Count Basie

Photo of Count Basie
  • Birth Name

    William Allen Basie
  • Born

    August 21, 1904
    Red Bank, New Jersey
  • Died

    April 26, 1984 (age 79)
    Hollywood, California
  • Featured Vocalists

    Thelma Carpenter
    Helen Humes

One of the more famous bandleaders of the twentieth century, Count Basie is considered by some as the embodiment of swing. For more than forty years he led the most consistently swinging orchestra in the world.

As a youth, Bill Basie started his musical career as a drummer in a local kids band in New York City. He later began taking piano lessons and even received tutelage from the legendary Fats Waller. During his early days, he traveled the theater circuit, accompanying variety acts. In the late 1920s, he played in a variety of jazz bands, eventually joining Ben Moten’s Kansas City-based group in the early 1930s. He left Moten in 1934 to lead his own group in Little Rock, Arkansas, returning to Kansas City a year later. Basie briefly took over as leader of Moten’s outfit when Moten died unexpectedly in 1935.

Bandleading Years

Basie resigned from Moten’s former band after only a few weeks and began to work solo and lead his own trio, eventually becoming co-leader of a group called the Barons of Rhythm. It was during a radio broadcast with the Barons in 1935 that he received his famous nickname. The announcer thought “Bill Basie” too plain a name and decided, since there were well-known bandleaders called Earl and Duke, to call him “Count” Basie. It was also during one of those broadcasts that Basie’s group caught the attention of wealthy jazz enthusiast John Hammond, and they were soon booked on a national tour, ending up at the Roseland Ballroom.

Upon their first visit to New York, in 1936, Basie’s orchestra was considered too harsh, playing too loud and too long for the sophisticated big city crowd. It wasn’t until 1938, after polishing their sound, that the group began to take off commercially. James Rushing, later billed as Jimmy, a member of the band since their Kansas City days, served as vocalist for the band’s entire existence. Alto saxophonist Earl Warren, another member from Kansas City days, also sometimes sang. Billie Holiday toured with the band in 1937. Holiday was not a part of the orchestra, however. She received equal billing and recorded under her own name.

Perhaps Basie’s most famous female vocalist was Helen Humes. Humes had made her recording debut in late 1937 singing for Harry James, who was testing out his marketability while still a member of Benny Goodman’s band. Backing James were members of Basie’s orchestra. Count Basie was impressed enough to hire Humes in mid-1938. While Humes was loved by jazz fans, she had trouble reaching a broader audience, and Basie let her go in May 1941 saying she wasn’t commercial enough. Pearl White replaced her but didn’t stay long. White vocalist Lynne Sherman recorded with the band in late 1941 and mid-1942. Sherman was the wife of Basie manager Milt Ebbins. Though retired from singing after her marriage, she performed live with the band on one occasion.

Thelma Carpenter joined the band in late 1942. Carpenter left briefly in September 1943 for a solo career but returned in November. She remained with Basie until January 1945. Sherman again recorded with the band after Carpenter left. Basie added a string section for those recordings. Ann Moore became vocalist in mid-1945. Basie discovered Moore in a Milwaukee juke joint, hearing her sing to one of his records. She remained with the band through early 1947. Ann Baker replaced her, with Jeanne Taylor taking the spot later that year.

During the 1940s, Basie’s outfit became one of the top orchestras in the country. As the band business took a nosedive in the late 1940s, however, financial pressures began to take their toll, and Basie decided to disband in 1950. He toured with a sextet until forming a new orchestra in 1952. Joe Williams sang with the later band. During the 1960s and 1970s, Basie’s orchestra toured the world and recorded with many of the top singers of that period, including Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a series of illnesses sidelined Basie. His orchestra remained active, however, with arranger Nat Pierce replacing him at the piano. In 1981 Basie, no longer able to walk, bought a motorized cart and would drive onto the stage and up to his piano. Count Basie died in 1984.


  1. Simon, George T. The Big Bands. 4th ed. New York: Schirmer, 1981.
  2. Orodenker, M.H. “James and Jess Jam With Basie Boys.” Billboard 15 Jan. 1938: 17.
  3. Orodenker, M.H. “Orchestra Notes.” Billboard 9 Jul. 1938: 12.
  4. Orodenker, M.H. “The Reviewing Stand: Count Basie.” Billboard 22 Jul. 1938: 13.
  5. Spencer, Onah L. “South Parkway After Sundown.” The Dayton Forum 14 Oct. 1938: 8.
  6. Orodenker, M.H. “Vaudeville Reviews: Paramount, New York.” Billboard 25 Dec. 1938: 25.
  7. Basie, Count. “Critics in the Doghouse.” Down Beat Jul. 1939: 18.
  8. Franken, Jerry. “Vaudeville Reviews: Loew's State, New York.” Billboard 13 Apr. 1940: 32.
  9. “Helen Humes out Of Basie Band.” Down Beat 15 May 1941: 2.
  10. “Pearl White in Helen Humes' Spot.” Down Beat 1 Jun. 1941: 15.
  11. “Lynn Sherman To Record With Basie.” Down Beat 15 Sep. 1941: 3.
  12. “Chicago Band Briefs.” Down Beat 1 Dec. 1942: 4.
  13. “Vaudeville Reviews: Paradise, Detroit.” Billboard 27 Mar. 1943: 16.
  14. “Vaudeville Reviews: Orpheum, Los Angeles.” Billboard 5 Jun. 1943: 16.
  15. “Thelma Carpenter to Single.” Billboard 25 Sep. 1943: 14.
  16. “On the Stand: Count Basie.” Billboard 20 Nov. 1943: 15.
  17. “On the Stand: Count Basie.” Billboard 15 Apr. 1944: 27.
  18. “Vaudeville Reviews: Orpheum, Los Angeles.” Billboard 12 Aug. 1944: 25.
  19. “In Short.” Billboard 13 Jan. 1945: 26.
  20. “Basie Angling For Fem Chirp.” Down Beat 15 Jan. 1945: 14.
  21. “On the Stand: Count Basie.” Billboard 20 Jan. 1945: 18.
  22. “Now Basie Comes On With String Section!” Down Beat 15 Mar. 1945: 1.
  23. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 15 Jul. 1945: 1.
  24. “Plays Cinderella for Count.” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1945: 6.
  25. No Title Down Beat 9 Apr. 1947: 17.
  26. “Taylor New Basie Thrush.” Down Beat 14 Jan. 1948: 9.