Though well-regarded by jazz fans, vocalist Helen Humes struggled to find commercial success during her career. Humes began singing at a young age in her native Louisville, Kentucky, performing with the children’s band at the Booker T. Washington Community Center. She later made her way to Cincinnati, where she caught the attention of local music columnist Onah L. Spencer, who arranged for her to audition with Fletcher Henderson in late 1937. In addition to leading his own band, Henderson also arranged for Benny Goodman, and when Goodman trumpet player Harry James cut sides for Brunswick in December 1937 and January 1938, Humes landed the vocal role.
James was still a member of Goodman’s band at the time of the recordings, testing the waters before he built his own orchestra. Goodman pianist Jess Stacey and seven members of Count Basie’s band accompanied him in the studio. The sides were well-received, with jazz critic and patron John Hammond singling out Humes, calling her “very nearly the recording find of the year.” Her voice impressed Count Basie enough that when he needed a female vocalist in mid-1938, he hired her to fill the role. Humes proved a capable band singer, though she never caught on outside jazz circles. For this reason, Basie let her go in mid-1941, with reports from inside his organization saying that she was “not commercial enough.”
After leaving Basie, Humes remained inactive until October when she replaced Lena Horne at New York’s Cafe Society. Over the next year, she sang regularly in the city’s jazz clubs, including the Village Vanguard and the Famous Door, and made three sides with sax player Pete Brown’s six-piece combo in March 1942. The Brown sessions featured Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet and songs by jazz journalist and composer Leonard Feather. That fall she made a theater tour of the Southwest.
While championed by jazz and blues fans, Humes failed to make waves with the general public. Her lack of commercial appeal put off record labels and radio programmers, leaving her to a niche following. She continued performing and touring the country, recording two sides with Feather’s Hiptet on the Savoy label in 1944.
In 1945, Humes began working with jazz producer Norman Granz, who financed a series of recordings on the Philo label. One of those recordings, “Be-Baba-Leba,” caught on with the public, and Humes suddenly found herself with a hit and more media attention than she had ever received. When Granz began his Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) concert series in fall 1946, Humes was one of the top-billed stars.
Humes recording for Aladdin in 1946 and for Black and White in late 1946 and early 1947 as part of Granz’s specialty series. In mid-1947, she signed with Mercury, where she was often backed by Buck Clayton’s orchestra. She toured with JATP again in fall 1947 and on its European tour in early 1948. Later in 1948, she travelled as part of the Mercury Caravan with Frankie Laine and Jan August.
Though her standing in jazz and blues circles was unquestioned, Humes failed to follow up “Be-Baba-Leba” with any further commercial successes. Indeed, much of the general public disliked her singing. During live sets, her lyrics were often vulgar and used for shock value. Mercury dropped her after 1948, and she faded back into the jazz scene for the rest of her career. She recorded on the Discovery label in 1950, Modern in 1950 and 1951, and Decca in 1952 and 1953. In 1954, she toured Europe with Benny Carter’s “Evolution of Jazz” show and recorded on Dootone in 1955.
Humes had a brief surge in popularity in the late 1950s and early 1960s after she recorded for the Contemporary label, leading to tours of Europe and an appearance at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1962. She disappeared in the mid-1960s, re-emerging onto the jazz festival circuit in the early 1970s. She made her last recordings for Columbia in 1975. Helen Humes passed away in 1981 at age 68, a victim of cancer.
Philo changed its name to Aladdin in 1946 in response to a lawsuit by electronics manufacturer Philco, who felt the name was too close to their own. ↩︎
Humes’ success with “Be-Baba-Leba” was unfortunately marred by a copyright lawsuit from blues singer Tina Dixon, who had been performing a similar song called “E-Baba-Leba” prior to Humes’ recording. This prevented Humes from earning any songwriting royalties. Both songs were variations on a common blues form. ↩︎
Clayton was a former Basie trumpet player. ↩︎