Helen Humes (June 23, 1913 – September 9, 1981) was an American jazz and blues singer.
Humes was a teenage blues singer, a vocalist with Count Basie's band, a saucy R&B diva, and a mature interpreter of the classy popular song. Along with other well-known jazz singers of the swing era, Humes helped to shape and define the sound of vocal swing music.
She was born on June 23, 1913, in Louisville, Kentucky, to Emma Johnson and John Henry Humes. She grew up as an only child. Her mother was 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 and in a church choir.
Humes was introduced to music in the church, singing in the choir and getting piano and organ lessons given at Sunday school by Bessie Allen, who taught music to any child who wanted to learn. Humes began occasionally playing the piano in a small and locally traveling dance band, the Dandies. This constant involvement in music would lead to her singing career in the mid-1920s.
Her career began with her first vocal performance, at an amateur contest in 1926, singing "When You're a Long, Long Way from Home" and "I'm in Love with You, That's Why". Her talents were noticed by a guitarist in the band, Sylvester Weaver, who recorded for Okeh Records and recommended her to the talent scout and producer Tommy Rockwell. At the age of 14 Humes recorded an album in St. Louis, singing several 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 did not make another record for another ten years, during which she completed her high school degree, took finance courses, and worked 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, she was invited to sing a few songs at the Spider Web, a cabaret in town. This brief performance turned into an audition, which turned into a $35-a-week job. She stayed in Buffalo, singing with a small group led by Al Sears.
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 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 with Sears's band again at the Cotton Club.
Count Basie first heard and approached Humes while she was performing at the Cotton Club in 1937. 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, heard her singing with Sears's band at the Renaissance Club. Through Hammond, she became a recording vocalist with Harry James's 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 persuaded Humes to join Count Basie's Orchestra, where she would stay for four years.
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 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 the second From Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall, produced by John Hammond. After this concert, most of her time with the Basie Orchestra was spent touring. In a 1973 oral history she described life on tour:
Humes's vocal range was from G3 to C5, as she stated in a letter to the arranger Buck Clayton in preparation for a European tour, 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. She was compared to Ethel Waters and Mildred Bailey from early in her career and was often recorded singing the blues after her association with Basie. In an interview with the jazz critic Whitney Balliett, 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 but did not fault the singer:
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.
Reviews in the Washington Post of her last performances, in Maryland in 1978 and Washington, D.C., in 1980, described her as "beaming and genial at 65" (in 1978) and gave insight into 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'." The reviews also described her use of back phrasing, reminiscent of Billie Holiday's signature style of phrasing a melody in an intimate, personal fashion.
With the Count Basie Orchestra
With Harry James and His Orchestra
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