Jazz flutist Bobbi Humphrey fights the good fight
Dizzy Gillespie told me, “If you go to New York, in about a year or two, the whole world will know your name.”
On a warm midsummer’s night in West Harlem, USA, looming above the roar of cars racing along the West Side Highway and other sounds from the cityscape, a propulsive groove has a crowd of over a thousand revelers in a trance. At the opening ceremony for this year’s Harlem Week, an ode aged thirty-plus years, “Harlem River Drive,” rings with a certain irony this evening. And the pied piper onstage at the helm of this groove is none other than the first lady of the flute, Bobbi Humphrey.
Blue Note’s archaeological dig of its vaults over the past few years has unearthed some of Bobbi Humphrey’s timeless jazz-funk fusion jewels from the 1970s on albums like Madlib’s Shades of Blue: Madlib Invades Blue Note (2003), Blue Note Revisited (2004), and the Mizell Brothers’ recently issued retrospective, Mizell (2005). Bobbi, aka Mama Don Dada, recently sat down with us to discuss the legacy of her Blue Note catalog and beyond.
You earned the distinction of being the first female artist on Blue Note when you signed with them in 1971. How did that come about?
When I was at Southern Methodist University, Dizzy Gillespie told me, “If you go to New York, in about a year or two, the whole world will know your name.” So I came up to New York on June 1, 1971; I still have the ticket! When my father put me on the plane, he said, “I don’t want to see you back in Dallas till you put the Humphrey name up in lights.” As soon as I touched down in New York, I hit the pavement looking to get a recording deal. And I approached it just as a person would look for a job. I went to Atlantic Records and one other label. They both told me they weren’t going to be looking at any new artists until the following quarter, which would have been September. I looked at them like, “I only got $400 in my pocket, that doesn’t work for me. I gotta make something happen now!” So I walked up 7th Avenue and saw a sign that said United Artists. I went to the fourth floor to Blue Note and went up to the secretary with an eight-track tape of myself. She told me to leave the tape and she’d make her boss listen to it. At the time, that was Dr. George Butler. He’d just started as the president of Blue Note Records. Prior to that, he was with United Artists Records’s gospel division. So sure enough, when I got back to my hotel, I got a phone call. It was George. He said, “I want to ask you two things: A. Is that really you playing on this tape? And, B. Do you want to make a record?” I told him that’s why I came to New York! So he ended by saying, “When the vultures come after you, you tell them George Butler already has you signed.” My third week in New York, I signed my deal.
So Bobbi is short for Barbara?
Yeah. George and I had a big fight about him changing my name. He reasoned that Bobbi spelled with an “i” was catchy. Even though now, if you call me Barbara, I’d be ready to fight! [laughs]
George Butler ended up producing your first two albums, Flute In and Dig This, which had a more tempered jazz sound. What marked the transition from that to working with the Mizell Brothers?
George’s secretary, Carol Campbell, played me some tracks from the Blackbyrd album Donald Byrd was working on. I said, “Wait a minute…I want some funk too!” She told me they were some new guys that happened to be Donald’s students from Howard University. Fonce was previously a member of the Corporation. They wrote hits for the Jackson 5 like “ABC.” After I heard those tracks, I went and talked to George. Really, I had to persuade him, because I was playing more straightahead jazz on my first two albums. Also, I think initially he was apprehensive about having such a closely identifiable producer’s sound on two different artists. But after he saw that I wasn’t going to relent, he agreed to try it. And Blacks and Blues turned out to be one of my biggest-selling records at Blue Note. It was bigger than Blackbyrd. But with any kind of change or transition, there’s going to be some resistance. One journalist interviewed me and said, “Some people say you’re selling out.” And I said, “Well, brother, I just hope I’m selling out at the record stores!” Artistically, I liked working with [the Mizells]. I was really young and didn’t realize when we were putting stuff down that you come to a session with chord changes. So with a song like “Harlem River Drive,” all my playing was improvisation. None of that was written.
So was that the template for a lot of the material you did with the Mizells?
Exactly. All of the stuff that I did with them. In other words, they would play the track in the background and just tell me to play to it. There was no written melody. Growing up, the music they listened to was doo-wop. And from that background, they intrinsically understood harmony. So they would already have the chord changes and background vocals laid out. I just played what I felt off the top of my head against that.
After Blacks and Blues came your most successful Blue Note record, Satin Doll. What prompted that concept?
There was a confluence of events. Duke Ellington was the first big musician that I’d gotten the chance to play with before my deal. And it just so happened that my daughter’s birth coincided with his death. I’ll never forget it. I was close to term, and my friend Stevie Wonder and his girlfriend came over and stayed with me. We listened to the funeral on the radio. I told George Butler I wanted to redo “Satin Doll” as a dedication to him. When Ricci Lynn was born, her baby pictures came out so beautiful. I’ve always been a concept person, so I really came up with that. I said, “We’re going to do ‘Satin Doll’ and here’s my satin doll.” It was celebrating new life and also a dedication to him.
You witnessed some of your finest moments at Blue Note, yet you left for Epic after Fancy Dancer. What instigated your exodus?
Again, I guess you could say that it was a confluence of events. I’ve always had a mind for business. I can’t remember their name, but at the time there was a group that approached me about helping them get a record deal. So I said I’d try to see if I could make some things happen. While I was in a meeting at Epic Records on behalf of this group, the A&R expressed interest in me as an artist. He told me that they could continue or exceed the numbers I was doing at Blue Note. At that time, my attorney told me that my contract with Blue Note was pretty much up. Also, I was really dissatisfied about having sold all those units and my [royalty] statements kept coming back in the negative. So I told my attorney that I wanted out. He told me later that the guy from Epic called him and said they’d buy out the remainder of my contract. So an agreement was reached, so I could legally move forward.
So was the deal sweeter at Epic?
At least with the advance Epic was giving me, I felt rich. Because I was selling all those units for Blue Note and they only gave me like a $1500 advance! Some little chicken feed. But when I went with [Epic], the advance was in the six figures. So there was no question. As I started getting more hip to the business and stopped being so excited about just making a record, I realized the importance of music as an industry.
In exiting Blue Note, you were not only leaving your first label situation, you were also leaving a successful, trademark sound with the Mizells. Was there ever a thought of you bringing them with you on your first Epic album?
I believe they were locked into a production deal with Blue Note. So [essentially] Blue Note was like, “You’re not going to leave the fold and try to take some of our stuff with you!” But I’ve always enjoyed their music. They were very unique. Larry Mizell had a song that I really wanted to record before I left [Blue Note] called “Bobbi-Q.” In my opinion, they were ahead of the game and ahead of their time. So I decided I would try new sounds. Skip Scarborough did my entire first album for Epic called Tailor Made. At the time, I also started my publishing and my management company, Innovative Artist Management. A singer/songwriter and myself had—even though I’m a woman—a gentleman’s agreement. He had written and sang lead on both “Most of All” and the title track. And he waited until after we recorded to get brand new and tell me he wasn’t signing any publishing papers. I had to show him that you can’t make a deal with somebody and try to flip the script. So I ended up telling Skip to wipe the lead vocals because I was making them instrumentals. I love the stuff I did at Blue Note, but I really love the stuff I did at Epic. This was because for the first time, if you notice, I was the executive producer on my albums. Meaning that in terms of the business, I set up the budget, musicians, and hours. I never had that freedom before.
Around this time, you also had the honor of being part of one of the biggest pop records in history, Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life?
Stevie and I have been good friends since I first came to New York. He became my daughter’s godfather. In 1975 or 1976, he told me he was working on this album he was planning to call Songs in the Key of Life and wanted me to come out to California and play on the record. But I’d never worked with him and I knew he was a perfectionist. I came to the studio, went in, and did my part, and he said, “Okay, that’s it.” I couldn’t believe it! I thought I’d have to do it at least thirty times for him. So I did “Another Star” in one take. Then I called him in 1978 to do a song on Freestyle called “Home-Made Jam.” He also played on a single I did in 1985 on Polygram called “No Way.” In terms of a friendship, I get teary eyed when I think about how that brother has stood with me. After he had the accident in 1973, he told me something really deep. He said the sound of my flute led him out of his coma.
You have an interesting story of a hit song that slipped through the cracks.
I was working in the studio with a guy named Beloyd Taylor at the time [of Tailor Made]. He’d written a song for me, did the track, and was going to bring it to the session. Apparently, Maurice White lived in the same apartment building as Beloyd’s partner Chuck. He heard him blasting it one day, knocked on the door, and told [Chuck] to name his price. Do you know what song Beloyd wrote for me that turned out to be a huge hit? “Getaway” by Earth, Wind & Fire! I never heard the record until it came out. Maurice came and apologized to me, but I didn’t know what he was talking about. He said, “You know that was your song.” I’m like, “What song?” He said, “Getaway.” He told me that he wanted to make sure his karma was straight. And I think he said that was the song Charles Stephney was working on when he collapsed and died. But I wasn’t upset with Beloyd or Maurice.
What have you been up to since leaving the major-label scene?
Performing. I also got into producing jingles and commercials. I did stuff for Halston perfume. One for Anheuser-Busch ran for five years. My company, Bobbi Humphrey Music, really took off towards the end of the ’80s in terms of developing other talent when I discovered a kid out of Dallas named Tevin Campbell. He sold five million records, so I was able to take at least ten years off. I formed my own record label, Paradise Sounds, in 1994. I’ve set up my own e-commerce site, bobbihumphrey.net. From here until perpetuity, I have a store that can sell all of my intellectual properties. I openly embrace the technology, because they used to have artists thinking it was rocket science in a sense that we really needed them. Don’t mess with a Black woman in America with a bar code and a URL! I’m also preparing a college course at the University of New Rochelle called “Music as Industry.” I’m starting off as a guest lecturing professor because other schools have heard about it and want me to do it also.
Seeing as that you were able to write music for commercials and jingles, why didn’t you do any writing on any of your albums at Blue Note?
When I first started at twenty-one, I read the contract where it said they owned either fifty percent or one hundred percent [of the publishing]. I said very analytically, “I guess I can’t write. Writer’s block!” That’s why I never wrote anything over there. They wanted all my publishing. That was a business decision. Even with the writers that I signed, I paid them an advance. But [Blue Note] was just saying, “If you sign this recording contract, we own it. And we ain’t givin’ you jack.” They weren’t giving me any kind of advance or anything. It was only when I got over to Epic that I started writing or co-writing some of my songs and joined ASCAP.
Out of all the times you’ve been sampled, only one of those artists came back and actually brought you on as a featured artist on their album. That was Common on “Between You, Me and Liberation” from his Electric Circus album. He’d actually sampled you twice prior to that.
Talk about it! [high fives] He did! He’d met my daughter and she gave him my number. He was so respectful and so excited. He told me that at the time he was in a mixing situation, but if I came down, he’d make it right for me. And he did. He was very fair; took care of all the business in, like, two days. At the time he was dating Erykah, and she’s from Dallas too. She told me she loved my songs “Please Set Me at Ease” and “Baby’s Gone.” I know I’ve been sampled, but I had no idea that these people were into my music like that! She’s heavy into video, so she taped a lot of that session. I really appreciated the love and respect they gave me.
How has that experience changed your perception of hip-hop?
I’ve always had respect for the art form. In my opinion, a lot of the hip-hop artists are like modern-day griots. It’s also something African Americans have to improve our economic situation, in terms of having control of our own destiny as artists and businesspeople. Saying that, for too long, we have been the innovators of this music and have not partaken of it commercially. We’re not going to create and watch your kids go to college while we’re wondering how we’re going to pay the rent. We’re going to create this music and we’re going to make money from this music. My kids, my grandkids, and everybody are going to eat off this plate. If you think about it, the music industry is the only industry where you can have a mortgage, pay off the mortgage, and still not own the house. I’m about making change not just for myself, [but to] to actually change laws in Congress so that we own these masters. I’m stepping out to wage that fight. And in every war, there’ll be some loss. But I’m prepared to pay that cost. So besides my music, hopefully that will be my legacy, being an artist-activist. Equity—that’s the only remix I want to hear!
Any closing words from the plaintiff?
This is Mama Don Dada saying: During tenuous times, we make note of those who stayed close and those who decided to get ghost.
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