Naughty numbers such as “He May Be Your Man” and “Million Dollar Secret” comprised only a small part of the repertoire of vocalist Helen Humes (1913-1981), but she found them to be sure crowd-pleasers and sang them throughout her long career. At her second recording session, held in November 1927, when she was just 14 (she was 13 when she’d cut her first, with Lonnie Johnson on guitar), Humes delivered a risqué blues titled “Do What You Did Last Night.” When the teenager inquired about the meaning of the lyrics, her mother replied, “Hush, child, and just sing the song.”
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Humes was influenced early on by pioneering jazz vocalist Mildred Bailey and years later, in the 1950s, toured and recorded with Bailey’s former husband, mallet master Red Norvo. She recorded with Harry James in 1937 and the following year replaced Billie Holiday with the Count Basie band. She sang few blues during her three years with Basie because he already had a blues singer, Jimmy Rushing.
Humes had two Top 10 r&b hits: 1945’s “Be-Baba-Leba” (covered by Lionel Hampton as “Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop”) and 1950’s “Million Dollar Secret.” Most of her performing was done in the company of jazz musicians, and she made three albums for Contemporary Records between 1951 and ’61 that featured such players as Benny Carter, Teddy Edwards, Wynton Kelly, Barney Kessel, Art Pepper, André Previn, and Ben Webster. She settled in Australia in 1964 but returned to the U.S. three years later to care for her ailing mother. The singer staged a triumphant career comeback in 1973 and toured and recorded prolifically for the remaining eight years of her life.