Often, as Hadda Brooks--the woman who practically invented the torch song--slumped over the keys at the Viper Room on Thursday and tickled the ivories with dazzling expertise, her voice hushed in a sultry whisper and eyes clenched in the rapture, many in the audience had to wonder: If this tiny, 79-year-old woman can still manage to fill a room with her sex appeal at this age, just imagine what she must have been like when she performed for Humphrey Bogart.
Brooks, who sat at the piano accompanied only by longtime Basie sideman "Senator" Eugene Wright, knows her limitations--and she doesn't have many. Often aging singers, a la James Brown, hide behind huge bands with younger members, hoping to shield the fact that their talents have dimmed.
Not so for our Ms. Brooks, making the first of a series of Thursday night Viper room appearances that continues through Aug. 29. As she sauntered her way through such songs as her deliberate, smoky versions of "Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere," "That's My Desire" and a raucous "I Feel So Good," she picked a format that would make the audience in the small room focus only on her voice and her playing, both of which were in tip-top shape.
With the naughty "Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl," she walked into the audience and filled the room with her punchy voice without the aid of a microphone then walked to the front and shimmied, bringing the fans to their feet.
In her equally earthy and mirthy opening set, singer Teresa Tudury referred to Brooks as "the Halley's comet of the blues," a figure who "shines brighter with each return."
Brooks' age might coincide with the interval between the comet's visits, but her sparkling eyes and come-hither voice reveal a soul and a talent that's much younger.
* Hadda Brooks plays each Thursday through Aug. 29 at the Viper Room, 8852 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 358-1880. 9 p.m. $10 cover.