'Tales From The Woods' raises a glass and says farewell to rhythm’n’blues singer and boogie woogie pianist Hadda Brooks who died on November 21st 2002, aged 86 in Los Angeles, California. 

A few years back, while on a Stateside trip that included a trip to the city of Los Angeles in its itinerary, high on our list of priority must-dos was to catch the boogie woogie queen Hadda Brooks in action at a lounge where she had been performing for some considerable time, close to Hollywood Boulevard. On the evening I attended along with 'Tales From The Woods' Hall of Fame creator Ken Major and the late Lynne Peters it was a full house, standing room only. This certainly did not bother us we were not there to eat - you can eat anywhere, anytime but there are not going to be too many places or indeed opportunities to catch this grand lady who cut her first tracks way back in 1945. Small, petite, stylishly turned out in a black evening gown, sprightly, with an ever present mischievous grin upon her face, accompanying herself on piano with just a gent on acoustic bass, she sang and played her heart out, several times leaving her piano to wander the centre aisle to serenade the diners.  

During a break in her set we joined her table and she was more than happy to sit and chat, signing autographs for this group of esoteric music fans from England. It must be said that she indeed took a shine to me because, during her second set, she dedicated one of her most famous numbers to me, ‘Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl’, changing the lyrics around to “Keith is the sugar in my tea” while all the time looking me straight in the eye as she sang, much to the bemusement of her stand-up bass player. I even managed to read his lips as this tall, elegant man mouthed the words “Hadda, behave yourself, he is just a baby” (well it was quite dark in there and besides, compared to this octogenarian, I was). Naturally I loved the attention as many of you who know me will appreciate that I take to flattery like a duck to water.  

During the course of her sets, she pleased us with some boogie woogie and rhythm’n’blues tunes, much of course included her romantic after hours ballads which ran parallel throughout her long career. I was indeed saddened to receive the fax from Waxo Wilkinson back on November 4th last year relaying the news of Hadda’s passing - the memory of that wonderful evening will stay with me forever. 

Hadda Brooks was born Hadda Hopwood in Boyce Heights, Los Angeles on 29th October 1916. Her mother was a doctor, her father a deputy sheriff. Even at the age of four she had taken an interest in the piano in the family home and was already pestering her parents for professional piano lessons. By all accounts, the tiny Hadda was told she could have them once her hands were able to span an octave which led her, in the weeks ahead, to sit at the keyboard, stretching her hands until they could encompass eight keys.  

For two decades she played classical piano gaining several scholarships. Willie Covan, a tap dance tutor owned a studio and it was here that Hadda found work as a rehearsal pianist and soon found herself in the company of stars such as Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Shirley Temple. Come 1941 she married one of the Broadway Clowns, basketball star Earl ‘Shug’ Morrison. She was widowed a year later when he died suddenly of pneumonia. One day she was shopping for sheet music and trying out a piece in several different styles when she was overheard by a jukebox repairman, Jules Bihari, who asked if she could play a boogie, which she did willingly. Soon Bihari had invested $800 in a recording and, as a result, his label Modern Records was created to sell it. The recording in question, the boogie woogie instrumental ‘Swing The Boogie’, was released during 1945 under the name of Hadda Brooks.  

Despite possessing an alluring, sultry voice she did not consider herself a singer but during the final weeks of 1946, whilst performing with the Charlie Barnet Band, the audience demanded an encore. Hadda caved in to Barnet’s insistence to deliver a song and performed ‘You Won’t Let Me Go’ which had the punters on their feet. Bihari rushed her into the studio to record it and from then on all her subsequent recordings had a boogie on one side and a vocal on the other. ‘That’s My Desire’, ‘Trust In Me’, ‘Romance In The Dark’ all proved to be popular and extremely strong sellers in the R&B market. Around the same period Modern Records launched the careers of Etta James, John Lee Hooker, Charles Brown and many others as well as providing a first outlet for now legendary songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.  

Soon Hadda was appearing on television on a near regular basis as well as cameo appearances in movies ‘The Bad And The Beautiful’ and ‘Out Of The Blue’. She sang ‘I Hadn’t Anyone Till You’ to Humphrey Bogart in the Nicholas Ray directed ‘In A Lonely Place’. Eventually she left Modern Records believing the company was not making her the star she wanted or believed she could be. There followed a considerable amount of time spent label hopping before returning to Modern to cut more sides and an album ‘Femme Fatale’ which was released on the Crown label.  

As the sixties took hold, Hadda spent a number of years performing in Europe, making a home for a while in Rome before moving to Paris where she became a regular feature in the city’s jazz night spots along the Boulevard St Germain, then further years spent in both Australia and Hawaii before returning to Los Angeles in 1971 to retire. Come 1986 she was coaxed out of retirement for a series of engagements at Periono’s Restaurant in her native city where the reviews were ecstatic. In 1995 she was a huge success at Johnny Depp’s Viper Room on Sunset Strip which led to an appearance in the movie ‘The Crossing Guard’ starring Anjelica Huston and Jack Nicholson (who became a close friend) in which she sang ‘Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere’. This became the title of an album and she followed it up with another album, ‘Time Was When’ on Virgin. The late great Charles Brown left his hospital bed one last time to record a duet with her on ‘Stairway To The Stars’. Hadda was still performing several times a week right up to a short time prior to her death.

Keith Woods