I’ve always been a little fascinated by the story of the Cotton Club, the historic New York night spot that hosted countless musical legends through the years. In fact, I’ve written about it before, but my subject here is a lady who might — or might not — have appeared there.
Helen Humes was a little too young to sing there in the early days of the Cotton Club, when ‘hot jazz’ fans of the 1920s flocked to Harlem to hear the Duke and Cab Calloway. But she does have some interesting connections, starting with the fact that the Louisville native first made a splash while appearing with the Al Sears band at a different Cotton Club — the copycat version in Cincinnati.
It was in the late 1930s and among those admiring her talent one eventful night was Count Basie, but she declined his offer of a job on his band’s tour. However, she ended up going to New York with the Sears band and — after meeting promoter John Hammond while appearing at Harlem’s Renaissance Ballroom — was eventually talked into joining Basie.
For the next four years she was a featured part of his group, which was often playing in New York at spots like Roseland or the Savoy. (Another place I’ve written about.) What seems to be a little fuzzy is whether the band actually played at New York’s Cotton Club — which had by then changed locations — during Helen’s time with the group.
One other fact that might lend some weight to the theory is a song that appears on the album Original Music from the Cotton Club. With its suggestive lyrics and Basie’s pounding rhythms, “Dark Rapture” is a piece that would certainly have fit into the Cotton Club’s custom of playing to their white patrons’ expectations by emphasizing an exotic ‘jungle’ motif.
So did she or didn’t she? Maybe a reader can answer the question. As for Helen, she went on to a long and varied career as a successful recording artist, along the way showing off her talents as a blues singer and jazz vocalist. She died in 1981.