Helen at Manassas, December 2, 1979. Accompanied by Dick Wellstood, Piano: Herb Gardner, Trombone: Steve Novasel , Bass, and Don DeMichael on Drums.
Helen Humes (June 23, 1913 – September 9, 1981) was an American jazz and blues singer.
Humes was successively a teenage blues singer, band vocalist with Count Basie, saucy R&B diva and a mature interpreter of the classy popular song. Along with other well-known jazz singers of the swing era Helen Humes helped to shape and define the sound of vocal swing music.
Born on June 23, 1913 in Louisville, Kentucky, to parents Emma Johnson and John Henry Humes. She grew up as an only child, her mother worked as a schoolteacher and her father was the first black attorney in town. In an interview, Humes recalled her parents singing to each other around the house, also both singing in the church choir.
Helen was introduced to music in the church, singing in the choir and getting piano and organ lessons at Sunday school. The Sunday school music lessons were given by Bessie Allen, who taught music to any child who wanted to learn. From Bessie's Sunday School music lessons, Helen began occasionally playing the piano in a small and locally traveling dance band called the Dandies. This constant involvement in music would lead Helen to her singing career in the mid-1920s.
Her career began with her first vocal performance at an amateur contest in 1926. She sang "When You're A Long, Long Way From Home" and "I'm in Love with You, That's Why" when her talents were noticed by a guitarist in the band. Sylvester Weaver who recorded for Okeh Records recommended her to talent scout and producer Tommy Rockwell. At the age of 14 Humes recorded an album in St. Louis, singing a number of blues songs. Two years later, a second recording session was held in New York, and this time she was accompanied by pianist J. C. Johnson. Despite this introduction to the music world, Humes would not make another record for another ten years. She would spend those years completing her high school degree, taking finance courses, working at a bank, as a waitress, and as a secretary for her father. She stayed home for a while, eventually leaving to visit friends in Buffalo, New York. While there, Helen was invited to sing a few songs at the Spider Web, a local cabaret in town. This brief performance turned into an audition, which turned in to a $35 a week job. She stayed in Buffalo singing with this small group led by Al Sears where they worked together for a good amount of time.
While Humes was home in Louisville (she said she always returned home at least twice a year) she got a call from Sears who was in Cincinnati. He wanted her to sing at Cincinnati's Cotton Club. The Cotton Club was an important venue in the development of the Cincinnati music scene. It was an integrated club that booked and promoted a lot of black entertainers.Humes moved to Cincinnati in 1936 and sang there with Sears' band again at the Cotton Club.
Count Basie first heard and approached Humes while she was performing at the Cotton Club. It was 1937 when he asked her to join his touring band to replace Billie Holiday. He told her that she would be paid $35 a week and she responded, "Oh shucks, I make that here and don't have to go no place!" Not long after this encounter, Humes moved in 1937 to New York City where John Hammond, an influential talent scout and producer of the 20th century, heard her singing with Sears' band at the Renaissance Club. Through Hammond, she became a recording vocalist with Harry James' big band. Her swing recordings with James included "Jubilee", "I Can Dream, Can't I?", Jimmy Dorsey's composition "It's The Dreamer In Me", and "Song of the Wanderer". In March 1938 Hammond was able to convince Humes to join Count Basie's Orchestra, where she would stay for four years.
The Count Basie Orchestra
In The Count Basie Orchestra, Humes gained acclaim as a singer of ballads and popular songs. While she was also a talented blues singer, Jimmy Rushing, another member of The Count Basie Orchestra at the time, held domain over the blues vocals. Her vocals with Basie's band included "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" and "Moonlight Serenade".
On December 24, 1939, Humes performed with the Count Basie Orchestra and James P. Johnson at John Hammond's second concert of From Spirituals to Swing. After this concert at Carnegie Hall, most of her time spent with the Basie Orchestra was spent on the road. In a 1973 oral history she described life on tour:
I used to pretend I was asleep on the Basie bus, so the boys wouldn't think I was hearing their rough talk. I'd sew buttons on and cook for them, too…in places where it was difficult to get anything to eat…down south. I wasn't interested in drinking and keeping late hours…but my kidneys couldn't stand the punishment of those long rides… then too I got tired of singing the same songs.
This would be the reason for Humes' leaving the group in 1942, as her health was in bad shape and the stress of being on tour was too much.
Café Society and solo career
While home again in Louisville in 1942, Humes was called by John Hammond and invited to sing at Café Society in New York. She performed frequently here accompanied by pianists Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum. During that year, she also performed at the Three Deuces, at the Famous Door with Benny Carter (February), at the Village Vanguard with Eddie Heywood, and on tour with the big band led by the trombonist Ernie Fields.
In 1944, Humes made the decision to move to Los Angeles, California. While in California, she spent a lot of time in the studio, producing solo work, as well as movie soundtracks. Some of the movie soundtracks she recorded were Panic in the Streets and My Blue Heaven. She also spent some time on the screen, performing in a musical film by Dizzy Gillespie entitled Jivin' in Be-Bop.In addition to this, Humes performed and toured with Jazz at the Philharmonic for five seasons. In 1945, she recorded her most popular songs, two jump blues tunes "Be-Baba-Leba" (Philo, 1945) and "Million Dollar Secret" (Modern, 1950). Despite this, her career stagnated. From the late 1940s to mid-1950s Humes made a few recordings, working with different bands and vocalists, including Nat King Cole, but she was not nearly as active as she had been. In 1950 Humes recorded Benny Carter's "Rock Me to Sleep". She managed to bridge the gap between big band jazz swing and rhythm and blues.
In 1956, Humes toured Australia with Red Norvo, vibraphonist. Their tour was very well received, and she returned again in 1962 and 1964. She made appearances at the Newport Jazz Festival (1959) and Monterey Jazz Festival (1960, 1962). Also in 1962, she toured Europe with the first American Folk Blues Festival.
She returned to the US in 1967 to take care of her ailing mother. At this point Humes viewed her singing career as a part of her past. She took a job at a local ammunition plant, sold her record player and her records and stopped singing. From 1967 to 1973, she was in retirement and would have remained that way had it not been for Stanley Dance. Dance convinced her to return in a performance at the Newport Jazz Festival (1973). The Newport Jazz Festival launched her on a whole new career. The festival was followed with multiple European engagements and some French made albums on Black and Blue. She also sang regularly at the Cookery in New York City (1974-1977).
Throughout the late 1970s, Humes would perform sporadically in America, while also performing at European venues and festivals, for instance at the prestigious Nice Jazz Festival in the mid-1970s. In 1980, she recorded her final album, self-titled Helen on Muse Records. She received the Music Industry of France Award in 1973, and the key to the city of Louisville in 1975.
On the topic of the trajectory of her career, Humes said this: "I'm not trying to be a star! I want to work and be happy and just go along and have my friends – and that's my career."
Helen Humes died of cancer in Santa Monica, California, in 1981 at the age of 68. At her funeral, her family requested that people donate money for cancer research rather than bringing flowers. She is buried at the Inglewood Park Cemetery, Inglewood, California.
Style and reviews
Helen Humes' range was from G3-C5, as she stated in a letter written in preparation for a European tour to Buck Clayton (the arranger), along with a list of her preferred songs. According to many critics, her voice was versatile, suiting pop songs and ballads as well as blues tunes.She was compared to Ethel Waters and Mildred Bailey from early in her career, and was often recorded singing the blues post-Basie. In an interview with Whitney Balliet, Humes explained, "I've been called a blues singer, a jazz singer, and a ballad singer – well, I'm all three, which means I'm just a singer." A review from Downbeat Magazine of her albums Talk of the Town, Helen Comes Back, and Helen Humes with Red Norvo and His Orchestra said the following about her collaboration with Red Norvo:
Norvo's sparkling vibes are the ideal compliment to Helen's lithe, light timbered clarity…Helen is in particularly fine voice…[with] an uncanny resemblance to early Ella [Fitzgerald] in her sound and phrasing.
The review of Helen Comes Back was not as positive, though not at the fault of the vocalist, saying that,
Blues dominates [the album]…[and] although her voice is delightful, the material is too simple to challenge her…Helen is a great deal more than a blues shouter.
Some reviews in the Washington Post of her last performances, in Maryland (1978) and Washington DC (1980), described her as "beaming and genial at 65" (1978). The reviews gave insight on her versatile vocals, "her characteristically light voice [turning] rough as she belted out…'You Can Take My Man But You Can't Keep Him Long'." They also described her use of back phrasing, reminiscent of Billie Holiday's signature style of phrasing a melody in an intimate, personal fashion.