The First Lady of Modern Music: Boyle Heights’ Hadda Brooks, Part 1

Introduction:  Boyle Heights Historical Society Advisory Board member Rudy Martinez returns with another great post on the history of the community–this one relating to the pianist Hadda Brooks. The post will be presented in several parts, starting with an introduction to Brooks’ early life in Boyle Heights. – Paul R. Spitzzeri

In April 1945 the three enterprising Bihari brothers took a gamble and formed a small independent music label near downtown Los Angeles after a classically trained pianist from Boyle Heights agreed to record the company’s very first record. None of the siblings had experience running a record label, and the young and attractive African American woman they hired was unknown and had never been in a recording studio. But the talent of their gifted new artist quickly gave the fledgling label, the Modern Music Company, an impressive start. And those first recordings would also establish the Modern Music Company’s inaugural artist, Hadda Brooks, as a rising new star.

Hadda Brooks, at age 15 in 1931 and is courtesy of Ace Records.

Formed several years even before black music label mainstays Chess Records in Chicago, and Atlantic Records in New York, the Los Angeles-based Modern Music label and its subsidiaries, Crown, Kent, Flair, and RPM, would emerge as a top-selling blues and R&B powerhouse in the postwar era, introducing such artists as B. B. King, Etta James, Ike and Tina Turner, Howlin’ Wolf, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Elmore James, Jesse Belvin, and even jazz artists Teddy Edwards and Howard McGhee, among others.

The multi-talented Hadda Brooks would enjoy a long and well-traveled career and also establish several little-known but significant landmarks for African American entertainers. Surprisingly, though she played to audiences around the world, and initially achieved a good degree of success and recognition for a few years after her first recording in 1945, she was only marginally known in her hometown of Los Angeles for most of her career. And, for most of her life, she and members of her family would continue to call Boyle Heights home, dating to almost ten years before she was born.

Hadda’s paternal grandfather, Samuel Alexander Hopgood, was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1857, and his wife Hattie was born in Hamilton County, Tennessee in 1852. They were married in 1882 in Fulton, Georgia, and arrived in Boyle Heights around 1907. In the 1910 federal census, Samuel Hopgood is listed as the owner of a house on 3168 Malabar Street.  

It was Samuel who encouraged his son John Marsalis Hopgood (born in Atlanta in 1883) and his wife, Goldie Wright Hopgood (a native of Chattanooga, Tennessee, she was born in 1889) to move out to California. Hadda’s parents joined Samuel and Hattie on Malabar Street around 1909. Unfortunately, Hattie did not live very long after they arrived in Los Angeles. She passed away in 1913 and is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights. When her son John, Hadda’s father, passed away in 1957, burial records confirm he was buried with his mother. However, there was never a separate engraving done for John, so only Hattie’s name appears on the headstone. Hattie’s husband, Samuel, who never remarried, died in 1944 and is buried just a few yards away from his wife and son.

he 1920 federal census listed the Hopgood family, including Hadda as Hattie, at 3156 Malabar Street in Boyle Heights.

Named after her grandmother, Hadda was born Hattie Hopgood in the Malabar Street family home on October 29, 1916. She had one sibling, a younger sister named Kathryn. According to the 1920 census, the Hopgood home was now at 3156 Malabar Street. Today, that house, as well as the first Hopgood address at 3168 Malabar, no longer exist. Examining old Sanborn Fire Insurance maps, it appears both homes were razed to make room for the expansion of Malabar Street Elementary School, which opened in 1913. By the 1930 census, the Hopgoods are listed as owners of a home at 3136 Malabar Street. This house stands today right next to the school’s property line. In 1994 Hadda succinctly described to the UCLA Central Avenue Oral History Project the property boundaries: “Malabar Street Elementary School was the name of the school. We lived right next door to the school. The house was here, the school was there, the fence was there.”

By the standards of their day, and according to Hadda, the Hopgoods were a comfortable, middle-class Boyle Heights family. In the early 1920s Boyle Heights was largely a Jewish neighborhood, but due to the widespread establishment of restrictive housing covenants, the community was also home to a diverse racial and ethnic population. Hadda fondly recalled the neighborhood’s multicultural diversity to the interviewer for the UCLA Central Avenue Oral Project:

There was no trouble. We had a nice childhood life. I had Jewish and Mexican friends and we used to go up to Brooklyn Avenue, to Canter Brothers deli and get a pastrami [sandwich]. I used to go to all those shops. There was a swimming pool over on Evergreen Avenue and Fourth Street. Twenty-five cents for a towel. We had a ball. I’ve got news for you. We never locked our doors. Nobody would bother you. When was I was going to school, I went with all the little Jewish kids, Mexican kids, and black kids. We’d all go to school together. We’d all meet at the top of the hill up there and we’d all walk to Belvedere Jr. High.”

Hadda and her sister Kathryn, probably in the 1940s.  Courtesy of the Austin Young/Barry Pett photo collection.  Young and Pett produced a documentary on Hadda, Queen of the Boogie.

While Hadda was a student at Malabar Street Elementary School, her mother Goldie would invite all the teachers from the elementary school to the Hopgood home for fund-raising lunches for the family’s church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church. “My mother would fix the luncheon, and all the teachers would come to eat. They loved it,” Hadda recalled.

Hadda’s mother, a housewife for most of her life, had a significant impact on the lives of many of her Boyle Heights neighbors. Goldie Hopgood was known in the community as a knowledgeable lay practitioner in medicine and healing, often treating many of her sick and ailing neighbors. Articles about Hadda often describe her mother as “a doctor,” but even Hadda was unclear where her mother acquired her knowledge or even the full extent of it. As Hadda explained to the UCLA oral history project interviewer, “They called on my mother every time they got sick. She had something to do with medicine. And she had a lot of medicine. Anytime anybody got sick, they’d come to my mother. She saved a lot of lives.”

This detail from a 1920 Sanborn Fire Insurance Company map shows the the Hapgood home on Malabar Street to the left of Malabar Elementary School.

Her father was strict and conservative but supportive. According to Hadda, he enjoyed going to baseball games at the old Wrigley Field Stadium in South Los Angeles or, with his father, listening to Enrico Caruso and other opera singers on the family’s standup Victrola on Sunday afternoons. For many years John Hopgood was employed at the Los Angeles County Hall of Justice building in downtown Los Angeles as an elevator operator.

The Hapgood family listing at 3136 Malabar Street in Boyle Heights in the 1930 census
The Hapgood family listing at the same Malabar Street address in the 1940 census

With regards to John Hopgood’s occupation, it has been interesting to read, during the course of doing research for this blog post, how many published accounts about Hadda Brooks routinely describe John, mistakenly, as a L. A. County Sheriff officer.  It’s unclear how this confusion came about, but a look at the 1930 and 1940 federal census, John states his occupation as an Elevator Operator for Los Angeles County (Gov. Bldg. in the 1940 census), and in his 1942 military registration card, his Place of Employment is listed as the Hall of Justice in Los Angeles. The building is located at 211 W. Temple Street, and was built in 1925.

Above is a zoomed-in image of the 1930 (on the right) and the 1940 (on the left) federal census focusing on the occupation column for John Hopgood. Below those images is a copy of John Hopgood’s Military registration card. Courtesy of   

When she expressed interest in playing the piano at age four, Hadda’s father bought her a piano and hired Florence Bruni from nearby Lincoln Heights to provide piano lessons. Born in Italy in 1893 and specializing in private lessons that focused on classical music, she would remain Hadda’s friend and teacher for the next 20 years. Hadda said she quickly took to her teaching style because she was soft-spoken and patient. On occasion, Bruni would take her young pupil to concerts at the Philharmonic Auditorium at 5th and Olive. (Demolished in 1985).  Bruni, who never married, lived in Lincoln Heights her entire adult life until she passed away in 1974. Rarely playing anything but classical music, Hadda recalled that one day she began to play and sing the words to the 1930 torch ballad, “Body and Soul.” Her father was so incensed by the suggestive lyrics, he forbid her to ever play such music in the house again.

Although Hadda attended Malabar Street Elementary and Belvedere Jr. High Schools, she decided not to attend nearby Theodore Roosevelt High School. Because of their superior music curriculum, she chose to attend Los Angeles Polytechnic High School, located where Los Angeles Trade Technical College stands today. (The high school is now named St Francis Polytechnic High School and was relocated to the San Fernando Valley in 1957).  From this point on, her passion was directed to music as will be discussed further in the next post!

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