Born Barbara Ann Humphrey, on 25 April 1950, in Marlin, Texas, flute virtuoso Bobbi Humphrey had the distinction of being the first African-American female instrumentalist to sign with Blue Note Records. She was brought to the iconic jazz label in 1971 by the company’s then-president and head of A&R, Dr George Butler, who helped to shape the label’s trajectory in the 70s, when it was a subsidiary imprint of United Artists Records. It marked the start of a run of classic albums for Blue Note, including Flute-In, Dig This and Blacks And Blues.
Brought up in Dallas, Texas, Humphrey was studying at the city’s Southern Methodist University in the late 60s when she met and impressed jazz trumpet legend Dizzy Gillespie, who urged Humphrey to go to New York to seek her fortune. She followed his advice and went there in June 1971, armed with a demo tape which she took to a couple of record companies. When George Butler heard it, he immediately wanted to sign her. Happy to oblige him, Humphrey inked a contract with the label and recorded her debut, Flute-In, a collection of soul covers and straight-ahead jazz standards, later that year.
Her follow-up, 1972’s Dig This, had a funkier and more contemporary vibe, so it seemed a natural progression when, in 1973, the then 23-year-old flautist joined forces with producer and songwriter Larry Mizell. The producer had just helmed Donald Byrd’s highly successful Blue Note album Black Byrd, a record that put the trumpeter at the top of the US jazz and R&B charts.
Larry Mizell’s calling card was a new kind of accessible jazz-funk style consisting of fluid, soulful grooves bolstered with catchy vocal refrains. It was this that Humphrey tapped into on 7 and 8 July 1973, when she went into Hollywood’s Sound Factory studio and put her flute on six tracks written by Mizell, for an album that became one of Humphrey’s most successful: Blacks And Blues.
According to Humphrey, speaking in a 2006 interview, the songs were already recorded and all she had to do was go in and blow: “They would play the track in the background and just tell me to play to it. There was no written melody. I just played what I felt off the top of my head against that.”
Blacks And Blues broke into both the US R&B (No.18) and pop charts (No.84) in April 1974, but its success was eclipsed by that of the flautist’s next album, 1975’s Fancy Dancer. Even so, Blacks And Blues remains the go-to album in Bobbi Humphrey’s canon, and the fact that all its tracks have been sampled by a variety of hip-hop artists in the decades since adds to its value.