Boogie Nights

From Old Hollywood to the Viper Room: pianist and "Queen of the Boogie" Hadda Brooks

Hadda Brooks has a favorite catch phrase: "I got news for you." Ask about the changes she's seen in the Boyle Heights neighborhood in Los Angeles where she grew up and she curtly replies, "I got news for you," then delineates the ethnic migrations she's observed since she was the precocious, piano-playing daughter of a sheriff and a doctor. Raised on classical music, headstrong Brooks refused to play Bach because, she's got news for you, "I don't like math. Bach is too mathematical." After attending college in the 1930s, she got a job playing piano for legendary tap teacher Willie Covan, whose studio attracted the likes of Shirley Temple ("She was a lazy girl"), Fred Astaire, and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. Who was the best dancer she ever accompanied? "I got news for you," Brooks confides with a huff. "After Willie Covan, nobody impressed me."

Brooks gives off the air of one who's seen plenty, and, as she nears her 80th birthday, fans are seeing plenty of her for the first time since the '50s. A gently swinging new album on Virgin/Pointblank, Time Was When, suggests that the fleet keyboard technique that once earned Brooks the title "Queen of the Boogie" remains sharp, while her elegant vocals, which served to launch the second phase of her performing career in 1946 as a sophisticated early R&B stylist, display a mature allure. Meanwhile, the recent film The Crossing Guard marked her return to the screen for the first time in 4 1/2 decades.

But if you think rubbing shoulders with the film's director and star -- Sean Penn and Jack Nicholson, respectively -- turned her head in the least, well, she's got news for you. When Nicholson sidled up next to her and disclosed that he admired her music, Brooks eyed him and blankly inquired: "Who are you?" She chuckles at the memory: "He thought I was kidding." Jack shouldn't take it too hard, though: When you've palled around with Humphrey Bogart, New Hollywood just doesn't boil your water.

Brooks, who made Bogie's acquaintance while filming a cameo for the 1950 melodrama In a Lonely Place, recalls the famed tough guy interceded when film mogul Harry Cohen tried to advise her on how to sing "I Hadn't Anyone But You" for the movie.

"I started the song," recollects Brooks, "and Mr. Cohen said, 'Can you sing it this way?' and I sang it just how he wanted. Then he still wasn't happy. He said, 'Can you sing it this way?' And then I did as much as I could like he wanted. Bogart could see that I was becoming irritated, and he turned to Mr. Cohen and said, 'Why don't you leave her alone? You can't make a Shirley Temple out of a Judy Garland.' "

Good luck trying to make Hadda behave like anyone but Hadda. Despite the fact that Los Angeles was where she recorded her classic sides for Modern Records (available in the Virgin/Flair anthology That's My Desire) and that she became the first African-American woman to host her own television show ("I'm inviting you into my living room," she'd say, then play a baby grand for 15 minutes as she chain-smoked Pall Malls), Brooks picked up and moved to Australia in the '60s because she was disgusted with the ill manners of the era's chattering scene-sters.

"I got fed up with the audiences, definitely," she fusses. "If you don't want to hear it, don't come in. If you do want to hear me, shut up."

Brooks seems to be having far fewer problems with today's crowds. In fact, she appeared at Johnny Depp's hipster hangout the Viper Room and found the encounter quite to her liking. "There are no tables or chairs in that room," she confides a bit incredulously. "I got news for you: The Viper Room books hard rock and metal. [Well, not exactly.] But the reception was tremendous."

Of her fresh-faced new fans, Brooks ventures: "After they come out of sheer curiosity, then they go out and tell people that they like what they heard. They're giving me a chance to prove that the music is likable. The music can be heard; the music can be hummed. You can listen to it if you want to. It's not the kind of songs where you can jump your inside out, and jump up and down and flip-flop and what not.

"They like what I do with the lyrics," she concludes. "I get up and I walk around the room and make you think that I'm singing to you. And I am."

Hadda Brooks plays Wed, April 17, at the Great American Music Hall in S.F.; call 885-0750.

 
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