Helen Humes

Photo of Helen Humes
  • Born

    June 12, 1913
    Louisville, Kentucky
  • Died

    September 13, 1981 (age 68)
    Santa Monica, California
  • Orchestras

    Count Basie

Though well-regarded by jazz fans, vocalist Helen Humes struggled to find commercial success during her career. She spent three years with Count Basie in the late 1930s and early 1940s before starting a solo career that produced only one hit song in 1945. Despite her lack of popularity among the general public, Humes worked fairly regularly into the 1970s and became a staple on the jazz festival circuit in her later years.

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.[1] 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.[2] When Granz began his Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) concert series in fall 1946, Humes was one of the top-billed stars.

Humes recorded 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.[3] 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.


  1. 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. ↩︎

  2. 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. ↩︎

  3. Clayton was a former Basie trumpet player. ↩︎


  1. Hammond, John. “Joe Smith.” Down Beat Dec. 1937: 5.
  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. Franken, Jerry. “Vaudeville Reviews: Loew's State, New York.” Billboard 13 Apr. 1940: 32.
  8. “Helen Humes out Of Basie Band.” Down Beat 15 May 1941: 2.
  9. “Pearl White in Helen Humes' Spot.” Down Beat 1 Jun. 1941: 15.
  10. “Count Basie Changes Two Trombones.” Down Beat 15 Jul. 1941: 23.
  11. “Helen Humes Active Again.” Down Beat 1 Nov. 1941: 5.
  12. “Dick Wilson, Ace Tenor Saxist, Dies.” Down Beat 15 Dec. 1941: 24.
  13. “Bob Mosley to Benny Carter.” Down Beat 1 Feb. 1942: 2.
  14. “Pete Brown Cuts New Decca Wax.” Down Beat 1 Mar. 1942: 14.
  15. Sales, Bob. “Dickie Wells, Helen Humes Were In Looeyville Kid Band of 1925.” Down Beat 15 Apr. 1942: 8.
  16. “Helen Humes Moves.” Down Beat 15 May 1942: 2.
  17. “Glaser Signs Helen Humes.” Down Beat 1 Sep. 1942: 1.
  18. O'Donnell, Red. “Night Club Reviews: Plantation Club, Nashville.” Billboard 25 Sep. 1943: 19.
  19. “Off the Cuff.” Billboard 8 May 1943: 18.
  20. Holly, Hal. “Los Angeles Briefs.” Down Beat 15 Jun. 1945: 6.
  21. “Cheers, Moans At LA Concert.” Down Beat 15 Dec. 1945: 2.
  22. “Barnet Granted Pub Rights to Be-Baba.” Billboard 26 Jan. 1946: 16.
  23. “Author! Author!—Two Appear.” Down Beat 11 Mar. 1946: 19.
  24. Emge, Charles. “First L.A. Bash of Season Too Heavy on Talent.” Down Beat 21 Oct. 1946: 1.
  25. Wolff, D. Leon. “Everything Bad In Jazz Found Here.” Down Beat 18 Nov. 1946: 3.
  26. “Mercury Signs New Artists.” Down Beat 30 Jul. 1947: 14.
  27. “JATP Concert Opens Jazz Season At Carnegie.” Down Beat 22 Oct. 1947: 3.
  28. “JATP Goes Abroad For Spring Concerts.” Down Beat 14 Jan. 1948: 11.
  29. “Helen Scores At Cafe Downtown.” Down Beat 10 Mar. 1948: 2.
  30. “Laine, August, Humes Package Tours Midwest.” Down Beat 7 Apr. 1948: 3.
  31. “Deuces Books Tripleheader To Follow Ella.” Down Beat 8 Sep. 1948: 2.
  32. “Jacquet, Humes Open After Billie.” Down Beat 11 Mar. 1949: 2.
  33. “Music as Written.” Billboard 28 Apr. 1951: 18.
  34. “Reviews of This Week's New Records.” Billboard 29 Aug. 1953: 44.
  35. “U.S. Jazz Invasion of Scandinavia to Begin.” Billboard 16 Jan. 1954: 16.
  36. “Gordon Signs With Dootone.” Billboard 1 Oct. 1955: 15.
  37. “Record Reviews.” Billboard 13 Apr. 1959: 13.
  38. “R&B Yanks Invade Britain Full-Scale.” Billboard 12 Oct. 1959: 6.
  39. “Record Reviews.” Billboard 30 May 1960: 52.
  40. “3rd Monterey Jazz Festival Artistic & Financial Winner.” Billboard 3 Oct. 1960: 3.
  41. “International News Report: France.” Billboard 20 Oct. 1962: 16.
  42. “International News Report: Austria.” Billboard 27 Oct. 1962: 31.
  43. “Talent Topics.” Billboard 30 Nov. 1963: 12.
  44. “PBS to Cite Armstrong.” Billboard 27 Oct. 1973: 14.
  45. “Montreux Jazz Fest To Cite Ellington.” Billboard 15 Jun. 1974: 43.
  46. “Monterey Fest.” Billboard 23 Aug. 1975: 27.
  47. “CBS Lights Up N.Y.'s Birdland.” Billboard 26 Nov. 1977: 64.
  48. “Louisville Readies Acts' Homecoming.” Billboard 1 Sep. 1979: 31.
  49. “Monterey Event.” Billboard 29 Sep. 1979: 68.
  50. “Deaths.” Billboard 3 Oct. 1981: 72.