The First Lady of Modern Music: Boyle Heights’ Hadda Brooks, Part 2

Introduction:  Boyle Heights Historical Society Advisory Board member Rudy Martinez is the author of this fascinating multi-part post on pianist/singer Hadda Brooks, who lived in Boyle Heights much of her life.  We pick up the story with Hadda completing her education and embarking on her budding musical career. – Paul R. Spitzzeri

Hadda Brooks, who was raised in Boyle Heights, attended Los Angeles Polytechnic High.  After working with a Lincoln Heights-based teacher, Florence Bruni, she found at Poly High another instructor she much admired named Frank L. Anderson, who taught her to play a four-manual organ. Hadda preferred operating the pedals with her bare feet, though she never developed an affinity for the instrument. Nonetheless, she was proficient enough to perform a brief organ solo at her graduation. While in high school, she also joined a girls club called the Kohinoors, of which she was appointed Sergeant at Arms. The club occasionally hosted Sunday afternoon tea dances at the Dunbar Hotel, a famed location for black jazz performers on Central Avenue in South-Central Los Angeles.

A photo of Hadda Brooks from her obituary in the Los Angeles Times, 23 November 2002.

After high school Hadda attended Chapman College, which was then located on Vermont Avenue (the campus relocated to Orange County in the 1950s). Dissatisfied with the music curriculum, she left after a year and went across the street to Los Angeles City College. Her stay at LACC was also brief but, apparently, memorable.  
Recalling past events at the college, a columnist in the November 27, 1947 Los Angeles Sentinel, wrote, 

Hattie Hopgood, now Hadda Brooks, was our first lady of swing. Her piano playing was the talk of the campus. Hadda was instrumental in starting the first jam session known as the Green Room jump session. It took the campus by storm.

Around 1940 Hadda decided to attend Northwestern University in Illinois to study music. However, this college experience was also cut short; after one year, she left, permanently ending her aspirations for higher education. 

In 1941, Hadda attended a Sunday afternoon Harlem Globetrotters game at the spacious Elks Hall at 4016 S. Central Avenue (demolished in 1983) and met Earl “Shug” Morrison, a member of the famed barnstorming basketball team. After a brief courtship, and despite her parents’ objections (her father didn’t believe basketball was a serious occupation for a young man), they married and moved to the mid-city area. The team occasionally attended parties at the home of renowned film studio dance instructor Willie Covan, providing Hadda an informal setting to get well-acquainted with both, Covan and Harlem Globetrotter’s owner, Abe Saperstein. Sadly, one year after they married, Earl Morrison was stricken with pneumonia and died suddenly. Shortly after his death, a devastated Hadda moved back to her family’s Boyle Heights home.

The graves of Hadda Brooks’ grandparents Samuel and Hattie Hopgood, who are buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights.  Photos by Rudy Martinez.

Shortly after her husband’s death, Willie Covan offered Hadda a job playing the piano at the Covan Dance Studio located at 1316 E. 41st Street, across the street from Jefferson High School. (A wellspring of doo-wop and R & B talent the following decade, former Jefferson High students, Etta James and Richard Berry did their first recordings for the Modern Music Co.). Covan was also the dance instructor for MGM Studios, allowing Hadda to play the piano as he worked with stars like Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and Shirley Temple. “The biggest pay I got was about 12 dollars a week,” Hadda later recalled, “and I thought that was like a hundred dollars a day because I never worked in my life.”

Hadda’s recording career with the Modern Music Company began unexpectedly in the spring of 1945, but the timing couldn’t have been better. With the country entering the postwar years, popular tastes in music were changing from the sounds of the big bands to pop singers and crooners. More significantly, this shift in musical tastes also included the more black-dominated musical forms of jazz, blues, and the nascent sounds of rhythm & blues. 

Hadda not only was one of the key artists in this transition but was a principal reason for the rapid growth of the Modern Music Co. label. That growth would ripple out with the explosive growth of other Los Angeles-based independent labels like Aladdin, Imperial, Specialty, Swing Time, Dolphin’s, Combo, Dootone, and others. These pioneering indie labels would help make Los Angeles, before Chicago, New York, or Memphis, the recording label epicenter for the emerging new sounds of West Coast R&B and electric blues, with it’s cross-over appeal leading, to a significant degree, the desegregation of American popular music in the post-WWII era.

Hadda’s role in these developments began with a chance meeting one afternoon in downtown Los Angeles in the spring of 1945 while she was visiting the Southern California Music Co. at 806 S. Broadway. (The 7-story building still stands today, next to the Apple Store/former Tower Theater. Founded in 1880, the store presently operates in one small location in Glendale.) Hadda was looking for sheet music for Franz von Suppe’s overture from the light opera, “Poet and Peasant.” When she sat down at a piano and started to briefly play the piece as a boogie-woogie tune, a man approached her and introduced himself as Jules Bihari, and asked if she could play an entire boogie tune. She said she wasn’t sure since it wasn’t the kind of music she regularly played. Bihari explained that he and his two brothers were interested in possibly making records for their jukebox company, and were ready to invest $800 if she could work up an entire tune within a week so they could record it. “If something comes of it, we’ll be in business. If not, I’ve lost 800 dollars,” Hadda recalled him saying.  Hadda said she’d think about it.

This 10 April 1950 aerial photograph shows Malabar Elementary School, which Hadda Brooks attended, at the center and at the far right, next to the dirt lot, was her childhood home.  Found on the Internet Archive website.

In 1944, Saul, Joe, and Jules Bihari, – recent transplants to Los Angeles from Tulsa, Oklahoma, – ran a jukebox distributorship, maintaining a string of these devices along bustling Central Avenue, the main artery for the mostly African American neighborhood of South Los Angeles. Although white, the Biharis had an ear and a long-held appreciation for blues music, as they they all spent much of their childhood in a New Orleans orphanage and explored many of the city’s musical venues as young men. Now in Los Angeles, the Biharis operated their jukebox distributorship out of a small storefront at 115 S. San Pedro Street in the Little Tokyo area.

This was during the period when many Japanese Americans citizens, including those who lived and operated businesses in the Little Tokyo area, had been rounded up by the American government and forcibly taken to internment (more accurately, prison) camps for the duration of the war. In the interim, many African Americans coming into Los Angeles from the south to seek work in the booming defense industry, found affordable rental housing in the area, making Little Tokyo a short-lived but bustling African American enclave known as Bronzeville. According to a 1995 interview Joe Bihari gave to a UCLA Oral History Project, the Biharis practically moved into the Little Tokyo storefront as squatters: “They [Japanese Americans] were moved out to the camps. We’d go into a building–they were vacant buildings…there were a lot of vacant storefronts. I never inquired if [the property] was controlled by the government or if they [Japanese Americans] sold them out very cheaply or what. I don’t even remember who we even paid rent to for our little storefront that we had.”

At the time Jules Bihari introduced himself to Hadda, the Biharis were having trouble stocking their jukeboxes with the kind of records their customers preferred, mostly R&B and blues. Because of a war shortage of shellac (a resin used to make record discs), as well as a 1942 – 1944 nationwide recording boycott by the American Federation of Musicians, several major labels chose to discontinue their subsidiary labels that distributed smaller niche music, commonly referred to as “hillbilly music” and “race music.” At that point, there were no other players with the means large enough to fill the void, yet.

A pivotal moment occurred for the small independent record label scene in Los Angeles in 1944 when a local Black army private, Cecil Gant, made a garage-recording of a self-penned ballad titled “I Wonder.” Initially released briefly on the Black-owned Bronze Records label, Gant quickly recorded and released it on the white-owned Gilt-Edge label. The modest production was a huge “race record” jukebox hit across the country with Black listeners, the demand overwhelming the label’s tiny pressing plant as it struggled to keep up with the demand. (Absent from mainstream radio air play, an informal record distributorship emerged among well-traveled Black train porters. These porters would buy dozens of copies of a popular regional hit by Black artists and sell these discs in other cities, spreading the popularity of the song and artist.) Taking notice of this independent label’s unexpected success with Gant’s recording, the Biharis decided the only way to deal with the lack of product for their jukeboxes was to record and press their own disc inventory. That meant finding someone talented enough to record the kind of music they needed.

An ad in the May 12, 1945 issue of Billboard Magazine for the new Modern Music Co. Note the company’s Little Tokyo address : 115 S. San Pedro Street, located half a block south of 3rd street.

A week after meeting Jules Bihiri, Hadda brought him her finished tune, “Swinging the Boogie,” along with a slower B-side, “Just a Little Blusie.” According to Joe Bihari, Hadda recorded the songs a few days later at the Bob Gray Studios at 416 S. Robertson Blvd. But before the brothers could begin pressing their first 78rpm discs, two crucial steps had to be completed: first, creating a record label company and second, changing Hattie Hopgood’s name to one with more show-biz flair. Thus, in the late spring of 1945, with one disc pressing machine at their S. San Pedro Street storefront in Little Tokyo, the Modern Music Company label was created to distribute the recorded music by their maiden recording artist, Hadda Brooks.

The next post picks up the Hadda Brooks story as she becomes a rising star on the local music scene, so check back soon for part three.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *