Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Blues shouter, pop singer, ballad interpreter Helen Humes was born June 24, 1913, in Louisville, KY . This singer often told of beginning her musical life as soon as she was able to reach the keyboard of the piano in her Louisville home. Her attorney father and teacher mother provided generous encouragement as Helen worked her way through aborted tries at the trumpet and clarinet, before settling upon the piano for serious study.
Humes was equally generous in praising her major teacher, Miss Bessie Allen, under whose tutelage many fortunate Louisville youngsters got their start, including such jazz stalwarts as trombonist Dickie Wells and trumpeter/leader Jonah Jones.
With this group and others, frequently led by Miss Allen, Humes performed in a variety of settings in and around Louisville, including those at community center and church affairs, as well as dances and county fairs, often both singing and playing piano. During this period, she recorded in St. Louis at age 14; it is thought that guitarist J. C. Johnson was at this session.
In his American Singers: 27 Portraits in Song, Whitney Balliett describes Humes's early singing: "It was a kind of singing that we can barely imagine learning now. It preceded the microphone and demanded a strong voice, Ciceronian diction, and an outsize presence. The singer was alone onstage. It was also a kind of singing that relied on embellishment and improvisation, on an adroit use of dynamics, and on rhythmic inventiveness. The singer jazzed his songs."
Eventually, she did end up in Harlem's Renaissance Ballroom, on a night when jazz's super scout and promoter, John Hammond, was in the audience. Largely through his encouragement, Humes finally did join Basie's band, replacing Billie Holiday, but only after recording with the fledgling band of trumpeter Harry James in December, 1937, and January, 1938.
By now, the Basie band was deservedly being recognized as the swing powerhouse remembered by all. Its lineup was stocked with jazz legends, including premier blues shouter Jimmy Rushing. Assigned mostly ballad vocals, Humes nevertheless acquired a reputation as a blues singer.
After about three years of recording and traveling with Basie, she worked as a single in several New York clubs, including the Famous Door, the Three Deuces and the Cafe Society Downtown, and recorded in 1942 with the Pete Brown band. Beginning in 1944, Humes appeared in Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic tour, her first of many. During this period she also toured with pianist Connie Berry, finally settling in California for an extended residence, punctuated by various far- ranging tours.

Helen Humes passed away in 1981.

Click to watch her singing.

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