Lost & Found: The Della Humphrey Story

Della4In 1968, Della Humphrey was an 8th grade student at Miami’s Edison Junior High with a gift for knocking your socks off with her voice. She was tearing up the talent show circuit and collecting trophies, and ribbons, and plaques of adoration. There was something special about her, e.g., [P]otential, and her family knew it.  They did what they had to do to set her along the right path: they got Della a manager.

Meanwhile, not too far away, Clarence Reid, a Miami soul singer / songwriter / producer, was working on his follow-up song to Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do [And Still Be a Lady], a hit record by Miami’s other up-and-comer Betty Wright. With his second song, Reid wanted to stay on message about empowering women. 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 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 walked from Hialeah to Overtown, and gave the lyrics to little Della. Reid had been a judge at one of Della’s recent singing competitions. He knew the girl had chops. They flew up to Philadelphia and made a deal to record Don’t Make the Good Girls Go Bad 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 R&B charts where it enjoyed a six-week run, peaking at #18. Della was now a star.

“The song was blasting all over the radio,” remembers Willie Clarke.

Della returned home from Philadelphia and continued performing live. Soon after, Your Love is All I Need, Della’s second recording, also written by Clarence Reid, was heard on Miami radio.

Della recorded a couple of more songs but none too popular and then around 1973, Della vanished – just like that – from the spotlight.

During the summer of 2012, I went looking for her. I began checking the internet for other blog posts, chat forums, news articles, any reference whatsoever as to her current whereabouts. Nothing. I researched marriage licenses, traffic tickets, and property deeds. The effort pointed 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 away since 1973 but no definitive matches for the Della I sought, not a trace.

One day I came across a former journalist who had tracked down Della’s family a few years back. He 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. 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 called 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 whatever good memory of her intact.

A few weeks later, in November 2012, 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 six times during the phone interview.  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 DellaHumphreyMiami68in Liberty City.  Fond memories.

After she won a few talent shows around the age of 12 or 13, Della’s family got her a manager, Jack Corbitt. He began booking shows and making connections for Della: Virginia and Washington D.C., 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.

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 ac_1bmoment in my life and one that’ll last me a lifetime.

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.

King+Sporty2In 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.

She got to work with artists like McFadden & Whitehead, the Philly-based duo who recorded the hit song Ain’t No Stopping Us Now, and Ron Tyson of the Temptations.  It was all good, she says.

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.

I return to a 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.

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.

(By management, she is referring to Jack Corbitt. More on him later.)

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.

Did she ever feel 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.

_____________________________________________________

PART 2: DELLA & JACK

By the time Della graduated from Miami Edison Senior High in 1971, three years removed from her hit single, she was beginning to lose her groove.

Jack Corbitt, reached in his Connecticut home one afternoon, recalled the good days. Like when she was invited to sing at a concert at the Philadelphia Convention Center with a lineup that included Stevie Wonder and other heavyweights of the Motown and Philadelphia soul scene and Della brought down the house.

The owner of the record label got down on his knees so that Della could use his back (as support) to sign autographs. I had Stevie Wonder in line, I had Johnny Taylor, and who’s autograph did they want? Little Della.

A brief background on Jack Corbitt.

In the mid 1960s, Jack was a nightclub manager, first at The King of Hearts (60th St/NW 7th Avenue in Liberty City), and later at the Mr. James Club (36th St/NW 2nd Ave). One day he received a call from his wife’s cousin, Beulah.  Beulah was Della’s mother. Everyone in the family knew Jack had connections in the music business. He had managed the early careers of Sam & Dave.[2]

Beulah wanted Jack to oversee Della’s career.  Then before saying anything else, Beulah had Della sing an Aretha Franklin song over the phone.

Which one? I asked Jack.

I’m Losing You.

Blew me away. I told her you give me 10 minutes and I’ll be there.

ps_2013_02_05___14_07_12

Jack’s connections led him to Clarence Reid. Reid had the song for Della. Soon after, they were all at the studio recording Don’t Make the Good Girls Go Bad for the Philadelphia record label, Arctic.

The sky was the limit for Della. Following the Philadelphia Convention Center performance, the soul hit-producing team of Gamble & Huff wanted to sign her as their first artist to launch a new recording label, Philadelphia International.  New York’s Apollo Theater called and wanted Della to perform there.

Here’s what Jack remembers:

Oh man, it was a blast.

But you know, as soon as Della became somewhat popular …. Then I got involved with this mama-drama. And I had to deal with that crazy stuff, man.

Like many times before and since, in the high pressure world of an artist, especially a young black artist in the 1960s, booms and busts go hand in hand. And Della’s career was no exception. That was absolute. Things began to gradually fall apart. Della’s family became more involved in her music career. Jack saw it as meddling and a distraction. He was losing his authority.  It came to a tipping ps_2013_02_05___14_08_42point one day when Della showed up to a rehearsal with a friend, violating one of Jack’s fundamental rules.

I said to her what did you bring this girl here for? I told you to never bring anyone to our rehearsals.

And she shouted back at me – What did I do wrong this time?

It was then that he told Della they were done.

That’s when we split. I left her…It came down to that rehearsal. That’s what capped it. That broke our connection.

Here’s Della’s response.

No, it didn’t go quite that way. Something else had happened and that’s what caused the distance there…

You know, money can do a lot of things.

That something else she’s referring to had to do with events leading to the Apollo Theater performance, which never happened.  She said the fee payment was sent in advance to Jack and that he didn’t send her all the money she was due.

When it came to me not getting the money that I should have been getting, there was a big stink.

My dad and my mother were concerned about that. How can you do this? It was breaking me down. For my mom and dad to give the guardianship to you (Jack) and this is how we do it?  That was not a good feeling.

And that’s what I remember. That’s when the break up came.

It all fell apart when he stopped telling the truth.

Jack has a different memory.

As far as the Apollo Theater was concerned. I went through this mama drama situation where she figured that Della was supposed to get more than she was getting paid. But you see what she didn’t understand was that, hell, entertainers would die to get into the Apollo, man. People would pay just to perform. Because if you can rock the house at the Apollo, you made all over the nation, you follow what I’m saying?

I tell him what Della said, about him taking the money.

Man, I got no damn money up front. The deal was never closed.

We had discussed certain issues [with The Apollo’s director]. He made me an offer for a performance. The offer [$500] was fine with me but it wasn’t fine with Della’s mama. She figured she was a big star … she should get more money. Not understanding that the appearance at The Apollo was worth, you know, more money than she can think about.

He tells me that all he ever got as her manager was ten percent per performance of whatever Della got.  That’s minimal when you consider that the average performance fee was $250, making his take $25.  But I think it probably didn’t matter much to him. He drove a Cadillac in those days.

My thing was getting Della to where she needed to be.

There was never a situation where she was supposed to get paid money and never got paid. I wasn’t in it for that.

That’s not my style anyway.  That’s not me. I don’t operate that way.

ps_2013_02_05___14_10_10#After Jack and Della split, Della’s mother took over her management. But the music business is an unforgiving place for novices. By the time Della finished high school in 1971, Jack’s connections were gone, the crowds weren’t there, the gigs had died, and opportunities slipped away.  Bad times led Della to bad things; from alcohol to drugs to walking around the streets looking for her next “whatever,” she says. This went on for a while, for years.

Rock bottom is how Jack described it.

She went through something terrible, man. When I came to Miami my daughter knew where she was hanging out and took me there to find Della.  Della was too ashamed for me to see her. But I wouldn’t leave until she came out. And then she came out and hugged me and said, Jack, you’re the best thing that ever happened to my life. And we both cried.

My daughter was like a street person too, you know. She knew where Della was.. ‘Cause Della was in the streets.

Blew my mind, man.

Jack says that Della’s family shunned her when she fell into the drugs and barred her from living at home.

Della denies it happened like that. Sure she had her addiction problem, but her mother would never have barred her from home.

They didn’t put me out. They just never would have done that. No, that’s not true. I don’t know where he got that from…, no…, no way.

When I call Jack again and press him on this, he says:

She doesn’t want you to know. There’s no reason for me to say that. This took place…It happened. I wouldn’t say so if it didn’t. I wouldn’t do anything to hurt Della, trust me.

I love her to death but the truth is the truth.

Della says that Jack wanted to blame her parents.

But it was not my parents’ fault. They trusted him. My mother and father put me in your hands.

..My mom and my dad did the best for my interest. I would never ever, ever, ever blame my mom or my dad during anything that happened during my music time.

She says that Jack didn’t keep good company and that he didn’t look after her, as a guardian should.

Little by little I told [my parents] things that I would see when I was with him and different people he knew… I didn’t know them…

She pauses to collect her thoughts. She’s not comfortable bashing anybody. Then she wraps it up.

It happened. I got through it.  And I’m truly grateful. I really am.

Della says she found salvation in the graces of her family, her friends, and church members and pastors from Liberty City’s Shiloh Baptist Church on NW 95th Street. Della was able to get clean and in 1975, four years removed from high school, she embarked on a new journey. To Philadelphia. Leaving Miami and the good, bad and ugly times behind. There she connected with a new scene, made new friends in the music business, and made a fair living performing at jazz clubs.  And she kept her nose clean and her mind right, she tells me.

Della and Jack are just two people who knew each other for a short but impressionable time. The thing that brought them together is the thing that broke them apart. But there is no acrimony. There is no regret. There is mutual love and respect. And they do still talk now and then. In fact, it was Della who called Jack to let him know that I wanted to interview him. And he agreed.[4]

Here’s Jack again:

We’ll always be who we are, Della and I. Every time I’m [in Miami], if she’s there we see each other, with love, remembrance, of the good times.

Della is still my sweet heart and always will be, as long as we have life.

_____________________________________________________

PART 3: DELLA, THE PHILLY YEARS
Philadelphia night club, circa late 1970s
Philadelphia night club, circa late 1970s
From left to right: Della, Dr. Perry Johnson (DJ), Patti LaBelle, unknown. At a Philadelphia night club, early 1980s.
From left to right: Della, Dr. Perry Johnson (DJ), Patti LaBelle, unknown. At a Philadelphia night club, early 1980s.
Philadelphia, early 1980s
Philadelphia, early 1980s
Posing before a performance at Fairmoint Park, Philadelphia, circa early 1980s.
Posing before a performance at Fairmount Park, Philadelphia, circa early 1980s.

Footnotes:

[1] Note that the R&B Anthology lists Della’s year of birth as 1956, but this is false and was likely perpetuated by her handlers to the point that its actually recorded in official reference books found at your local library. Della was actually born in 1953.

[2] Sam Moore and Dave Prater were the most famous R&B tandem to come out of Miami in the early 1960s. Eventually they broke out on their own and signed with Stax Records where they recorded the iconic soul hits, Soul Man and Hold On, I’m Coming.

[3] Clarence Reid is the irrepressible Georgia native singer-songwriter-turn-dirty rap performer (BlowFly) who if there was ever a statue built for the icons of the 60s Miami Sound, his bust would be there, alongside Henry Stone, Willie Clarke and Betty Wright.

[4] Della also told me she wanted to be on the line during the interview with Jack because “he knows quite a bit. Some of the things I couldn’t remember.” I politely said no.  Ok, she said.

Copyright © 2013 Long Play Miami

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