Blues shouter, pop singer, ballad interpreter—in a career touching five decades, Helen Humes defied categorization. From her earliest recording as a tender teenager through stints with such jazz institutions as the Count Basie band, the Red Norvo Trio and Jazz at the Philharmonic, Humes displayed a virtuosity and consistency rare in any endeavor. She brought to her art a clear, sunny voice, impeccable time and a no-nonsense approach to lyrics and melody. Though often reasonably compared to legends such as Billie Holiday, Mildred Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald and Bessie Smith, Humes modestly rejected labels and preferred to think of herself as “just a singer.”
This singer often told of beginning her musical life as soon as she was able to reach the keyboard of the piano in her Louisville home. Her attorney father and teacher mother provided generous encouragement as Helen worked her way through aborted tries at the trumpet and clarinet, before settling upon the piano for serious study. Humes was equally generous in praising her major teacher, Miss Bessie Allen, under whose tutelage many fortunate Louisville youngsters got their start, including such jazz stalwarts as trombonist Dickie Wells and trumpeter/leader Jonah Jones.
With this group and others, frequently led by Miss Allen, Humes performed in a variety of settings in and around Louisville, including those at community center and church affairs, as well as dances and county fairs, often both singing and playing piano. During this period, she recorded in St. Louis at age 14; it is thought that guitarist J. C. Johnson was at this session. In his American Singers: 27 Portraits in Song, Whitney Balliett describes Humes’s early singing: “It was a kind of singing that we can barely imagine learning now. It preceded the microphone and demanded a strong voice, Ciceronian diction, and an outsize presence. The singer was alone onstage. It was also a kind of singing that relied on embellishment and improvisation, on an adroit use of dynamics, and on rhythmic inventiveness. The singer jazzed his songs.”
In 1935 Humes migrated to Buffalo, NY, where she worked with tenorman Al Sears’s band. This trip began as a vacation visit with Louisville friends, but ended in a two year stint in which Humes actually began her professional singing career, leaving behind her bank secretarial job in Louisville. In addition to the Spider Web Club and Vendome Hotel work with Sears, she did radio work in Schenectady, Albany and Troy, then returned home. She later re-joined Sears in Cincinnati in 1937 at the Cotton Club. It was here that Count Basie first heard Humes and offered her a singing job with his band. As Humes tells the story, Basie offered
Born June 23, 1913, in Louisville, KY; daughter of John Henry (lawyer) and Emma Johnson (a school teacher); married 1952-60; died September 13, 1981, in Santa Monica, CA.
Began playing piano and singing at five; formal vocal and piano lessons with Miss Bessie Allen’s Sunday School; c. 1927 made first recordings, probably with guitarist J. C. Johnson; radio and club work in Buffalo, NY, then Cincinnati, OH, 1928-37; recorded with Harry James band, 1938; with Count Basie band, 1938-41; worked mostly in California music scene, including club, recording dates with Red Norvo, short films, film sound tracks, television, stage plays, concerts, notably those with Jazz at the Philharmonic, and tours of Europe and Australia, 1944-67; returned to Louisville and was out of music, 1967-73; resumed career with Newport Jazz Festival appearance, 1973; worked and recorded with various groups until her death.
Awards: Hot Club of France Award for Best Album of 1973; Key to the City of Louisville, KY, 1975, 1977.
the same $35 per week she was already earning, plus road travel with a band that had not yet made its mark nationally. Eventually, she and Sears did end up in Harlem’s Renaissance Ballroom, on a night when jazz’s super scout and promoter, John Hammond, was in the audience. Largely through his encouragement, Humes finally did join Basie’s band, replacing Billie Holiday, but only after recording with the fledgling band of trumpeter Harry James in December, 1937, and January, 1938.
By now, the Basie band was deservedly being recognized as the swing powerhouse rememberedby all. Its lineup was stocked with jazz legends, including premier blues shouter Jimmy Rushing. Assigned mostly ballad vocals, Humes nevertheless acquired a reputation as a blues singer. After about three years of recording and traveling with Basie, she worked as a single in several New York clubs, including the Famous Door, the Three Deuces and the Cafe Society Downtown, and recorded in 1942 with the Pete Brown band. Beginning in 1944, Humes appeared in Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic tour, her first of many. During this period she also toured with pianist Connie Berry, finally settling in California for an extended residence, punctuated by various far-ranging tours.
In 1945 Humes recorded her signature hit record with Bill Doggett, “Ee-Baba-Leba,” a precursor to the rock and roll era that was to follow, and an albatross to her career for many years. Commercially she was expected to duplicate that popular performance; artistically she sought out songs that displayed her versatility and enlisted the sympathetic accompaniment of music masters such as vibraphonist/leader Red Norvo, with whom she played numerous clubs and successfully toured Australia. While on the west coast, she also took part in film shorts; recorded film sound tracks; appeared on television; acted and sang in stage productions; and participated in a wide range of concert and club appearances with various groups. Included in this era was a 1962 tour of England and Europe.
Though all this activity might seem to constitute a busy career, Humes experienced many down times. Her 1959 appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival sparked a revival of sorts, punctuated by three hallmark recordings with Contemporary beginning in that year and the subsequent 1962 trip to Europe. Dates at Shelley’s Manne Hole in Los Angeles, Honolulu clubs and Chicago’s Playboy Club provided filler, but not a full career, and Humes returned to Louisville in 1967. At this time she took care of her ailing mother; and later her father, until their deaths. For nearly two years she worked in a munitions factory and at other jobs; she claims she never sang a note until 1973—“never even hummed.”
At this point, jazz writer/promoter Stanley Dance convinced Humes to participate in the 1973 Newport tribute concert to Count Basie, causing her career once again to take off. Whisked off to France, she recorded two albums for Black & Blue and sang at European festivals, including the 1974 Montreux Festival, preserved on the British Black Lion label. Interspersed with these festival appearances were extended stays at New York’s Cookery, somewhat regular events beginning on New Year’s Eve of 1974 which drew rave reviews and enthusiastic crowds. A tour and recording with old friend pianist Connie Berry provided one extended, relaxed stint.
Throughout the remainder of the 1970s club dates and concerts in this country and abroad were punctuated by a variety of appearances on radio and television, as well as by notable recording dates. Among the latter are 1975’s Talk of the Town fo. John Hammond on Columbia, which featured pianist Ellis Larkins and guitarist George Benson, and 1980’s valedictory recording for Muse, “Helen,” featuring trumpeter Joe Wilder, bassist George Duvivier and old Basie compatriot, tenor man Buddy Tate. The latter, recorded only about a year before Humes’s death, shows her in top form—lusty, teasing, tender, humorous, musical—serving the songs and having fun with jazz and her fellow players.
Because she replaced Billie Holiday with Basie, comparisons are inevitable. The most persuasive likeness is the singers’ horn-like quality. Each possessed an innate ability to phrase and swing like a good trumpeter or saxophonist. Both stuck close to the melody, utilizing inflection and a great sense of rhythm and time, rather than wild improvisation, for variation and emphasis. Humes could toy with time, sometimes holding back, then catching up, but always in a seemingly unhurried manner. Humes employed dynamics much more than Holiday and could, indeed, shout or whisper as the mood of the song was served. Ella Fitzgerald and Mildred Bailey might also be compared with Humes, if only because of the general quality of their voices. Each produced a light, sunny sound, almost girlish. Humes’s voice deepened and darkened very little as she grew older, but she retained the ability to project that Bailey never demonstrated and that Fitzgerald showed only in a limited way. Of her style, Humes told Balliett: “I’ve always been myself. I didn’t model myself on anyone when I started out. Somebody’d tell me to listen to So-and-So’s record, but I’d only listen, if I listened at all, after I had learned the tune myself.”
Helen Humes leaves a legacy of joyous music-making, grounded in the blues, informed with musicality and intelligence, unrestricted by type or era. Some critics have heard these qualities passed on to newer singers such as Delia Reese, Aretha Franklin and even Janice Joplin. As critic Nat Hentoff has written: “And so it is that even present day hipsters… have suddenly discovered wondrous roots, farther back in time, on coming into a place like the Cookery and hearing Helen Humes. Hearing her summon[s] up the mighty spirit of those cabarets and dance halls where the good times rolled before there was rock and where the human voice was a force of nature.”
Helen Humes and the Muse All Stars; Muse LP, 1979.
Helen Humes: Helen; Muse LP, 1980.
Helen Humes: Let the Good Times Roll; Classic Jazz LP, 1973.
Helen Humes: Songs I Like to Sing; OJC CD, Contemporary LP, 1960.
Helen Humes: ‘Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do; OJC CD, Contemporary LP, 1959.
Helen Humes: The Talk of the Town; Columbia LP, 1975.
Balliett, Whitney, American Singers: 27 Portraits in Song, Oxford University Press, 1988.
Chilton, John, Who’s Who of Jazz, Time-Life, 1978.
Erlewine, Michael, et al, Eds., All Music Guide to Jazz, Miller Freeman Books, 1996.
Feather, Leonard, The New Edition of the Encyclopedia of Jazz, Bonanza Books, 1965.
Harris, Sheldon, Blues Who’s Who: A Biographical Dictionary of Blues Singers,
Da Capo, 1979.
Lyons, Len and Perlo, Don, Jazz Portraits: The Lives and Music of the Jazz Masters, William Morrow, 1989.
Rust, Brian, Jazz Records 1897-1942, 5th Revised and Enlarged Edition,
Storyville Publications, 1982.
New York Times, September 14, 1981.
Black Lion BLP 30167, On the Sunny Side of the Street, notes by Alun Morgan, 1974.
CJ 120 LP, Let the Good Times Roll, notes by Nat Hentoff, 1973.
Contemporary LP 7571, Helen Humes: Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do, notes by Nat Hentoff, 1960.
Columbia PC33488 LP, The Talk of the Town, notes by Michael Brooks, 1975.
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