Staid old Perino's, a virtual shrine to laid-back tradition, took a giant step toward a change of image Tuesday night when singer/pianist Hadda Brooks opened in the restaurant's casually styled Oak Room Bar.
A staple of Los Angeles nightlife in the '40s and '50s, Brooks was the star of one of the Southland's first television variety shows (in 1951), produced a number of boogie woogie hit recordings, and made film appearances with Humphrey Bogart and Lana Turner.
Her performance Tuesday was her first in the area in 16 years, but she revealed no signs of rust in either her singing or her piano playing.
A smoothly lyrical "Foggy Day" led to a rocking "You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You," followed by a bawdy "Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere" and a highly dramatic version of "My Romance." She was improvisational on "Sometimes I'm Happy," grooving on "He's Funny That Way" and intense on her signature "This Is My Life."
Like another barroom performer, Bobby Short, Brooks kept her songs' lyric messages in clear focus. And she went one step beyond short by supporting her storytelling with crisp, jazz-based phrasing and an occasional Sarah Vaughan-like vocal variation. But Brooks refused to play the stereotype of the piano bar singer, locked behind a keyboard, taking requests from a distracted audience. On several tunes, she moved away from her instrument, out into the audience.
Keeping her rhythm cooking with a light finger snap here, and a shift of the hips there, she strolled breezily around the tables, gently persuading even the most talkative patrons to share the company of her music. Then, without missing a beat, she returned to her piano bench just in time to fill in an appropriate closing chord.
The combination of artist and room seemed precisely right. Brooks is booked into the Oak Room Bar for a continuing engagement, Tuesdays through Saturdays. Her vivacious, let's-have-fun-together performances should be just the kind of energetic spark Perino's has long needed.