The First Lady of Modern Music: Boyle Heights’ Hadda Brooks, Part 3

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 becoming a recognized local performer on the new Modern Music record label. – Paul R. Spitzzeri

Hadda Brooks, a Boyle Heights resident and the first recording artist to be signed to the new Los Angeles-based record label, Modern Records, quickly achieved success when her original-penned “Swinging the Boogie” recording was a big regional hit in 1945.  For marketing purposes, the label quickly bestowed Hadda with the very modest title, “Hadda Brooks – Queen of the Boogie.” 

An advertisement for the Modern Music Distributing Company in 1945 (which includes the company’s Little Tokyo-area address) touting Hadda Brooks as “Queen of the Boogie Woogie.”  From the website

In quick succession, other crowd-pleasing hits followed such as, “Rockin the Boogie,”  “Riding the Boogie,” and “Bully Wully Boogie.” As label chief Jules Bihari later put it, “the first disc was a hit, and we were in the record business.” Right after Hadda’s first hit, the Biharis hired a young man named Lester Sill to assist with sales, but by the late ’40s, he began to produce many of Hadda’s Modern Music recordings. In 1961, Sill would form the Los Angeles-based Philles Records label (1961 – 1967) with his partner, Phil Spector. The label become renowned for its roster talent and Spector’s wall-of-sound production on many of the singles it released. As recalled by Sill in the 1978 book, Honkers and Shouters by Arnold Shaw, “In ’48 to ’49 I began to produce records. The Biharis let me cut Hadda, B. B. King, and other artists. She [Hadda] had a throaty, gritty voice that had a seductive, after-hours quality. She was an attractive chick. She took the Biharis out of the restaurant and jukebox business and put them into the record field.”      

In the first two years of Modern Records’ existence, the Biharis recorded a number of other talented artists, but Hadda’s output still made up a third of its releases. She was sometimes backed by a small talented trio, and on at least two recordings by the uncredited Count Basie Orchestra. Modern Music even showcased some of her classical training when they released recordings with a standard classical piece recorded for one side and a reworked “boogie version” on the other, such as “Humoresque Boogie.” Over the next few years the Biharis even had her occasionally play on recording sessions for other label artists. She was often uncredited, so it’s not certain how many other sessions she played on. Hadda does recall that’s her piano solo on Texas bluesman Smokey Hogg’s seminal blues hit, “Good Morning, Schoolgirl.”

The 1946 “album” titled Hadda Brooks, Queen of the Boogie and featuring three 78-rpm discs, an unusual format of the time, especially for a black artist.  Photo by Rudy Martinez.

Though she visited a number of clubs, Hadda was never a performing fixture of the Central Avenue scene, which was fine with her father.  She told an interviewer for the Central Avenue Oral History Project: When I went into show business, my father almost disinherited me. He thought I was working on Central Avenue. My father had a freaking fit. My daddy sort of calmed down and he came to accept what was going on. 

In 1989 she told the New York TimesWhen I first went to Central Avenue, it was really exciting. At that time, I was just getting away from home, and the whole atmosphere excited me. I was able to go see everybody without having to report back home.

In mid-1946, Modern Music Co. ambitiously issued its first “album” of 78-rpm discs. Simply titled, Hadda Brooks, Queen of the Boogie, it was a collection of three discs inside a flip-through album with a full color image of her on the cover. The packaging wasn’t unique in the record industry, but it was usually only distributed by the majors for established white artists.

The inside of the gatefold of the Hadda Brooks album.  Photo by Rudy Martinez.

Hadda even made a promotional in-store appearance at the Good Housekeeping Shop in Van Nuys in June 1946. Like her previous releases, the album was a big seller for Modern Music. According to producer, Lester Sill, “We sold a lot of her albums – they consisted of three 78s and the worst artwork you ever saw.” But what was significant about this Modern Music Co. release was it had the distinction of possibly making Hadda Brooks the first Black recording artist to release an album of 78s before the introduction of the long-playing 33rpm LP format in 1948. 

Around the same time as her album release, Hadda was attending a Lionel Hampton show at the Million Dollar Theater at Broadway and 3rd Street in downtown Los Angeles when he invited her on stage. Though she’d been recording for almost a year, she had not yet performed for a live audience. But playing with full confidence, the young and talented piano-playing sensation was an instant hit.

A week later Hadda was hired to perform for a series of shows at the Million Dollar Theater on Broadway and 3rd Street (opened in 1918), usually playing two obligatory boogie tunes per show. After a matinee show with Charlie Barnet and His Orchestra in late 1946, Barnet suggested she sing one song for a change. Hadda replied she wasn’t confident about her singing ability, but would give it a try. She rushed over to the tiny San Pedro Street rehearsal room the Biharis had in Little Tokyo to work on a number. According to Hadda, the now legendary early R&B trio, The Three Blazers (with pianist, Charles Brown), a group Modern wanted to record, were there casually rehearsing a song titled, “You Won’t Let Me Go,” that Hadda immediately liked. They helped her learn the song and after she sang it on stage that evening, according to Hadda, “the audience went wild!”

Hadda received second billing beneath bop superstar, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, at the New Million Dollar Theatre in Los Angeles, 1948.  From the Austin Young and Barry Pett Collection.

That performance altered the direction of her career. In a short while, the “Queen of the Boogie” transformed into one of the most alluring and unique singers of her time. In early 1947, Hadda recorded her R&B signature song, “That’s My Desire,” but a few months later, this song became a nation-wide hit when a major label, Mercury Records, released white crooner Frankie Laine’s version. As Lester Sill recalled, “Hadda had ‘That’s my Desire’ before Frankie Laine launched his career with a belting R&B version. Hadda could sing pop songs, but she gave them a sultry R&B sound.” (Laine continued to rerecord and release several versions of the song well into the 1950s, with different arrangements. Interestingly enough, even the Graham Nash-led rock group, The Hollies recorded a version of “That’s My Desire” at Abby Road Studios in 1967.) By 1947, Hadda was established as one of the most talented new singers around. Later that year, she went on an eight-month cross-country tour with Count Basie and Artie Shaw, which included some east coast dates and a performance at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater.

With her talent, beauty, and air of sophistication, Hadda, was a natural for films and occasional fan-generated publicity. Over the next several years, she made cameos in several movies, such as the 10-minute short film, Boogie-Woogie Blues (1947), the all-black feature film musical, The Joint is Jumpin‘ (1948), Out of the Blue (1947) (with Hadda singing the title song), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) starring Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner, and in the noir classic, In a Lonely Place (1950) starring Humphrey Bogart.  She got the job in the latter film when she was recommended for an audition by her friend Benny Goodman, beating out Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald for the role!  Her cameo rolls were not much of an acting stretch as they all consisted of Hadda performing as a piano-playing lounge singer. In addition, in 1947, Hadda was chosen by readers of the Black-owned Los Angeles daily, The Sentinel, as one of the “10 Best Dressed Ladies” in the city.

Meanwhile, the grosses from Hadda’s popular recordings were still contributing significantly to the growth of Modern Music. In 1947 the Biharis relocated their operation from Little Tokyo to the Hollywood area. Their operations included a new and larger pressing plant, which is believed to have been the first modern, self-sufficient independent record pressing plant in the United States.      

According to an article in the May 19, 1949 edition of the Los Angeles Sentinel, Hadda was welcomed as an advisor to a social and philanthropic group formed by African American women in Boyle Heights.

As busy as Hadda was during the late Forties, she continued to maintain her connection to her childhood neighborhood. In 1949 she volunteered to be the adviser for the Social Heighters Club of Boyle Heights, a social and charitable group formed in 1947 by a group of African American women in Boyle Heights.

Hadda with the famed singer and bandleader Cab Calloway, 1945.  From the Los Angeles Public Library Digital Photograph Collection.

While Hadda evolved from the piano-playing Boogie-Woogie Queen to a primarily sultry R&B singer, the musical direction of Modern Records was also changing. Joe Bihari began making trips to the south to find new artists to record. By 1952 he bought the license to recording masters from Sam Phillips, head of Sun Studios in Memphis (at the time, Sun was strictly a recording facility; they licensed their recordings to record labels.) 

Joe soon had an assistant scout accompanying him on these trips, a 21-year old musician from Mississippi named Ike Turner. In 1953 Joe and Ike recorded a newly-signed little-known blues singer and guitarist named B. B. King for Modern’s new RPM label. The song was “Three O’Clock Blues,” and, as a #1 record, it was King’s first breakout hit making him Modern’s biggest recording star throughout the decade. The Biharis would continue to find and record such artists as Lowell Fulson and Jesse Belvin, who scored big with his signature hit, “Good Night My Love.” Tragically, Belvin died at the age of 27 in 1960 and is interred at Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights.

Hadda Brooks was one of the most prolific recording artists between 1945 – 1949. Modern Music eventually released about sixty of Hadda’s recordings, but she probably recorded over one hundred. Before a second nationwide recording strike hit on New Year’s Day in 1948, Jules Bihari required Hadda and a few other Modern artists to go into a studio to record a batch of songs every day during the last week of December 1947 so that they could release these during the recording ban. Since the strike lasted less than a year, most of these rushed recordings were never officially issued.

But Hadda’s newfound musical style ran counter to most of the kind of music the Biharis were recording by the early 1950s. By then, the brothers created several subsidiary labels like RPM, Flair, and later, Kent, to market music that favored an amplified blues sound or a more sax-driven R&B style (Joe Houston’s recording of “All Night Long” for Modern comes to mind); plus, many of the lyrics to the songs were definitely racier or more overtly sexual than the “supper club blues” that Hadda continued to sing with captivating potency.

Hadda on the left, with actress Dorothy Dandridge, at the far right, late 1940s. The woman in the center is singer and actress Maggie Hathaway. Later in life Hathaway became an avid golfer and a leading activist in Los Angeles. She campaigned vigorously against local golf courses that barred African Americans from playing. The Maggie Hathaway Golf Course on Western Ave. in Inglewood is named after her.  From the Walter L. Gordon Collection, Charles E. Young Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles.

In addition, unlike Hadda’s comfortable middle-class Boyle Heights upbringing, with her genteel-mannered parents and classical music training, many of the new emerging black recording artists had grown up experiencing blatant racism and grinding poverty. Their musical upbringing was grounded in the blues from an early age, so their sound was inclined to emphasize the rougher blues elements of the music. This was the kind music the Biharis (and the company’s budget) were focusing on for their future recording endeavors.

This photo appeared in the June 12, 1947 edition of the Los Angeles-based African-American-owned newspaper, the California Eagle, showing Hadda surrounded by some entertainment luminaries. The 8-year-old girl in the photo, Toni Harper, would become an acclaimed jazz singer, releasing recordings for the Verve label, but would permanently retire from show business at the age of 29. On the far left, Harpo Marx can hardly be recognized without his curly blond wig. Courtesy of the California Eagle newspaper archives.     

Disappointed by the lack of support, Hadda left the Modern Records Company in 1950. An article in the September 3, 1949 issue of Billboard reported that she sued Modern Records for back royalties, as well as unfair charges against her earnings for disc-pressing production. The Biharis countered by declaring all their business practices were within accepted industry standards and approved by the American Federation of Musicians. Modern’s in-house accountant also concluded all royalties and fees owed to Hadda had been paid. Nothing else about the lawsuit was published, so its outcome is unknown.  However, her actions would now make Hadda not only Modern Music’s first recording artist, but also their first artist to sue them. But as the Biharis continued to record and release music by many pioneering Black artists over the years, many of the songs were often credited to co-writers, “Jules Taub,” “Sam Ling,” and “Josea Taub.” These were all pseudonyms the Biharis employed to reduce royalties owed to songwriters and publishers.

Billboard Magazine reported on September 3,1949 Hadda Brooks sued the Modern Music Co. for unpaid royalties.

In 1994, Hadda told the interviewer for the Central Avenue Oral History Project that she never signed a contract, or received formal royalty payments for her compositions – though the label gave her sole credit. She was given a weekly cash “allowance,” that was not always forthcoming on a regular basis and, at times, she had to directly initiate a request for money from the company’s finance manager. However, Hadda did describe the Biharis as generous, and she always had money to pay for her expenses. Presumably, this financial arraignment immediately stopped when she left the label, even though Modern Records periodically released recordings from her back catalog, without paying her royalties, long after she left.

The fourth and final post on the remarkable life and career of Hadda Brooks follows her journey from leaving Modern Records, including a stint on early local television, her move to and work in Australia, and her later years, which brought some belated recognition for her many talents.  Check back for the conclusion to Rudy’s excellent post.

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