Helen Humes

Born: June 23, 1909

Died: September 13, 1981

Jazz and blues singer Helen Humes became famous singing with the orchestras of Harry James and Count Basie.

While many sources claim she was born in Louisville in 1913, a passport found by her friend after her death showed that she was born in 1909. (Brackney 2009, p34) The 1910 Census confirmed that "Hellen" Humes of Louisville's Ward 7 was 0 years old when the census taker recorded her family's information.(Census 1910)

She began her musical education at a Sunday school near her home under the tutelage of Miss Bessie Allen.

If you came to Sunday school in the evening, she would teach you to play any instrument. I learned to play piano. I used to play at some dances and sometimes I would sing.

– Helen Humes (Zakem 1979)

Helen also played trumpet with her Sunday school band and piano with a Louisville group called The Dandies. Guitarist Sylvester Weaver heard her sing at the Louisville Palace and recommended her to his label, Okeh Records. (Suzuki 2012) Weaver convinced her mother to let him take Helen to St. Louis to make her first record in 1927. After that he took her to New York to make a second record (1929). Helen stayed with Mr. and Mrs. Weaver in New York. When Weaver wanted her to go on tour, her mother declined saying she needed to finish high school first.(Bobo 1979)

After high school she worked for a bank and as a waitress at the Canary Cottage, but she still pursued her singing career.(Zakem 1979) In the early 1930s she sang with Al Sears and recorded with the Harry James Orchestra. (Yanow) She was performing at Cincinnati's Cotton Club when Count Basie first heard her sing. (Zakem 1979) Basie took her on as replacement for Billie Holiday after Holiday died. Helen performed with the Count Basie Orchestra from 1938 to 1942.

After that she began her solo career and in 1945 her jump blues song "Be-baba-leba" hit it big. ("Jazz" 1981) She toured the United States, Europe, and Australia.

Los Angeles jazz critic Leonard Feather said Humes was "one of the handful of complete originals in the history of jazz singing... [and no one] matched her unique, high-pitched timbre... No other singer had a comparable mastery of both ballads and blues."("Jazz" 1981)

In 1967 Helen Humes retired from the music business. "When my mother passed, I said I wasn't going to sing anymore. I just didn't have, I don't know, I just didn't feel it.(Bobo 1979)

Back in Louisville, Helen worked for almost two years at the Army Ammunition Plant in Charlestown, Indiana. It paid $2.85 an hour. (Josephson 1978) At the same time, she took care of her father with the help of a friend who cared for him while Helen worked at the plant.

In the early 1970s Stanley Dance contacted Helen about singing in a Count Basie reunion. Her musical career relaunched after her acclaimed performance at the 1973 Newport Jazz Festival. (Van Vorst 2013)

In 1981 she passed away in Santa Monica, California. Ella Fitzgerald sang "In the Garden" at her funeral. (Brackney 2009)

Sources and Recommended Reading

Bobo, Mary D. "Helen Humes." In Oral History Collection. University Archives & Records Center, University of Louisville, June 12, 1979. https://ohc.library.louisville.edu/interviews/record.php?q=Humes%2C%20Helen&d=6-12-1979.
Brackney, Robert. "It's a Family Affair - with Helen Humes and Jimmy Rushing." IAJRC Journal (March 1, 2009): 31-34.
"Helen Humes Sings Ballads & Blues (Review)." In Tune International (UK), https://www.jazzology.com/item_detail.php?id=ACD-107.
"Jazz Vocalist Helen Humes Dies at 68." Courier - Journal, September 14, 1981.
Jones, Jack. "Jazz Singer Helen Humes Dies at 68." Sarasota Herald-Tribune, September 14, 1981. https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=yvIcAAAAIBAJ&sjid=tWkEAAAAIBAJ&pg=6106%2C6518706.
Josephson, Sanford. "Helen Humes and All That Jazz." Courier - Journal Magazine, July 23, 1978.
Suzuki, Yoko. "Helen Humes." Oxford Music Online. Updated October 4, 2012. Accessed January 27, 2021, https://doi.org/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.A2228511.
United States Department of the Census. Thirteenth Census of the United States Taken in the Year 1910. 1910.
Yanow, Scott. "Helen Humes." Accessed 2021, https://www.allmusic.com/artist/helen-humes-mn0000671800/biography.
Zakem, Marc. "Helen Humes Sings and Home Folks Listen." Courier - Journal, June 5, 1979.