Wednesday, November 30, 2016

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.

Hadda Brooks, who was from Boyle Heights, signed to the new Los Angeles-based record label, Modern Records, and her "Swinging the Boogie" was a big regional hit.  The label quickly bestowed Hadda with the modest title, “Hadda Brooks – Queen of the Boogie.” 

An advertisement for Modern Music Distributing Company in 1945 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 Boggie.” 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 he eventually worked his way up to produce many of Hadda's Modern recordings; in 1961 he and music producer Phil Spector would form the Philles Records label.   

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. Using her versatility, Modern Music showcased some of her classical training 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 she would occasionally play on recording sessions by other label artists. For example, Hadda soloed on Texas bluesman Smokey Hogg's seminal blues hit, “(Good Morning) Little 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 Times: 
When 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 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 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. But, more significantly, the release had the distinction of very possibly making her the first black artist to release an album of 78s before the introduction of the long- playing (LP) format in 1948. 

Around the same time as her album release, Hadda was attending a Lionel Hampton show at the Million Dollar Theater 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 in a series of shows with Charlie Barnet and His Orchestra at the same venue, usually playing two obligatory boogie tunes per show. After a matinee show in late 1946, Barnet strongly suggested she sing a song. Hadda replied she wasn't confident about her singing ability, but would give it a try. She rushed over to a tiny rehearsal room the Biharis had down in Little Tokyo to work on a number. During that evening's performance she sang “You Won’t Let Me Go,” and 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, 1947.  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 hit and signature song, “That's My Desire.” A few months later, Mercury Records released white crooner Frankie Laine's version of the tune and it shot to number one in the broader pop market charts, making his rendition the more commonly-known today. Nevertheless, 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 a number of 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 (1946) (with Hadda singing the title song), The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) starring Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner, and In a Lonely Place (1948) with Humphrey Bogart.  She got the job in the latter when she was recommended for an audition by her friend Benny Goodman and beat-out Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald!  The cameos 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 newspaper, 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.      

As busy as Hadda was during the late Forties, she continued to maintain her connection to Boyle Heights. She volunteered as the club adviser for a Boyle Heights social and charitable group made up of black women from the area. Called The Social Heighters Club of Boyle Heights, it was formed in October 1947 according to the newspaper, The Sentinel.

Hadda with the famed singer and bandleader Cab Calloway, 1945.  From the Los Angeles Public Library Digital Photograph Collection.
As Hadda evolved from Boogie-Woogie Queen to a primarily sultry R&B singer, the focus of Modern Records also changed. 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 Years 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 then a year, most of these rushed recordings were never officially issued.

Hadda's newfound musical style ran counter to much 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 Kent to market music that favored an amplified blues sound or a more sax-driven R&B style (the 1953 Chuck Higgins tune, “Boyle Heights,” comes to mind), plus many of the lyrics to the songs were racier or more overtly sexual. 

Hadda on the left with actress Dorothy Dandridge, right, late 1940s.  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 with experiences of blatant racism and grinding poverty.  Their more robust sound was what the Biharis focused on and this just was not a natural fit for Hadda's music.

Disappointed by the lack of support, Hadda left the now newly-renamed 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. 

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 occasionally released recordings from her back catalog 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.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

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.

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 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 Harlem Globetrotters game 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 were married. The team occasionally attended parties at the home of renowned dance instructor Willie Covan, allowing Hadda to get well-acquainted with Covan and the Harlem Globetrotter's owner, Abe Saperstein. Sadly though, one year after they married, Earl Morrison contracted pneumonia and died suddenly. Hadda was devastated and 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, Hadda took a job playing the piano at the Covan’s dance studio located at 41st Street, across from Jefferson High School. Covan was also the tap dance instructor for MGM Studios and Hadda played 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 quite 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 principle reason for the quick rise of the Modern Music label. Along with the explosive growth of other Los Angeles-based independent labels like Aladdin, Imperial, Specialty, Swing Time, Dolphin's, Combo, and Dootone, this pioneering label would help make Los Angeles the center for the new emerging sounds of West Coast R&B and electric blues, which began the eventual desegregation of American popular music.

Hadda's role in these developments began by a chance meeting. One day she was at a downtown music store 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 then asked if she could play an entire boogie tune. She said she wasn't sure since it wasn't really 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 offered her $800 if she could work up an entire tune within a week so he 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, Pennsylvania natives and recent transplants to Los Angeles from Tulsa, Oklahoma, started their jukebox distributorship on San Pedro Street in Little Tokyo. They maintained a string of these devices along bustling Central Avenue in South Los Angeles, which was then a thriving black community. 

But the Biharis had trouble stocking their jukeboxes with the kind of records their customers preferred, which was mostly R&B and blues. There was also a low supply of recording to due to a shortage of shellac which was used to make discs. Then, because of the 1942 – 1944 nationwide recording boycott by the American Federation of Musicians, a number of major labels chose to discontinue their subsidiary labels, which often distributed smaller niche music like “hillbilly music” and “race music.” 

A pivotal moment occurred for the small independent record label scene in Los Angeles in 1944 when a local black army private, Cecil Grant, made a garage-recording of a self-penned ballad titled “I Wonder” for the Bronze Records label. The modest production was a huge hit across the country, primarily with black listeners, who practically overwhelmed the label's tiny pressing plant as it struggled to keep up with the demand. Inspired by this unexpected success, the Biharis decided the only way to deal with the lack of product for their marginally-profitable jukeboxes was to get into the record business themselves. That meant finding someone talented enough to record the kind of music they needed.

A week after meeting Jules Bahiri, Hadda brought him her finished tune, “Swinging the Boogie,” along with a slower song for the B-side, “Just a Little Blusie.” The songs were recorded a few days later, but before the brothers could begin pressing the first 78rpm discs, two crucial marketing ploys 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 1945, with one pressing machine in their Little Tokyo storefront, the Modern Music label was created around 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.

Friday, November 11, 2016

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.

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 an unknown who 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 Modern Music'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 mainstays Chess Records in Chicago, and Atlantic Records in New York, Modern Music 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, as well as setting several little-known but significant landmarks for African American entertainers. Surprisingly, though she played to audiences around the world, 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 their 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 in Tennessee in 1852.  Since Hadda's grandparents were born in the pre-Civil War era, they were very likely born into slavery.  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 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, where she was born in 1889) –  Hadda’s parents – to move out to California. They 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 passed away in 1957, burial records confirm he was buried with his mother. However, there was never a separate engraving done for her son, so only Hattie's name appears on the headstone. Her husband Samuel, who never remarried, died in 1944 and is buried alone just a few yards away from his wife and son.

The 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, on October 29, 1916. She had one sibling, a younger sister named Kathryn. According to the 1920 census, the Hopgood’s 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 ongoing expansion of Malabar Street Elementary School, which was 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 very 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. John Hopgood worked for many years for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department as an elevator operator at the Hall of Justice building in downtown Los Angeles. In his spare time, he enjoyed going to baseball games at the long-gone Wrigley Field Stadium in South Los Angeles, or listening with his father to Enrico Caruso and other opera singers on the family's standup Victrola on Sunday afternoons.

When four-year old Hadda expressed interest in playing the piano, her family purchased a baby grand and hired a teacher from nearby Lincoln Heights named Florence Bruni. Patient and soft-spoken, Bruni would be Hadda's instructor for the next twenty years. She focused her lessons primarily on classical music and even took Hadda occasionally to concerts at the Philharmonic Auditorium at 5th and Olive Streets (the building was demolished in 1985). Rarely playing anything but classical music, Hadda recalled that one day at home she began to play and sing the words to the torch song, “Body and Soul.” Her father was so incensed by the suggestive lyrics, he forbid her to ever sing such music in the house again. Hadda took lessons until 1940 from Bruni, who remained a Lincoln Heights resident until at least the late 1960s.

The Hapgood family listing at 3136 Malabar Street in Boyle Heights in the 1930 census.
Although Hadda attended Malabar Street Elementary and Belvedere Jr. High Schools, she decided not to go to near-by 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!