Humphrey, Bobbi 1950–
Bobbi Humphrey 1950–
Bobbi Humphrey had been in New York for only three days when she jammed with Duke Ellington. She had been in the city for only two weeks when she landed her first major recording contract with Blue Note Records. Since then her musical career has continued to flourish, and today she is one of the only successful female urban-pop flutists.
Barbara Ann Humphrey was born on April 25, 1950 in Marlin, TX and moved with her family to Dallas when she was two years old. The cousin of the former Duke Ellington trumpeter Eddie Preston, Humphrey graduated from Lincoln High School in Dallas in 1968 and began her college studies on a scholarship at Texas Southern University in the fall of that year. Homesick, she returned to Dallas and continued her education at Southern Methodist University, although she never received her undergraduate degree.
The sound of the flute attracted Humphrey when she was young girl. She still vividly recalled attending Peter and the Wolf, performed by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, when she was in first grade. Enraptured by the chase scene, she asked her teacher about the featured instrument. “That’s the flute,” she was told. To which Humphrey immediately replied, “I am going to play that one day.” It was years later before she pursued the flute, “but that was the defining moment in my mind.”
Humphrey actually began playing the flute in high school and matured rapidly on the instrument. She studied privately with Hubert Laws and then further pursued her music studies at college. While at Southern Methodist, the renowned jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie spotted Humphrey when he served as a judge in a school-wide talent competition. He encouraged her to pursue a career in New York City. At his urging, she sent a letter to the famed Apollo Theatre. She received a telegram shortly thereafter, saying, “AT have reserved a spot for you on Amateur Night.” With that, she left to make her way as a recording artist in New York.
Humphrey moved into a hotel for women and diligently began her job search, “methodically looking for a record
At a Glance…
Born Barbara Ann Humphrey, April 25, 1950, Marlin, TX; married Denis Niles; children: Ricci, Anthony. Education: Attended Texas Southern University, 1968–70, Southern Methodist University, 1970–71.
Career: Professional flutist. Recorded on Blue Note Records, Epic Records, CBS Records, Malaco Records, and Paradise Sounds Records. Formed Bobbi Humphrey Music Company, 1977 (publishing), Innovative Artist Management, 1977 (business), Paradise Sounds Records, 1994 (record label).
Awards: Best Flutist, Ebony Magazine readers’ music poll, 1975–77; Record World Magazine. Female Jazz Performer of the Year, 1975; Congressional Appointment to the Community Advisory Committee; Best Female Vocalist, Billboard, Record World, 1976, 1978; Best Female Vocalist, Cashbox; Key to New Orleans, 1977.
Addresses: Paradise Sounds Records, 1636 Third Avenue, Suite 229, New York, NY 10128; 800-MSFLUTE; www.bobbihumphrey.com.
deal as one would look for a job.” On her third day in New York, she played with Duke Ellington. Then, as she recounted to Bonnie Allen of Essence, several days later she saw a sign on Seventh Avenue which read “United Artists.” Recognizing the company only in conjunction with the movies but not with music, she went into their offices anyway and was directed to Blue Note Records by the elevator man. She dropped her tape off, and by the time she got home her phone was ringing. “It was Blue Note telling me to consider myself signed.” Not only was she the first female signed by Blue Note; she had been in New York for only two weeks.
During those first early months, Humphrey sat in not only with Ellington but also with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Cannonball Adderley, and Dizzy Gillespie, though her first official group involvement was with Herbie Mann in July of 1971. In addition, she appeared on television shows and was seen on the Today Show, Like It Is, and an unscheduled appearance with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. Later television appearances included the Ebony Music Awards Show in 1975, Positively Black (1976), Black News (1979), and Midday in 1983.
Initially, Humphrey was classified as a jazz artist. Unable to survive financially, however, Humphrey moved away from jazz and into the pop arena. Comfortable with the professional decisions that she has made, she does not resent the “pop artist” label. Humphrey actually describes herself as a “contemporary artist” who started in the idiom of jazz and her style as “African American classical music.” In her mind, her jazz beginnings were “only a fateful event because Blue Note [a recording company specializing in jazz] was the first label to sign me.” Regardless of the label, one of Humphrey’s primary concerns has always been “to create good music that is meaningful and enjoyable to my audiences.” As she told Allen, “I get satisfaction from playing and I have a certain talent for entertaining people. [At the same time,] I feel I should be compensated for that and compensated very well…[T]he reason I got into the business was to make money. The first rule of business is profit.”
The business of music has since become Humphrey’s forte. Standing only four feet, 11 inches tall, Humphrey nevertheless commands a presence wherever she is and has “never been hesitant about promoting Bobbi Humphrey.” As Allen described her, “[O]nce she’s in motion, she’s an absolute whirlwind, one who’s impossible to ignore—a nonstop talker and a woman who knows enough about the music business to make it work for her.” In order to take control of her own career, in 1977 she formed Innovative Artists Management to handle her own management and bookings and Bobbi Humphrey Music Company to publish her compositions as well as those of other instrumentalists. Confidently she declared, “I have always felt that I could handle it myself.” In 1990 Bobbi Humphrey Music Company signed a production agreement with Warner Brothers Records, under which she brings new artists to the label and produces new material for them. By October of 1998 she had sold three million albums through them.
In 1994 Humphrey branched out even further, organizing her own record label, Paradise Sounds Records, based in New York City. “I wanted to have my own record company,” she explained to Joy Cain of Essence “And I wanted to have creative control.” Being a record company owner thus affords Humphrey several luxuries. From an artistic standpoint, Humphrey no longer has to create under pressure. “Songs decide when they are ready to be born. They are more natural when they come to you rather than forced through outside deadline. But I am the record label, so I decide when they are ready.” Such independence also allows Humphrey to indulge her other passion, the beaches of Tobago. “If I want to go to Tobago today, I can go.” The freedom of this lifestyle has born fruit; four songs on her 1994 release, Passion Flute, were composed on the beach.
Owning a label also directly impacts Humphrey’s quality of life. “As an owner, I am able to decide when I go out on the road, “she told CBB. And thus she remains selective in her concert appearances. Not only are record sales more lucrative than ticket sales; they have continuous financial as well as entertainment value. “I can go in the studio, create a piece of art and commerce, and it can sell 24/7, even when I am asleep.” One always fares better, she believes, if one “creates something of worth, intellectually or creatively, and then capitalizes on it through worldwide distribution.”
While Humphrey is certainly an accomplished business woman, one must not let these successes overshadow her major impact: music. A singer as well as a composer, she has had remarkable staying power in the music limelight and on the music charts. In 1973 she was invited to the prestigious Montreux International Music Festival in Switzerland, where noted critic of the Los Angeles Times, Leonard Feather, proclaimed her “the surprise hit of the festival.” In 1976 and 1980 she was acclaimed “Best Female Instrumentalist” by both Billboard and Record World and “Best Female Vocalist” by Cashbox, a milestone for any instrumentalist. She has also produced jingles for corporations such as Halston and Anheuser Busch. She continues to tour internationally and is regarded as the “first lady of the flute” by critics and listeners alike.
In addition to all of her other activities, Humphrey is also considered a popular college lecturer. She speaks motivationally about the music industry, drawing from her experiences and her expertise. In order to inspire her audiences, she recounts how she grew from an artist to a record label owner. After all, she commented, “I came to New York in the summer of 1971 with my flute, $400, and a dream and almost 28 years later I am still performing all over the world.”
Humphrey’s focus, however, is not solely aimed at herself; rather, she gives generously of her talent and time. For instance, she has campaigned for a variety of political figures, has performed at senior citizens’ homes and fundraising concerts for the United Negro College Fund, and has spoken before the General Assembly of the United Nations about the Ethiopian famine of the 1980s. In 1996, celebrating 25 years in the music business, Humphrey even traveled to Ghana, performing in Accra and visiting sites notorious for their slave trade. As New York Mayor David N. Dinkens once described her, “Bobbi Humphrey’s dedication to artistic excellence is matched only by her social activism and concern for those in need.”
Despite all of the international recognition, Humphrey makes clear, however, that her first responsibility is to her husband, Denis Niles, and their children, Ricci and Anthony, both of whom are also involved in the recording industry. These priorities have never damaged her career potential. “I never have problems working,” she told Allen. “The advantage of being mainly an instrumental artist and playing the type of music that I’m playing is that you don’t have to have something currently on the charts.…I could work 52 weeks a year if I wanted to, but, being a family person, I pace it the way I want to.” She appears unaffected by the motherhood/career dichotomy. “When my kids were small, the only time I went on the road for a stretch was for an album.” She often worked weekends, taking her family with her to concerts whenever possible. Ultimately, she explained to Allen, “It’s just about enjoying what you’re doing. Because I don’t care how much money something is offering, it’s all about the quality of your life … If you’re really positive and work very hard, things do come the way you want them.”
Humphrey still brims with new project ideas. On the one hand, she would like to delve more deeply into composition. On the other, she has ideas for a variety of recordings, including a series featuring different music styles such as Bobbi Humphrey Plays Country, Bobbi Humphrey Plays Gospel, and Bobbi Humphrey Plays Christmas. In the meantime, she hopes that her latest work, which features two songs written by her daughter and is tentatively titled Champagne Flute, will be released in 1999.
Bobbi Humphrey’s passion for music and for being an artist continues to motivate her. “Being an artist is one of the greatest gifts because, as an artist, we can move from a conception to giving birth to an idea and going to the studio and putting it on record, then hearing it on the radio… Every day I can come up with a new idea for something. One of the greatest gifts of being an artist is sharing your gifts with the world of what you’re feeling inside.”
Bobbi Humphrey, Blue Note Records.
Flute In, Blue Note Records, 1971.
Dig This!, Blue Note Records, 1972.
Blacks & Blues, Blue Note Records, 1973.
Satin Doll, Blue Note Records, 1974.
Fancy Dancer, Blue Note Records, 1975.
Songs in the Key of Life (with Stevie Wonder), Blue Note Records, 1977.
Tailor Made, Epic Records, 1977.
Free Style, Epic Records, 1978.
The Good Life, Epic Records, 1979.
Bobbi Humphrey’s Best, Epic Records, 1980.
City Beat, Malaco Records.
No Longer I (with Tom Browne), Malaco Records.
Passion Flute, Paradise Sounds Records, 1994.
Black Enterprise, December 1995, pp. 74–77.
Ebony, December 1994, p. 52.
Essence, March 1983, pp. 66–68.
Ms. Magazine, July/August 1995, p. 84.
Humphrey, Bobbi. Interview with Lisa S. Weitzman, October 22, 1998.
Paradise Sounds Records press release.
Pyramid Entertainment press release.
—Lisa S. Weitzman
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