Hadda Brooks, 86; Pianist Known as ‘Queen of the Boogie’ and a Popular Torch Singer

Times Staff Writer

Hadda Brooks, who first rose to fame on the piano in the mid-1940s as “Queen of the Boogie” and became a popular torch singer with hits such as “That’s My Desire,” has died. She was 86.

Brooks, who underwent a career renaissance a decade ago and drew enthusiastic crowds with her repertoire of ballads and boogies, died Thursday at White Memorial Hospital in Los Angeles. She underwent open-heart surgery a few weeks ago, said Russ Paul, her manager.

Brooks’ first single, the hit “Swingin’ The Boogie” in 1945, launched not only her career, but also Los Angeles-based Modern Records, which became the West Coast’s premier post-war R&B; label.


As a singer in the late 1940s and ‘50s, Brooks scored hits such as “Trust in Me,” “Don’t Take Your Love From Me” and “Dream.” She also sang in several films and, in the early ‘50s, became the first African American entertainer to host a television variety show, on Channel 13 in Los Angeles.

“She was a beautiful woman and had a really sexy bedroom kind of voice,” said Austin Young, a filmmaker who is completing a documentary on Brooks.

Her last engagement was in September at Michael’s Room, a club in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles.

“She played three or four weekends in a row,” Young said. “It was packed every night she played, and the crowd would go wild. This was a woman who knew how to work the crowd.”

She was born Hadda Hopgood in Boyle Heights in 1916. At age 4, she begged her parents -- her mother was a doctor, her father a deputy sheriff -- for piano lessons. She later studied classical music.

In 1941, she married Earl “Shug” Morrison, who played for the Harlem Globetrotters. But Morrison died of pneumonia within a year, and Brooks never remarried.


She worked as a rehearsal piano player in tap-dance coach Willie Covan’s studio, where the clients included Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell. Although Brooks often frequented the blues clubs on Central Avenue, she had no show business aspirations.

That changed in 1945, when a jukebox repairman named Jules Bihari heard her rehearsing in a downtown music store for a children’s dance troupe.

“I was trying to get a whole bunch of different rhythms from ‘The Poet and Peasant’ overture,” Brooks recalled in a 1993 interview with The Times. “I got the waltz and rumba, and I was trying to get the boogie down.

“There was a man standing near me while I was playing, and he asked me if I could do a boogie. I said, ‘Well, I’m trying.’ And he said, ‘I’ll give you a week. If you can work up a boogie, I’ll record it. I have $800, and if it goes, then we’re in business. If it doesn’t go, I’ve lost $800.’ ”

Bihari, who gave Brooks her stage name, parlayed his $800 investment into Modern Records, which went on to record other artists such as B.B. King and Etta James.

In 1947, Brooks was appearing with the Charlie Barnet Orchestra at the Million Dollar Theater in downtown Los Angeles when Barnet asked what she’d do if she got an encore. When she answered “another boogie,” Barnet said, “Why don’t you sing and break the monotony?”

At the next show, Brooks sang “You Won’t Let Me Go,” which became her first vocal recording. She recorded for 12 years, with Modern, London Records and Columbia’s Okeh label.

Late in 1947, on Benny Goodman’s recommendation, Brooks appeared in a nightclub scene in the Virginia Mayo comedy “Out of the Blue.” (The title song became a top 10 hit for Brooks.) She also sang in “The Bad and the Beautiful” and “In a Lonely Place.”

Brooks had made several appearances on a local TV show when the producer called in 1951 and asked if she’d like to do her own weekly show. Like most local TV programs at the time, “The Hadda Brooks Show” was not big on production values.

“They sat me at the grand piano and opened up the top,” Brooks said in the 1993 Times interview. “They had this great big ceramic ashtray -- because I was smoking at the time -- and they opened the show with a close-up on a cigarette in the ashtray, and then came in on my face.

“They pointed to me, and I sang maybe eight bars of ‘That’s My Desire.’ From that point, I was on my own. That was the whole format.”

In the ensuing years, Brooks lived and worked in Europe, Australia and Hawaii. Finding it increasingly difficult to compete with rock ‘n’ roll, she retired in 1971 and moved back to Los Angeles.

In 1987, she came out of retirement when offered a job opening a new club in L.A.’s landmark Perino’s restaurant. Rave reviews brought other jobs, including a four-week engagement at Michael’s Pub in New York City, which prompted a New York Times critic to call her “a phenomenon.”

In 1993, the Smithsonian-based Rhythm and Blues Foundation presented her with its Pioneer Award at the Hollywood Palace. A year later, Virgin Records, which had bought the old Modern Records catalog, issued a 25-track compilation of Brooks’ early recordings on a CD titled “That’s My Desire.”

In 1995, she was back in the recording studio for the first time in decades, recording “Time Was When,” a CD for Pointblank/Virgin Records. In 1999, the label released “I’ve Got News for You,” a 50-year double-CD retrospective, which included eight new tracks.

She is survived by a sister, Kathryn Carter of Rowland Heights. A private memorial service will be held.