The First Lady of Modern Music: Boyle Heights’ Hadda Brooks, Part 4

Introduction:  This concludes the four-part post on pianist/singer Hadda Brooks by Rudy Martinez, a member of the advisory board for the Boyle Heights Historical Society.  Rudy did a great deal of research and put together an interesting and informative history of a significant local musical figure.  We hope you’ve enjoyed reading this history of a remarkable woman, who was raised and lived for a long time in Boyle Heights. – Paul R. Spitzzeri

Having left Modern Records, the Los Angeles-based label she helped put on the musical map, Hadda Brooks accepted an offer in the fall of 1950, to host a local weekly 15-minute television show for 26 weeks. (15-minute long television shows were the norm in the early days of the medium) Beginning that fall (the earliest listing found in the Los Angeles Times is November 19, 1950), The Hadda Brooks Show aired live on Sunday nights from 9:15 pm – 9:30 pm on KLAC (now KCOP Channel 13).

Hadda would simply sing a few popular standards and chat between numbers during her time on the air. The show ran for its contractually obligated half a year, but the station might have rebroadcast some of the shows, as it continuously appeared in the L. A. Times television listings up to September 6, 1951. 

A multi-page article about the Hadda Brooks Show that aired locally in Los Angeles beginning in late 1950, appeared in the April 1951 issue of Ebony magazine. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library microfilm collection.

It should be noted here that Hazel Scott, an accomplished jazz singer, and pianist is commonly recognized as the first African American to host a television show. The Hazel Scott Show aired during the summer of 1950 on the east coast but was canceled after two months when her name appeared in the red-baiting pamphlet Red Channels, suggesting she was a Communist.  With its 1950 west-coast only airing a few months later, and television a very new medium, the almost one-year-running Hadda Brooks Show would become the longest-running television show hosted by an African American until 1956 when NBC debuted the nationally televised Nat King Cole Show.

This photo appeared in the local African American newspaper, the California Eagle on December 21, 1950. The time and length of the show is incorrect, as it aired, according to the Los Angeles Times TV listing, from 9:15pm to 9:30pm.

The April 1951 issue of Ebony magazine published an informative article on Hadda’s show, and reported it was re-broadcast in San Francisco as a half-hour show. Unfortunately, no kinescopes or tapes of The Hadda Brooks Show are known to have survived, and beyond the singular claim in the Ebony article, no listings or other references for her show in the San Francisco area can be found.

Hadda Brooks with a group including singer Frank Sinatra, far right, and actor Red Skelton, far left. Standing between Hadda Brooks and Frank Sinatra is Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates, who, despite losing a leg in a childhood accident at age 12, became an accomplished tap dancer. From the Walter L. Gordon Collection, Charles E. Young Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles.

Regarding her recording career, Hadda attempted a last shot at the R&B market in early 1952, when she signed with Columbia’s Okeh Records (Okeh was formed in the 1920s as a “race” label marketed towards Blacks).  Her first work under the contract was to record an interesting set of songs, such as a version of Johnny Ace’s “My Song”and a rollicking, call-and-response number she wrote called “Jump Back Honey,” which ended up being covered by a number of other artists, most notably by rock n’ roll pioneer Gene Vincent and his Blue Caps in 1956. But with the recordings again failing to make an impact on the charts, Hadda soon left the label.

She then joined the Harlem Globetrotters for their first European tour in 1952 as part of their half-time entertainment program, allowing Hadda to perform in front of large and appreciative crowds all across Europe. Among her fondest memories was performing to thousands in a bullring in Spain and having an audience with Pope Pius XII at the Vatican. With the tour over, Hadda was back in the United States by 1953.

She continued performing on her own in different venues around the country, including a return to the Apollo Theater in 1953. By this time, Hadda had pretty much stopped swinging, rocking, or ridin’ the boogie. Making a final course correction toward jazz and pop, she started specializing in torch songs and romantic standards, increasingly singing to white audiences as she performed mostly in supper clubs and cabarets.

A newspaper advertisement for the famed Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York, for the week of October 30 through November 6, 1953.  Hadda had second billing below the great jazz tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons.  From

Surprisingly, she teamed up again with the Biharis in 1956 to record two albums for their new budget-priced Crown label. (Budget usually meant an LP with 10 instead of the standard 12 songs, a thin cardboard album cover with no inner sleeve, no liner notes, and inferior vinyl disc quality.) One release was titled, Pete Johnson and Hadda Brooks Swings the Boogie (1956), a collaboration with the legendary boogie pianist. The other release was the torch-heavy Femme Fatale (1957). Although it’s now regarded as one of her finest recordings, it sold poorly due to little promotion. Although the Biharis always ran a budget-conscious operation, their sole mandate from this point on was how cheap can they make and sell record albums. (Around that time, they released the very first recording by young Canadian singer Paul Anka on their short-lived Riviera imprint.) In 1956, Hadda left Modern Music for good. On Christmas Day, she married newspaper columnist Dan Brown in Las Vegas before starting a short stint at the Dunes Hotel, but she and Brown divorced before the end of 1957. 

The continuous lack of support for Hadda by the Biharis was reflected in a music column in the city’s African American newspaper, the Los Angeles Sentinel,on June 6, 1957: 

Hadda has been one of those real good singers who never got that big break. One thing she’s lacked is that “push” we’ve talked so often from record companies. I only came across this album thanks to her hard working hubby, ex-newsman, Don Brown.

 The Sentinel columnist gave Femme Fatale a “Superior Rating.”

In 1957, Hadda’s father, John Hopgood passed away and was interred in the same burial plot with his mother, Hattie Hopgood at Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights. At the time, Hadda’s mother Goldie, her sister Kathryn, and her own family still lived at the family property in Boyle Heights. 

Hadda Brooks sang at Hawaii’s official statehood ceremony in 1959. From the Austin Young and Barry Pett Collection.

Playing to smaller audiences by the late 1950s, Hadda began to spend more time away from Los Angeles. She spent a good part of 1958 touring Europe, and, by 1959, was residing in Hawaii, even performing at its historic 1959 induction ceremony as the 50th state. But, during most of the 1960s, Hadda lived primarily in Australia. She was immediately popular with audiences “down under”, as the Los Angeles Sentinel reported on November 10, 1960.  The paper noted that Hadda was already settled in as the nightly house attraction at the 700-seat nightclub, The Embers, in Melbourne, as well hosting a television show called, In Melbourne Tonight, doing five shows per week for GTV-Channel 9. She continued, however, to make occasional trips back to Los Angeles to visit her family in Boyle Heights and perform at various events such as a local jazz & blues fest in 1965, where she shared the bill with a young Billy Preston. By 1969, Hadda was back living and performing in California.

This stunning photo of Hadda appeared in the September 29, 1960 issue of The Age, a newspaper in Melbourne, Australia as promotional material for her GTV-9 television show and one of the many appearances at The Embers nightclub, one of Melbourne’s signature nightclubs that also featured visiting performers Ella Fitzgerald, and Oscar Peterson.

In 1971 she teamed up with a small start-up indie label called Rob Ray Records and recorded their first, and only album, titled, “Hadda,” produced by Frank Sinatra’s long-time guitarist, Al Viola. The label folded soon after the album was completed, so it was not widely distributed and has never been reissued, making it a hard-to-find LP today. But it had not gone entirely unnoticed that Hadda was still singing in top form. In a review in the Los Angeles Times on December 3, 1971, the late Leonard Feather, one of the country’s most esteemed writers on jazz music, covered Hadda’s performance at the Purple Lion in Beverly Hills: 

Despite the lack of a rhythm section and propinquity of talkative diners, she was able to weave some sort of a spell with her deep, resonant tones, jazz-rooted phrasing and intelligent choice of ballads. Hadda Brooks is an attractive link to a half-remembered phase in intimate cabaret singing.

Growing increasingly frustrated by a new generation of mostly noisy and inattentive patrons, Hadda stopped performing in 1972 and quietly retired to her Boyle Heights home. By this time, Boyle Heights was no longer as ethnically and racially diverse as when she was an adolescent, as it now had become a predominately Mexican American neighborhood. But as Hadda, one of the few African Americans remaining in Boyle Heights, commented in the 1980s, “it’s still Boyle Heights to me.” 

According to a 1977 Eastside Sun article, “famed jazz singer” Hadda Brooks was part of the entertainment program for the dedication ceremonies for the new swimming pool at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights.

In 1987, the Los Angeles City Directory listed her as residing at 3018 Boulder Street, located about a block-and-a-half southwest of the Malabar Street home of her childhood. The Boulder Street home may have also been owned by her family, as well. Though Hadda never had children, she enjoyed the company of her extended family. For example, the August 10, 1972 edition of the Sentinel published a brief article about an 83rd birthday celebration for Goldie Hopgood, Hadda’s mother, at the Malabar Street home of Hadda’s sister Kathryn.  

The Los Angeles Sentinel, August 10, 1972

Well into her retirement and living quietly in Boyle Heights, Hadda received a phone call one day in 1987 from a talent agent named Alan Eichler. Eichler had recently started to track down and even coax back on stage new clients consisting of “long-forgotten” or retired nightclub chanteuses like Ruth Brown and Anita O’ Day. Timing again favored Hadda, as Los Angeles was just then beginning to experience the resurgence of a cabaret scene among a new generation of patrons. Her first gig in sixteen years, at Perino’s Restaurant in the mid-Wilshire area, garnered her a rave review in the April 23, 1987 L. A. Times. After that date, Hadda was now “un-retired” as her well-managed career renaissance would keep her busy for many years.

Cover for a 1987-issued LP titled, Hadda Brooks – Romancing in the Dark, featuring original recordings of many of her popular hits. The album was released by a Swedish record label called, Jukebox Lil. The cover photo is a still from the film In a Lonely Place (1950), starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame is next to Bogart.

Eventually, Hadda would become a Hollywood-area mainstay, performing for young new fans of cabaret entertainment at venues like the Cinegrill Supper Club at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, the Vine Street Bar & Grill, the Bel-Air Hotel, and the Viper Room. Hadda even occasionally performed at the Rose Tattoo at 665 N. Robertson Blvd. just off Santa Monica Blvd. in West Hollywood. This venue was literally across the street (686 Robertson Blvd.) where the Modern Music Co. relocated it’s offices and disc pressing operations after they left their Little Tokyo storefront in 1946.

It was only a matter of time before new music, films and awards would follow. In February 1993, Hadda was honored at a star-studded Hollywood ceremony with the Pioneer Award, accompanied by a $15,000 grant, by the Washington, D.C.-based Rhythm and Blues Foundation.  The foundation was formed in 1987 as a non-profit artist assistance organization for many pioneering black artists from the early days of R&B music who never received royalties for the songs they composed and were experiencing financial hardships late in life.  One notable example was B.B. King, who went unpaid for some of the material he wrote and recorded for Modern Records. Presenting Hadda the award, singer Bonnie Raitt called her “an American treasure.” 

Another career highlight for Hadda came in August 1994 when she participated in a performance and discussion event at the Los Angeles Central Library’s Mark Taper Auditorium with noted blues and R&B singer, Linda Hopkins. Writing about Hadda’s portion of the show, the Sentinel reported, “the crowd was ecstatic and gave her repeated standing ovations.” That same year, Hadda went into a Hollywood recording studio and recorded a new CD of standards and old favorites for the DRG label titled, Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere. She supported by a trio of some of Jazz music’s most talented musicians, “Senator” Eugene Wright on bass, Jack Sheldon on trumpet, and guitarist Al Viola, with her manager Alan Eichler producing.

In 1995, a half-century after she released her first record, Hadda released another CD of new recordings for the Virgin label titled, Time Was When.  This was followed later that year by the contribution of an original tune she wrote, “L. A. Christmas Blues” to a holiday anthology CD, Even Santa Gets the Blues. The next year Virgin released That’s My Desire, a 25-track CD retrospective of her recordings for Modern during the 1940s and 1950s.

In 1996 Hadda celebrated her 80th birthday at Johnny Depp’s Viper Room on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, performing two full shows. Moreover, she was not entirely done with films. In 1995 came the release of the Sean Penn-directed film, The Crossing Guard, starring Jack Nicholson and featured Hadda in a brief cameo as (no surprise here) a singing piano player in a cafe. In the next few years she appeared in small roles in two more movies, The Thirteenth Floor (1999), and John John in the Sky (2001). Hadda was also the subject of the documentary Hadda Brooks: Queen of the Boogie, made by filmmakers Austin Young and Barry Pett. The film was screened locally at the 2007 Silver Lake Film Festival, but, as far as can be determined, it has yet to be commercially released or made available on DVD.  

In 1996, feeling her old neighborhood was less safe and perhaps not the best place for an 80-year-old who continued to play late-night gigs, Hadda left Boyle Heights and moved to a large assisted-living apartment in Hollywood on Franklin Avenue (a friend and neighbor was singer Anita O’ Day). In the meantime, with help from her manager, she still performed locally at some of the city’s trendiest nightclubs.  She also gave frequent magazine and television interviews and was an honoree at the L. A. Pride parade in West Hollywood. Locally, Los Angeles Magazine proclaimed that Hadda had “once again cast her spell on Los Angeles.”  She also transfixed New York City, earning a rave review in the July 2001 Village Voice for an appearance at the noted jazz venue, Joe’s Pub.

Hadda on the far right at the 1987 Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Awards, of which she was a recipient.  Presenter and singer Bonnie Raitt is to Hadda’s left and musician Billy Vera is between them in the back.  From Vera’s Facebook page.

Meanwhile, the Modern Music Co., and whatever label subsidiaries they operated went bankrupt in the mid-1960s, which by then they were mostly selling imitation knockoffs of the latest music craze. After bankruptcy, the Biharis created the budget-line Kent label to simply recycle much of their old RPM/Crown/Flair blues and R & B catalog as cheaply as possible. By the early 1970’s Kent was no more and the family was now releasing assorted knock-offs by anonymous singers, string muzak, and generic jazz on their Custom label. The whole company went quietly out of business around the late 70s. The last known address of operations was for their Custom label record pressing plant located at 5810 S. Normandie in South Los Angeles. But by that time, the Biharis, through their Modern Music Co. and all its subsidiary labels, had amassed one of the largest and most important music catalogs of any label in the post-war era, which included a considerable amount of R&B, blues, doo-wop, soul, jazz, and even some early rockabilly classics. In 2006, all three of the Bihari brothers were inducted into the Memphis-based Blues Hall of Fame.

In 1995, Ace Records, a British label specializing in reissues, purchased the catalog of Modern Music and all of its subsidiary labels.  Ace even managed to find some of Hadda’s music that was thought to be lost decades ago, such as her heartbreaking rendition of “Why Did You Say We’re Through”, which was found on an old Smokey Hogg acetate.

As well as reissuing much of the Modern Music archives in handsome packaging, which often included generous photos and informative essays on the artists, Ace’s arrangements made it possible to pay artist royalties. By the late Nineties, Hadda Brooks, the first lady of Modern Music, finally began to receive regular royalty payments for the music she recorded. 

Los Angeles Magazine profiled the resurgent popularity of Hadda Brooks among a new generation of fans for the magazine’s December 1998 issue. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Library online collection.

Two of the last performances Hadda gave was at Michael’s Room on Vermont (next door to the Dresden Room) in the Los Feliz area in May 2002, and in June she performed with noted blues and gospel singer, Linda Hopkins at the MOCA Musem at 343 N. Central Ave. in Little Tokyo, the area where she and the Modern Music Co. started their historic partnership 57 years earlier. Two months later, on November 21, 2002, Hadda passed away at the age 86 after undergoing open-heart surgery at White Memorial Hospital in Boyle Heights. The hospital is only two miles from the home where she was born and lived for a large part of her life.

Hadda had no children and was survived by her younger sister, Kathryn Carter of Rowland Heights, as well as several of her own children. According to local news reports, Hadda was cremated and her ashes scattered, with memorial services held for her at the Angeles Funeral Home at 3875 S. Crenshaw Blvd. on December 7, 2002. (This same mortuary also held services for Hadda’s former employer and friend, dancer Willie Covan, in 1989).

But Hadda lives on. With CD reissues and music, film, and video streaming platforms, Hadda’s music continues to win new fans, making her musical legacy today stronger than ever.

To see a young Hadda on film, the link below is to a 10-minute 1948 film short called Boogie Woogie Blues, which was uploaded from the Hamon Arts Library of the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University.  Enjoy!

Below is a link to the Internet Archives website which has a generous collection of Hadda Brooks audio files, many taken from the original 78rpm recordings! These recordings include not only vocal performances, but many of her instrumental “boogie” tunes, as well as a few of Hadda performing classical pieces, which were sometimes the B-sides of her boogie-woogie recordings. 

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