On an ordinary fall afternoon in 1968, Clarence Reid was putting the finishing touches on "Don’t Make the Good Girls Go Bad," the followup to his first R&B song, "Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do [And Still Be a Lady]." "We had momentum with the previous hit," recalls Willie Clarke, a Miami public schoolteacher who moonlighted as Reid’s writing partner. Reid assumed that TK Productions, which had released "Girls Can’t Do What the Guys Do," would snatch up his latest effort.
But when Reid presented the song to TK’s top A&R guy, Steve Alaimo, he thought it sounded too much like the previous one. Reid had a fit. “He snatched up the lyrics and hauled ass,” Clarke says.
According to Clarke, Reid walked from Hialeah to Overtown to track down Della Humphrey.
At the time, Humphrey was an eighth-grader at Miami Edison Junior High who was tearing it up at talent shows in and around Liberty City.
In those days, the road to stardom for young black women was well lit by the blaze trailing Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross. Humphrey’s parents wanted more than just first-place ribbons for their Della. They had hired her a manager, a family friend who worked nights greeting guests at Overtown’s popular King of Hearts, Jack Corbitt.
Humphrey, Reid, and Corbitt would unite to record a top 20 hit on Billboard’s R&B charts and begin a bright new path for a starlet — only for it to fall apart. Just six years later, Humphrey vanished from the spotlight. It’s one of the many untold stories in Miami’s music history. Until now.
“He liked [Della’s] voice,” Corbitt, referring to Clarence Reid, recalls from his home in Connecticut. “He approached me while putting that song together.” They knew they had something special, but with TK’s rejection, they sought to shop it outside Miami. Corbitt was friends with Philadelphia radio station owner Harold Lipsius, who also had a record-pressing factory. A contingent that included Reid, Corbitt, Humphrey, and her mother, Beaulah, flew to Philadelphia and made a deal with Lipsius to release “Don’t Make the Good Girls Go Bad” on his label, Arctic Records.
The song was an instant hit. It debuted on the R&B charts November 16, 1968, and peaked at number 18 that December.
“It was blasting all over Miami radio,” Clarke remembers.
With that success, the young Humphrey became a certified star. She began playing live gigs across the nation and even traveled overseas for a performance before the highest-ranking government official in the Bahamas. During an event at the Philadelphia Convention Hall, she stole the show.
“She was ahead of Stevie Wonder that night. He had to perform before Della,” Corbitt remembers. “Johnny Taylor too. She was quite the performer.”
After the show, Corbitt remembers, Humphrey’s autograph was in highest demand. “I had Stevie [Wonder] and Johnny [Taylor] in line for her.”
Between 1969 and 1970, Arctic Records released the record’s B side, “Your Love Is All I Need,” and two additional songs by Humphrey: “Girls Have Feelings” and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” But none of these songs could match the enthusiasm and success of her debut.
Then, around 1973, Humphrey disappeared from the music scene. No more Billboard hits. No more big concerts. No more becoming the next Aretha Franklin.
Today, more than 40 years later, a small town northwest of Atlanta called Dallas counts Della Humphrey as one of its 12,000 residents.
On a recent afternoon over the phone, she admits she has not been interviewed in decades. Then she proceeded to talk about the topics she felt most comfortable with — the good, innocent times of her youth, such as attending Lillie C. Evans Elementary School in Miami. "Sidney Poitier’s niece was my first-grade teacher," she recalls. She recounts participating in a Cinderella play at the nearby Holmes Elementary, where the legendary soul singer Betty Wright played the fairy godmother, and singing with the choir at New Hope Baptist Church on 15th Avenue in Liberty City.
About her 1968 hit song, she remembers being "all stretched out and laid out [in the living room] when we first heard it on the radio. It was a big moment in my life and one that will last me a lifetime."
Fond memories can last a lifetime. But there are other memories too.
"Well, I had a very low period in my life there," Humphrey says. "I was so young when I started. Everything was dedicated to the music, to going here, going there."
She says there were some things her parents, whom she describes as "old-fashioned," weren’t happy about. "A lot of wear-and-tear on the body, and for what?" she remembers them saying. "Going places, being sick, a night here, another night there, and two more nights you are going to be in Washington and three more days in the Bahamas — what is this? Are you serious?"
Things came to a head over a planned performance at New York's Apollo Theater. According to Humphrey, Corbitt made a deal with the Apollo producers for a show. "Somehow he got half the money in advance, and when we found he did, I didn’t go."
"I got no damn money upfront," Corbitt argues. He adds that the deal was never closed, mainly because Humphrey’s mother wanted more than she was getting paid. There was reportedly an offer of $500 for Humphrey to perform at the historic theater, but she and her family were required to pay her travel expenses to New York.
"The offer was fine with me," he says, "but it wasn't fine with Della’s mama. She figured she was a big star and should get more money, not understanding that the appearance at the Apollo was worth, you know, more money than she can think about."
That was the last straw in their relationship.
"It just started to fall [apart] at the seams a little bit... friction with management," Humphrey says. "So, you know, we stepped back a little bit."
Humphrey’s family severed ties with Corbitt. After that, Humphrey’s music career tanked, and she began a downward spiral.
"She got on the wrong track, and then the family sort of shunned her," Corbitt says. "Della was in the streets. Blew my mind, man." This was in the early '70s. Humphrey was still in high school.
Humphrey denies that her family ever shunned her. She declines to discuss much about that part of her life. But she acknowledges that it fell apart, helped by alcohol and drugs. "Yes, I had my experience," she says, later adding, “I don’t believe I would have come in contact with a lot of things had I not been in that nightlife thing.”
By 1975, Humphrey had gotten herself cleaned up, a feat she attributes to her faith in God ("that was enough cleansing for me"). She moved to Philadelphia and found gigs in the music scene — a jazz club in downtown Philly here, a popular hotel lounge there. She says she liked the atmosphere there. “The environment had a lot of swag. It was flavorful.”
Humphrey bounced around the East Coast for a while before settling in Dallas, Georgia. She married an aviation mechanic who played sax and keyboards for a funk band on the side. They still write music together. She says she is looking to shop a deal to a record company and has "things lined up."
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In the meantime, this once-rising star of Miami’s soul-music scene of the '60s prefers a quiet, self-contained life in her small town northwest of Atlanta.
Asked if she has any regrets, she responds, "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."
She says she counts her early years in the music business as a privilege and a joy.
"I feel good waking up each day. I sleep good at night. Everybody can’t say that."