In 1968, Della Humphrey was an eighth grade student at Miami’s Edison Junior High. She wasn’t your ordinary 12 year old. Nature had blessed her with a rich set of vocal chords, and her singing consistently won her trophies and ribbons at local talent shows. Her family got her a manager. He booked shows for her around town. Della was, as they say, going places.
Meanwhile Clarence Reid, the local soul singer/songwriter/producer, was writing a follow up song to Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do [And Still Be a Lady], which was a hit sung by Miami’s own Betty Wright earlier that year. With his second song, Reid wanted to stay on message about empowering women with voice, strength, and dignity. He titled it Don’t Make the Good Girls Go Bad. Reid presented the lyrics to Steve Alaimo of TK Records of Hialeah, Florida. TK was owned and operated by record distributor Henry Stone and had produced and distributed Reid’s first song on their own label, Alston. But Alaimo was reportedly unimpressed. It sounded too much like the first song. Reid wasn’t happy. “He snatched up the lyrics and hauled ass,” says Willie Clarke, who co-produced most of the big Miami soul records of that time. Clarke says that Reid then walked from Hialeah to Overtown, and gave the lyrics to the talented eighth grader. Reid had been a judge at one of Della’s recent singing competitions. He knew the girl had chops.
They flew up to Philadelphia where Reid had connections with Jamie/Guyden Records and made a deal to record Don’t Make the Good Girls Go Bad. It was released on Arctic Records, a division of Jamie/Guyden. The song instantly soared in Miami, reaching #1 in November 1968 on local radio stations. The record also cracked the national Billboard Hot 100 charts. Della was not only going places. She was now a star.
“The song was blasting all over the radio,” remembers Willie Clarke.
Della returned home and continued performing live. She was billed as Aretha Franklin No. 2, Miami’s 12 year old Soul Sister. Soon after, Your Love is All I Need, Della’s second recording, also written by Clarence Reid, was playing on Miami radio.
In 1969, Della recorded two more songs for the Arctic label but they didn’t take off as well as the first one. Things began to slow down a little. Two years later, she went in a different direction, recording a reggae song for an independent Miami label.
And then around 1973, after her last known recording, Della vanished – just like that - from the spotlight.
About six months ago I went looking for her. I checked the internet for blogs, chat forums, news articles, any reference whatsoever as to her current whereabouts. I researched marriage licenses, traffic tickets, property deeds. My searches pointed me to towns and cities across the U.S, most of them unfamiliar to me, places like Loveland, Ohio and Florence, Kentucky. A search for death records located 12 Della Humphreys that had passed since 1973 but no definitive matches for the Della I sought, not a trace.
A former journalist who had tracked down her family a few years back told me Della didn’t want to be found. Nevertheless, I called around and left voice messages on answering machines across the country. I did this again and again. Until finally I reached someone who seemed to know everyone in the Miami music business in the 60s. An hour later he provided me a telephone number belonging to “one of his girls” who he thought could help. When I called her, she told me she knew Della’s nephew. Small world.
I spoke to the nephew and he promised to talk to his ‘auntie’ and get back to me the next day. But the next day passed, and the day after, and the day after that. Over the course of a few months, I left him messages, texted him, emailed him. He wouldn’t respond. Time slipped away. I began to forget about Della Humphrey. I figured this was not only my fate but hers as well: to be forgotten deliberately in order to keep the memory of her intact.
A few weeks ago, I received a surprise call. It was the nephew. “I have Della’s number for you,” he said. “She’s waiting for your call.”
Here is Della’s story.
Della Humphrey has no regrets. She tells me this during the phone interview. I count six times. My gut tells me it’s something she has pondered before.
The interview with Della Humphrey lasted 72 minutes. It’s only the second interview she has done in at least a decade. We start at the very beginning: her growing up in the Scott Projects in Liberty City, being the youngest of three girls. Her parents were good parents, as in, model parents – nurturing, protective, strong moral fiber. Her childhood memories are vivid; attending Lillie C. Evans Elementary and having Sidney Poitier’s niece as her first grade teacher; participating in a Cinderella play at Holmes Elementary with Betty Wright as the fairy godmother; playing in the neighborhood with her girlfriends; events at the James E. Scott Community Center. She was also the youngest in the choir at New Hope Baptist Church on 15th Avenue in Liberty City. Fond memories.
After she won a few talent shows around the age of 12, Della’s family got her a manager, Jack Corbitt. Corbitt was married to one of her cousins. He began booking shows and making connections for Della. He booked her performances in Richmond, Virginia, and Washington D.C., and at air force bases around the country. He even booked her a gig to sing before the Premier of the Grand Bahamas in Freeport. And the song that put her on the map was Don’t Make the Good Girls Go Bad.
All you guys out there / that can’t be trusted
these girls give you all / and you return them busted.
But don’t take advantage of us / just because you can
Cause if you make us do wrong / we may never be good again
Don’t make the good girls go bad, no
Don’t make the good girls go bad, no
If you don’t, if you don’t really love us / please don’t use us
The record is considered by soul music enthusiasts the world over as a classic. Co-written and produced by Clarence Reid and Jack Corbitt, and recorded in Philadelphia, the song cemented Della’s place in Miami’s forgotten history of soul.
We were just very happy to have sold half a million copies of that one song for a beginner artist with Arctic Records. I think at that time I was the youngest artist with that company.
I ask her about the first time she heard it on the radio.
I think one by one we were all stretched out and laid out. There were my sisters and I don’t even want to mention my mom, oh my gosh, you could hear her around the corner somewhere. We were very excited. It was a big moment in my life and one that’ll last me a lifetime.
It was a big deal for a 12 year old, she says.
In the beginning, there was a whole lot of new stuff going on for myself, just a kid playing in the neighborhood, visiting with other girlfriends and neighbors. Then suddenly there was a multi record deal, autograph signings at record conventions, touring.
The song remains a coveted piece of history. Last year, the rappers Drake and The Game collaborated on Girls Gone Bad in which they sampled Della’s original song. I ask her about it.
I was excited. I mean, [the original song] was in the 60s… This is what, 2012, are you kidding? To find a different generation … to have an interest in that song by any means.., it was exciting to me, it was a good thing. For someone else to do their own rendition, I applaud that. I think it’s wonderful.
Della could be my music teacher any day.
We talk a little about Your Love is All I Need, the B side to her first recording, which she remembers “quite well” and brush over the two other records she made in 1969: Wait Until Dark and Girls Have Feelings, songs that were written and arranged by Reid and Corbitt for Arctic Records.
In 1971, Della shifted away from the dwindling soul scene. She worked with King Sporty, a Jamaican-born artist who was married to Betty Wright. He produced her song Dreamland, previously recorded by the Wailers (Bob Marley’s back-up band) in the mid 1960s. Its her first and only foray into reggae.
It was a new style of music for me. I thought it was cool.
About 22 minutes into the interview we get to that jumping-off point. After Dreamland, Della didn’t record any more music according to my research. In fact, I found no other indication of a Della sighting anywhere. My conclusion: Della Humphrey, once a local celebrity, disappeared from the spotlight at about the age of 16, with seemingly an exciting, dynamic career path drawn out for her.
I ask her why she vanished so abruptly. I think I catch her off guard.
Yes,.. a break from the music because I was so young when I started.. everything was dedicated to the music to.. going here, going there..everything.. going places as kids and young people do., you never want to not have that moment…
Della struggles to find the right words, to explain it to a stranger on the phone. It’s not as fluid as when she’s talking about her music.
She tells me that after high school, she moved to Philadelphia. The year was 1975. She says, it was a choice “of my own.” (She draws out the words ‘on-my-own,’emphasizing her ownership of that choice.) She said she did not want to have “the music thing going.”
I wanted something different. Everything from 12 yrs old had been me, my mother, my manager. ..I kind of wanted to have a quiet time. And I did, for awhile.
Della enrolled at Philadelphia Community College and took courses in theatrical arts. She had relatives there that helped her get around. But music called to her. She couldn’t stay away from it long enough. She began meeting different people and making contacts in the music industry, securing gigs at popular jazz clubs and hotel lounges. She went back to singing as a “self contained artist” which meant she could work with whoever she wanted to. She felt, to some extent, liberated. And it was just the right scene for her too.
The [Philadelphia] environment had a lot of swag. It was flavorful. You always met people doing something that you wanted to do. And that’s what happened with me.
After Philadelphia, where she spent about 12 years, she moved to Minnesota in the early 1990s, traveling even further away from Miami’s tropical climate and towards the Twin City’s sub-zero temperatures. Talk about getting away. I ask her why Minnesota? She says she tried to extend her music career there but she doesn’t elaborate. It doesn’t seem that important to her.
Since about 2001, she has been living in Georgia, in a town north of Atlanta. She’s married to her husband William, an aviation mechanic, who also had a side music career as a saxophone and keyboard player in a funk band once. Della likes living in Georgia:
It’s a small county, very nice, very quiet. When I want to go home (Miami) there’s the excitement of being home and all the things to do, you know, and then I can appreciate the quiet time when I get back. I get that here.
Della still is active musically. Her and her husband built a studio at home and they’ve recorded some songs together. She also has a job working “with juveniles.” I ask her to explain but she refuses.
I return to the point of most interest in her life story: when she left Miami. She replies that after early success, well,…
Some of the things asked to do – how can I say this?
She pauses to find the right words to say. I tell her she could go off-record if she prefers.
Well, .. I don’t want to bash anybody, who am I to bash anyone? I count it all joy. It was a great opportunity and privilege and I’d like to keep it that way.
All you guys out there / that can’t be trusted / these girls give you all / and you return them busted.
Being young, and under management, things don’t always go well. People have disagreements with the management and production, things of that nature. So I was not of age, and I had no authority there. And my parents felt that if something was not in my best interest, it was just not going to happen.
I ask if she has any regrets.
No, I don’t …, if you can trust anyone you should be able to trust your mom and dad. So no, I don’t have regrets. I still have my family and lots of love and everybody else has the squabbling stuff to deal with. No, I don’t have any regrets as far as that.
But don’t take advantage of us / Just because you can / Cause if you make us do wrong / We may never be good again.
I ask her if she ever felt cheated or taken advantage of.
Oh yes, absolutely. But like again, I myself, you’ll get through it, however long it takes, you know and to come out, going in feeling one way, and to come out feeling another totally different so I have no regrets. I don’t. Now someone else on the other hand, maybe. I don’t know. But for me, I can say, no, I don’t have any regrets. I go home, often [Miami].
I didn’t owe anybody anything. I felt good waking up each day. I slept good at night.
Everybody can’t say that.
She tells me about the long, tiring nights, touring at such a young age.
That’s a lot of wear & tear, it really and truly is. It’s a lot of loneliness, the longer you stay away from home. Kids don’t always understand that.
Della’s was a close knit family and they weren’t used to it.
It just started to fall [apart] at the seams a little bit [in Miami], and pretty much, friction with management, things of that nature. So you know we stepped back a little bit.
I’ve met so many entertainers on anti-depressants. Are you kidding? For something that you love, something that you get so much joy out of? To tear it down like that. No,..I don’t have any regrets. I’m not angry and haven’t been, with anyone. And surely not my parents, no.
I enjoyed my years and the many opportunities. I count it a privilege and a joy.
Next month, the company that produced and issued her first three records, Jamie/Guyden, is hosting red carpet events in Philadelphia and New York. They want to bring back all the artists of that era for one night to celebrate their music. She is excited about that.
Until then, Della is just fine living her quiet, self-contained life in a small town north of Atlanta.
Don’t make the good girls go bad, no
Don’t make the good girls go bad, no
If you don’t, if you don’t really love us
please don’t use us
Note: A follow up post regarding Della’s relationship with her manager Jack Corbitt was published here in March 2013.
Copyright © 2012 Long Play Miami