Della Humphrey’s voice is powerful and deliberate. Tastefully simple vocal runs blossom into wavering vibratos. She can launch into a full-on belt from not much more than a whisper. The command she has over her voice belies the fact that she was 12 years old when she recorded her only well known song, “Don’t Make the Good Girls Go Bad.” Perhaps it was her youth that made for her that spunky, snot-nosed swagger that got her vocals the perfect amount of grit and soul. There’s almost no information about the singer anywhere to be found, and, since she recorded so little, what biography exists is part deep soul myth, part internet speculation.
Humphrey only cut three singles for Arctic Records, but most of her songs were written by the same person: Clarence Reid. Yes, that Clarence Reid – R&B songwriter and disco pioneer turned funky porno rapper with his crass-as-hell “Blowfly” persona. I caught up with Reid over the phone while he was waiting for the bus to see if he could fill in some of the blanks from the Della Humphrey story.
Turns out the legend is more or less true–Clarence Reid discovered Della Humphrey at a school talent show, and she recorded “Don’t Make the Good Girls Go Bad” in 1968 when she was 12 years old. “When we’d go to rehearsals, she was 100% serious,” Reid remembers. Even though “Good Girls” was a minor hit, her family was uncomfortable with her getting into the music business so young. Even though Reid had everything all “set up” for her to make a full length and have a chance at stardom, he moved on to other projects. “I didn’t have too much time to work with her but she would have been good because she listened. And I was going to teach her how to be aggressive. You know, look them in the eye… shock people when she comes out on stage.”
He said she never performed her solo material live, which is astonishing considering how natural and tight she sounds with the band on wax. She fits perfectly into the crisp band arrangements, which are the other highlight from Humphrey’s compact yet excellent body of work. Many of the tunes rely on a fast, dynamic counterpoint between Humphrey and the lead guitar, tempered by a muted, mellow bed of organ. Unfortunately, everything they recorded was released–there are no secrets in the can–but Reid wished she could have made more records. He even said that he originally intended to have her record “Rockin’ Chair,” which would go on to be a charting hit when Gwen McCrae recorded the tune in 1975.
Reid worked with a handful of young girls from Miami around the time Della Humphrey was cutting her singles. The most successful of the bunch was Betty Wright, who hit big with “Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do” in 1968 when she was 14.
“I was noticing… if you had 5 girlfriends at one time you was a lover, a Cassanova,” said Reid. “But if your sister dated 2 boys at once, she was a whore, a bitch. I couldn’t understand that. So I wrote the song ‘girls you can’t do what the guys do no and still be a lady.’”
Good observation… Reid’s collaboration with these young ladies in the late ‘60s yielded a set of similar sounding and (I think) semi-conscious songs that bemoan the traditional, laced-up roles for young women via these stereotypical bad girl characters. All of the songs feature this style of rapid-fire lyricism–a sort of proto-rap–that supports Clarence Reid’s claim that he invented rap in the 1960s.
Betty Wright went on to be a big star and Reid penned one of her biggest hits, “Clean Up Woman.” Della Humphrey, however, has successfully avoided the public eye, although at one point she made a roots-reggae record called “Dreamland” that came out on Coxsone in the ‘70s. King Sporty supposedly handled production, which is entirely plausible since he was married to Betty Wright–a possible neighborhood connection? Last year, the rapper Game blew up “Don’t Make the Good Girls Go Bad” when he sampled it for his joint with Drake, but you can hear the track and an extra-rare Della cut below, plus Wright’s classic “Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do.” words/a spoto