Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Brooks, Hadda (Hapgood)

Pianist and singer Hadda Brooks was an approximate contemporary of Julia Lee and Nellie Lutcher, yet, unlike them, her music seems less directly inspired by Thomas 'Fats' Waller than by Nat 'King' Cole or, more directly, singer Charles Brown.

She was an extremely popular artist on Los Angeles’s Central Avenue from the mid-‘40s through the mid-‘50s, and, as “Queen Of The Boogies,” she helped put the Modern Records label on the map. After a long hiatus, she staged her own resurgence in the ‘80s and ‘90s and became one of the great jazz comeback stories.

Brooks could be described as a "chick chum of Charles," rather than a "femme follower of Fats," like Lutcher and Lee, but she also sounds like a relative of more traditional blues singers like Lil Green and Memphis Minnie. Note that we’re talking the “real” country blues here, not the “classic,” or more cosmopolitan, blues of Bessie Smith and that Empress’s many subjects.

Where Minnie played guitar, Brooks played piano, and that immediately gave her a more urban, cosmopolitan image than the guitarists, who were associated with the traditional blues. In the ‘40s, a pianist was apparently more likely to attract a white audience than a guitarist. Times, as they say, have changed. But unlike Memphis Minnie, Lil Green, or even her primary influence, Charles Brown, Brooks sang at least as many standards as she did blues.

The sound of Brooks’s music seems somewhat incongruous in the context of her biography. The best I’ve read, incidentally, is the extensive annotation by Jim Dawson, which accompanies the Virgin CD That’s My Desire, a compilation of her singles for Modern Records; both the reissue and the notes are recommended.

Like Lee, Lutcher, and Rose Murphy, Brooks made most of her record dates in Los Angeles, but unlike those slightly older ladies, she actually was born and raised there. Born Hadda Hapgood on Oct. 29, 1916, she was a scion of what once was called, somewhat condescendingly, the black bourgeoisie. Her grandfather owned land, her father was a deputy sheriff, her mother was a doctor. How many black female doctors could there have been in California in 1916, the year that Hadda Hapgood was born?

Like Lutcher, she studied music with a very formal and proper lady professor, an Italian named Mrs. Bruni. Brooks began playing piano not because she had eyes for a career in music, but simply because it was an acceptable course of study for refined young ladies. Unlike Lutcher and Lee, who were immersed in jazz and blues from an early age, Hapgood was only allowed to listen to concert music on her radio and phonograph. “I learned the classics,” she told Dawons, “that’s all. I’d play popular pieces like ‘Sophisticated Lady’ and ‘Body and Soul’ but then I’d hide the sheet music when Mrs. Bruni came by on Saturdays.”

Hapgood attended Northwestern University in Chicago and Chapman College in Los Angeles. After graduating, instead of doing something with her piano training, she married a prominent basketball player named Earl “Shug” Morrison, who played with the Broadway Clowns or The Harlem Globetrotters, or perhaps both.

Morrison and Hapgood were only married for a year before he tragically died of pneumonia. Not sure what to do next, she filled her days by working as an accompanist for dancers at the Willie Covan Dance Studio. Since her forte was classical piano, she had the bright - although not altogether original - idea to work up swing treatments of well-known concert pieces.

The story goes that while jamming on Von Suppe’s Poet and Peasant Overture, she happened to be overheard by one Jules Bihari, a young man of Jewish and Hungarian descent who was determined to make it in the music industry and was at that time in the jukebox business. He had money in his pocket and was trying to think of something novel that he could use to start a record company with, and thought that the idea of classically-inspired boogie woogie fit the bill.

Bihari's scheme might have seemed hare-brained, for in those days, boogie woogie was regarded as the bottom of the black music food chain – sort of like what commercial rap is today – looked down on by the “longhair” music community, and even by serious jazz pianists, like Art Tatum. When the young Oscar Peterson was once importuned to record a pair of boogie-woogies, he regarded it as beneath him; Fats Waller denounced boogie woogie as “two handfuls of nothing.”

Brooks launched Bihari’s label, Modern Records, with a sizable hit in the instrumental, “Swingin’ The Boogie,” recorded in April 1945, and followed it with a series of classical boogies: “Schubert’s Serenade In Boogie,” “Chopin’s Polonaise Boogie,” “Grieg's Concerto Boogie in A minor,” and like Charles Brown, she also recorded a two-sided treatment of the Richard Addinsell’s “Warsaw Concerto.”

She was thoroughly versed in the classical side of the equation, and only taught herself to play the boogie she needed for the gig by studying recordings by Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, and other masters of the form. By this time, in addition to launching Modern Records as a team, Brooks and Bihari were romantically linked as well; she later called him the love of her life, although she never married again.

A year and a half or so and many boogies into her recording career – by which time she was already known as the “Queen of the Boogie” - Brooks began singing, on the encouragement of star bandleader and saxophonist Charlie Barnet. As later she told her manager Alan Eichler, the two were sharing a bill at the Million Dollar Theater in Los Angeles.

She did her usual set of woogies-boogy, which went over well, and the crowd demanded an encore. Barnet suggested that rather than the “monotony of yet another boogie,” that she should try singing. “I can’t sing!” she protested; “Fake it!” the savvy saxophonist answered.

The Modern discography is a little bit muddled, to put it mildly, but Brooks’s first recorded vocals include Henry Nemo’s “Don’t Take Your Love From Me” and “That’s My Desire” by Helmy Kresa, a Hungarian songwriter best known as Irving Berlin’s assistant. She sang both of these with distinctly Charles Brown-like cadences.

Brooks apparently felt that to record boogie-woogies for money was one thing, but if she was going to sing, it was going to be the music she loved, what blues historians call “Supper Club ballads” but what most of us call The Great American Songbook. These songs were much nearer to her heart than either Grieg or the blues.

Virtually all the popular songs Brooks recorded on Modern were older tunes that she obviously had loved for years; among them were “Bewildered” and “Trust In Me,” two ‘30s songs revived and established as soul ballads by Billy Eckstine, “Say It With A Kiss,” which she’d learned from either Maxine Sullivan or Billie Holiday, and “It All Depends On You.”

Her commercial instincts were justified when “That’s My Desire,” backed with “Humoresque Boogie,” turned out to be her biggest hit. She had heard this 1931 song performed by Frankie Laine, who had recorded several vocals backed by Charles Brown, but she recorded her version and released it slightly ahead of Laine’s.

“I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” was another ‘30s song by Kresa’s longtime boss, Irving Berlin, that was successfully revived after the war. Brooks’s treatment is much slower, more intimate, and more contemplative – though not any less optimistic and winning – than the hard-swinging hit instrumental treatment by Les Brown and his Band of Renown.

Brooks's instrumental boogies, vocal blues and boogies, amounted to 75 to 80 sides for Modern between 1945 and 1950; in all, it’s an impressive body of work. While That’s My Desire is an excellent compendium of highlights, it’s hard to believe that there’s no complete set of her Modern recordings, which would obviously be a perfect project for Classics or Document Records.

There also were a couple of early blue ballads in the mix, which include Bill Broonzy’s “Keep Your Hand On Your Heart” and “When A Woman Cries,” as well as a sultry number called “Honey, Honey, Honey,” which is similar melodically to “Deed I Do.” According to Brooks, Bihari circulated the story that the lyrics to “Honey, Honey, Honey” were excessively suggestive as a ploy to increase sales.

Most of the love songs she recorded were already standards, although it’s hard to ascertain how old Johnny Mercer’s 1944 “Dream” was when she recorded it since the Modern sessions have not been accurately dated. She apparently liked “Don’t Take Your Love From Me” so much that she did at least two other songs by Nemo, “Tough On My Heart” and “Out Of The Blue.” She sings all of these in an affable, sharp-edged voice that proclaims her a cousin, at least, of both Dinah Washington and Carmen McRae.

The most interesting novelty on the That’s My Desire compilation is something called “Tootsie Timesie.” Brooks told Dawson that it was written by a young female fan who came to her house and presented it to her. She described it as a variant on “Straighten Up and Fly Right” and the bridges to both songs are clearly based on “I Got Rhythm.”

The homage to The King Cole Trio’s comedy songs is obvious, and the delicatessen-driven lyrics are similar to Cole’s “Solid Potato Salad.” However, the bass clef melody, the rhythmic accents, and, come to think of it, even the title sound exactly like the writing of Thelonious Monk. Go figure.

More than the other singer-pianists, Brooks had looks. When Hollywood offered her the opportunity to work in pictures, Brooks snatched and grabbed it. She appeared in a couple of short subjects, and then graduated to cameos in features: Out of the Blue (1947) with George Brent and Turhan Bey, The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) with Lana Turner and Kirk Douglas, and of course Spike The Wonder Mule. Her most prominent role in her most prominent film was In a Lonely Place (1950), in which she played a sang a beautiful, restrained chorus of Ray Noble’s “I Hadn’t Anyone Till You” while Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame look on with great interest. Next time it shows up on cable, set your TiVos to “sultry.”

By 1950, Brooks had helped make Modern Records a player in the newly-christened R&B market; The Bihari Brothers, Joe and Jules, eventually introduced B. B. King, Jesse Belvin, and both Elmore James and Etta James to the world among many others. But Brooks and Jules Bihari parted company that year, both personally and professionally. She was by now popular enough to be upgraded from a “race”-based independent label to the black music subsidiary of a major. After a few rare sides for London Records, she began a one-year relationship with OKeh, the black music division of Columbia.

The 16 sides Brooks cut for OKeh in 1952, which can all be found on the CD Jump Back Honey: The Complete Okeh Sessions are an interesting, mixed bag, the best known of which is the title track of the collection. This original composition by Brooks, while not a major hit for her, nonetheless became one of the signature works of the transition into rock and roll.

It was widely covered by all sorts of white singers and big bands, from Vaughn Monroe to Jimmy Dorsey - not to mention Ella Mae Morse and later by Rufus Thomas - and even the two ultra-Caucasian stars of TV’s Your Hit Parade, Snooky Lanson and Dorothy Collins. It’s one of those indescribably bouncy, nonsensical riffs that seemed prone to crossover in that era, rather like “Hambone,” “Tweedle-Dee-Dee,” and “Sh-Boom.”

The OKeh batch has a couple of oddities, like Edith Piaf’s Parisian piece “If You Love Me,” done as a mostly-spoken monologue, backed by a small orchestra conducted by future arranging star Don Costa, and a very straight reading of “I Went to Your Wedding,” Patty Page’s lamentably-lachrymose hit. Pertinently, all of the OKeh sides are vocals; the boogie instrumental series was finished before she could get around to “Bartok Boogie.”

On the plus side, there’s an improved remake of “Trust In Me,” as well as a number of sides that were equal parts blues and torch song, while Charles Singleton’s “All Night Long,” likewise splits the difference between the romantic and the erotic. In “I Don’t Mind” the message is that the singer almost enjoys suffering for her man, whereas in “You Let My Love Get Cold” she retaliates with a message more like, “make me suffer will you?” She amplifies the same idea in the fast and irreverent “Time Was When,” an upbeat answer to “Cry Me A River” and also a bluesier, more vitriolic counterpart to “Goody Goody” and “I Wanna Be Around.” These songs shows that revenge is a dish best served swinging.

The two most satisfying OKehs are a pair of standard ballads by Irving Berlin, two songs which I imagine Miss Brooks learned as a little girl, seated at the Steinway, while Mrs. Bruni was looking the other way. “Remember” is, as always - and, as “Always” - a lovely, touching song, which Brooks keeps from getting sentimental by doing slightly faster than you’d expect – and in 4/4 rather than waltz time.

“When I Leave The World Behind” is a total surprise; usually done as a grandiosely Jolson-esque last will and testament set to music, Brooks’s interpretation is admirably restrained and under-played – and right on the money. Overall, it’s one of the most subtle – and therefore most moving - treatments ever of a rarely-revived Berlin beauty.

The 16 songs for Okeh were essentially the end of Brooks's recording career. There were some LPs later released on Crown Records, a bargain label, but it’s hard to tell if any of these contain original material or are strictly reissues of the Modern 78s.

For the rest of the ‘50s, Brooks toured Europe and worked intermittently on television; according to one account, Brooks was the first Afro-American woman to host her own talk show, making her the Oprah of her day. For most of the ‘60s, she lived and worked in Australia, then, she told Dawson, “when I came home, I retired.”

Brooks kept out of sight for roughly 15 years, then came to the attention of Richard Lamparski, a journalist who made a career out of “rescuing” showbiz personalities who had been relegated to the far corners of obscurity. After Lamparski featured her in one of his Whatever Happened To… books, he put her in touch with Alan Eichler, a pop music buff and agent who made a specialty of resurrecting the careers of older female singers who had fallen through the cracks.

Eichler helped Brooks orchestrate a whole new career. Starting roughly in 1986, the year she turned 70, and continuing for roughly ten years, Brooks played major rooms all over the world, from the Fairmont in San Francisco to Michael’s Pub and The Oak Room at the Hotel Algonquin in New York. She became beloved by young fans of lounge music as well as those tipped by the swing-dance craze, and she was finally recognized as a pioneer of rhythm-and-blues.

Her career at this point was similar to that of the similarly neglected Little Jimmy Scott, in that she also briefly became the cause du jour of hip celebrities. Retro rockabilly star Deke Dickerson brought her in to do a duet with him on “You’re My Cadillac,”accompanied by his band, The Eccofonics, on his album More Million Sellers. Johnny Depp hired her to sing in The Viper Room, a club he owned on The Sunset Strip. Depp also hosted her 80th birthday at the club, with Jack Nicholson and Uma Thurman were in attendance. Sean Penn gave her a singing and acting cameo in his 1995 film, The Crossing Guard.

Miss Brooks had pretty much skipped over the entire LP era, and went straight from 78s in 1952 to a pair of newly-recorded CDs in 1994: Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere for DRG in 1994 and 1995's Time Was When on Virgin. Both of the later albums employ a King Cole-style rhythm section with guitarist Al Viola and bassist Eugene Wright, plus special guests trumpeter Jack Sheldon on the first and cellist Richard Dodd on the second.

On both albums, Brooks obviously sounds like a woman of her age, with a voice that has been around the block more than a few times, but one who has spent all those years perfecting the craft of delivering a lyric.

There are many remakes on the two albums, including a third recording of “Trust In Me” and an update of “Don’t You Think I Ought To Know?” The jewel on Time Was When is the title song, in a slightly slower and more poignant treatment than 40 plus years earlier, as it took all of the intervening years for her to fully realize exactly what time was and is.

When she sang this song live in a club and closed with the line, “But I can remember when there was a time,” nobody was about to doubt her.

Her reading of the Sinatra classic, “I’m A Fool To Want You,” shows that dark torch songs are truly her forte, while “How Do You Speak To An Angel” shows a knowledge of and mastery of obscure show tunes. However, upon hearing “Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl,” more familiarly rendered by both Bessie Smith and Nina Simone, you would have to conclude that her true color was the basic blues.

Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere benefits from the exuberant presence of trumpeter Jack Sheldon on “Man With the Horn” as well her lightly rocking “Ol’ Man River.” Sheldon also sings, with that scratchy voice we all know from Schoolhouse Rock cartoons, in a duet with Brooks on “All Of Me.” She makes Arthur Hamilton’s generally annoying “Rain Sometimes” sound good, and does a little.

She sings “Ol’ Man River” with the accoutrements of a jive treatment, including a contrapuntal riff and a fast tempo, but make no mistake, her treatment, of the Hammerstein-Kern anthem is highly emotional, punctuated by interjections of laughter, a very moving personal statement about the passage of time. “Don’t Go To Strangers,” from the same album, is even more of a highlight.

Hadda Brooks died on November 21, 2002, aged 86. I saw her many times in the ‘90s; usually, she was wonderful, and it’s nice to have the two later albums to back up that recollection. Once, near the end, she was obviously crocked: she did several songs more, and also she the same anecdote. It didn’t matter.

On the Anytime album, she does “Heart Of A Clown,” a ballad that she obviously learned from Nellie Lutcher, who recorded it twice. Lutcher’s rendition is more than a bit on the artsy and heavy side, it’s hardly one of the more scintillating items in her catalogue. But Brooks, on the other hand, puts into more of a dance tempo, and somehow makes it heavy by keeping it light.

Brooks enjoyed a much bigger comeback and late-in-life career than Cleo Brown, Julia Lee, Nellie Lutcher, or Rose Murphy, and in reprising this number from Lutcher’s songbook, Hadda Brooks was kind of picking up the check for the whole table.

Contributor: Will Friedwald