Harvey O. Brooks was a black piano player and songwriter based in Los Angeles who recorded as far back as 1924 and started as an accompanist for Mamie Smith. Playing at the Quality Cafe, which was located at 12th and Central in L.A., Brooks led the Harvey Brooks Quality Four, with Paul Howard on tenor sax, Henry Allen on drums, Leon Herriford on alto sax, and Jessie Derrick at the vocal mike. They recorded for the Hollywood label in the 1920s.
Harvey later performed with Paul Howard's Quality Serenaders in the '20s and '30s, Kid Ory's band, and a group led by trumpeter Teddy Bruckner. He was the first African-American to compose the complete score for a major motion picture as well (1933). His composition, "A Little Bird Told Me," was recorded by Paula Watson (and Evelyn Knight and the Stardusters) in 1948 and became a huge hit with multiple recordings. He also wrote Betty Hall Jones' "Thrill Me", and "A Slick Chick (On The Mellow Side)" for Dinah Washington.
He remained an active musician through the '50s and '60s. At the time of his death, he was the leader of The Young Men of New Orleans jazz ensemble. In the photo below (Paul Howard's Quality Serenaders from 1930 with Lionel Hampton on drums), Harvey is at the keyboard on the left.
From Time Magazine-February 28, 1949:
Between numbers, in a Los Angeles cafe called Omar's Dome, a Negro pianist mused over his keyboard. A phrase had strayed into his mind, and he was trying to fit a melody to it. Suddenly, "it came to me just as straight as could be." Pianist Harvey O. Brooks hummed his tune all the way home, wrote it out in 20 minutes. Then he put it away in a drawer.
Harvey was in no hurry to hawk his song; in 20 years he had written "boxes full of songs." He knew the music business inside & out. In his teens he had played mood music on an organ in an Atlantic City movie house: "I followed the hero and the villain and really got a workout."
He played when "the big guys"—Eddie Cantor, Irving Berlin—used to come down on weekends to plug songs. In his "more salady" days, he had been the first Negro ever to compose the complete score for a major movie: Mae West's I'm No Angel (1933). Mae had made They Call Me Sister Honky-Tonk and I Want You, I Need You memorable to her fans, but they had never really been hits on their own.
A year and a half ago, Harvey had a hunch. Nine years after he had thought up his simple little tune in Omar's Dome, he took it around to Bandleader Woody Herman. Woody didn't like it, and says Harvey, "I'm glad. If Woody hadda played it with all his noise, everybody might have missed it." He took it around to Supreme Records, a small company that was looking for what Harvey calls some "catchy novelties." A sweet-singing minor songbird named Paula Watson recorded it. When the big record makers heard it, they could hardly wait to get it on wax. Last week, Harvey Brooks's A Little Bird Told Me was No. 1 on the hit parade.
Grinned bespectacled Harvey Brooks, who is still playing "a very quiet piano" in a neighborhood bar on the corner of Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard and Western Avenue: "Just like finding $100,000 . . . L'il Bird isn't nothin', but it got big."
Last Updated: 2/14/08
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