
Tell us, please, about your early family life.
Well, I was born in Los Angeles, raised in Los Angeles and went to school in Los Angeles. My mother and father came from Tennessee and Georgia respectively. My grandfather was a big influence on me and he came to California from Atlanta, Georgia. His name was Samuel Alexander Hopgood. He was a Pullman porter and he saved his money.
What was your first experience with music?
I was exposed to Galli-Curci, the operatic female singer, and I was exposed to the singer Caruso; also quite a few operas and my grandfather was the cause of that. He liked Bert Williams and I did too. I loved Bert Williams. He was very funny with a dry humor and I like a lot of good comedy. I like things that are light and airy and funny. Bert Williams’ humor was very subtle. One of my favorite renditions of his was called “I’m Going To Quit Saturday.” 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.
When did you first know that you wanted to play music?
I asked my daddy to give me piano lessons when I was four years old and of course at four years old my hands were very small and I couldn’t reach an octave. The teacher said she wasn’t going to take me until I could reach an octave. 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. I continued on with her for about twenty years. She was Italian, her name was Florence Bruni and she was very, very gentle.
What type of live entertainment did you hear as a child?
My grandfather use to take us down to the Lincoln Theatre which was a beautiful brand-new theatre on Central Avenue and we’d see the Lincoln Players. They were actors and actresses performing dramas and comedies. My grandfather also took us to see Faye Thompson. That was our entertainment, no piano, no singing, but this very organized group, the Lincoln Players.
What was your educational background?
I went to a special high school for music curriculum called Polytechnic and I attended because of my exceptional aptitude in music. I also learned at the school on a floor manual pipe organ. I almost gave up the piano because I loved the organ so much. It was all the different tones I could get out of it and I played it a lot. When I went to Chapman College, I had a German woman teacher and she was a little bit hard, little bit rough, and she wanted me to do Bach and I didn’t like Bach so I let that subject go. I had already completed my education so I didn’t feel I needed her.
How did you get your first work in music?
In the early ’40s, somehow or another the word got around that the Willie Covan dance studio wanted a piano player and they were willing to pay $10.00 a week. I thought that was a lot of money because I had never worked in my life. I went over for an audition and they brought out a student and asked me to play “Tea For Two” and at that particular time I was into popular music. I played “Tea For Two” and “I’ve Got Rhythm,” a fast tune that kids would do. They liked me very much because of the fact that I really didn’t know the routine but I knew that they were doing four steps to eight bars. The kid skipped one step and I skipped right with him and he didn’t know I’d skipped but the teacher was very aware of it. He figured if I was alert enough to do that without knowing the routine that it would keep the kids from being embarrassed, so I was hired.
At the studio we played behind Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and we taught little Shirley Temple. We would give the routines for the dance directors. Willie Covan was a very beautiful dancer. In fact he didn’t just stand up and hard tap. He did what were called picture steps and that’s what they liked about him.
How did you meet Jules Bihari?
Friends of mine owned a restaurant and just for fun I was trying to learn to operate the cash register. Jules would come in and order cake and coffee, or something like that. When he came in there we’d talk and have some refreshments and talk, and talk and talk. Working for the dance studio I was always trying to get different rhythms out of a song and one day I was in a music store and I was trying to get different rhythms from the classical composition “The Poet and the Peasant.” I had turned it into a rhumba and I had turned it into a waltz, and for some reason or other I wanted another rhythm and I thought of a boogie. I had heard Fats Waller, Count Basie and Pete Johnson perform a boogie. Pete Johnson, he was my favorite and I would listen to him and then try to work on the “Poet and the Peasant” with a boogie background. Jules Bihari was in the store standing behind me and he wanted to know if I could play a boogie. I said, that’s what I’m trying to do. He said, “I’ll give you a week and if you can work one up in a week, I’ll record it. If something comes of it we’re in business and if nothing comes of it I’ll have lost $800 and that’s all I have.” So I worked one up in a week and that’s how I got started as the “Queen of the Boogie.” That was in 1945.
Jules Bihari built a record company for me. It was called Modern Records. From the sales of my records he expanded with artists like B. B. King, Etta James, Jimmy Witherspoon and quite a few others. He became pretty rich. He took a great deal of interest in me and that sort of ran into love. After I recorded the boogie for him it very much turned into a romance. I was making on the order of three boogie recordings a month. They sold very well in the southern states. They gave me the name “Queen of the Boogie” because I was the only one that was absolutely recording nothing but boogies. I hadn’t started doing vocals yet.
What led to your career in the movies?
Benny Goodman, the clarinetist and bandleader, started me in movies. I mean he recommended me to Lee Jason, who was an English director, and he heard me sing “That’s My Desire.” Lee got in touch with me and the first picture I did was “Out of the Blue” and that was the name of the song I sang for the movie. From then on, I went on to do movies with Humphrey Bogart and others like the one with Lana Turner and Kirk Douglas titled “The Bad and the Beautiful.” Mostly I just performed my music, the music that I enjoyed.
In 1957 you were the first Black American woman to have her own weekly television program. Tell me about that.
The name of the show was the “Hadda Brooks Show.” It came on Sunday night at 9:00 p.m. My theme song was “That’s My Desire” and the top of the grand piano when I was seated was raised and people could view me through the piano. I had a large ceramic ashtray and I had a lit cigarette and I remember we had two cameras. The cigarette smoke would twirl around and was picked up by the camera. When the red light came on one camera I looked at that when it came on the next camera I looked at that. Don Peterson was my producer. I did 26 half-hour shows. Recently the TV studio did a 50th anniversary party and I asked them were there copies of the show. The producer of the program was there and he took me back stage and there beneath the steps of a stairway they had the piano that I played on. I asked him if there were any known copies of the program and he was not aware of any. If there is anybody out there who has a copy of my program, I would really love to see the show again.
In 1998 you recorded a duet with Charles Brown. How did this come about?
Charles Brown I met about fifty years ago. I wasn’t in show business when I met Charles Brown. I was working for the Willie Covan dance studio then. You know I was married the very first time, the only time, to a Harlem Globetrotter. His name was Earl Morrison and they nicknamed him Shug. You know they all had nicknames, like Meadowlark Lemon and Goose Tatum and he was Shug. He had pulmonary pneumonia and lived only about a year after we married. I was working for Willie Covan and he and his wife took me out to see Charles Brown because they thought that would cheer me up. Charles was performing at the Chicken Shack and so we went, and at that time, Charles wasn’t singing too much, he was mostly playing piano. We talked and talked and talked and I felt like I was getting to know Charles well. After that, he traveled and I was getting into the recording business with Jules and trying to keep up with Charles but I didn’t know where he was and we lost track of each other. I didn’t know where he was or what he was doing and all of a sudden he was back in great popularity and the next thing I know he’s inviting me to be on his show. Then we became reacquainted. I loved his music. He was very classy. Last year Charles and I recorded “Stairway to the Stars.” I asked the leader of his band if he would honor me with a duet and Charles said he would be delighted. What I didn’t know was that he had gotten out of bed at the hospital and came to the studio to do it. He was very sick and that was the last recording that he did as far as I know. He never did get out of bed again. So to me that was a real honor and I was very happy but if I had known how sick he was I would have probably cancelled. He didn’t act like he was sick. He was just very quiet, which he usually was. I am very honored that he made that recording with me.
What about your first trip to New Orleans, what did you think about that?
The first time I was in New Orleans, this last spring, Fats Domino and Ray Charles were performing at the Jazz Fest and I got a pass and got to sit on the stage with Fats Domino and I felt very privileged because I had never met Fats Domino and I always liked his music. That was real special.
OffBeat thanks Mary Katherine Aldin for her assistance preparing this piece.