Graded on a Curve:
Baby Huey,
The Baby Huey Story: The Living Legend

If you’re like me, you’ve never heard of James Ramsey (aka Baby Huey), the giant (350-400 lbs, and more!) and short-lived Chicago funk, psychedelic soul, and R&B singer who never quite escaped the confines of his adopted city of Chicago, and who only managed to release one LP, and that one posthumously. Heroin tragically truncated his life; Melvyn Jones, organist and trumpet player for Baby Huey’s backing band the Babysitters, once recounted an incident in which Baby Huey’s works fell out of a cereal box while he pouring himself a bowl. (The cereal was later determined to be Kellogg’s ODs.)

But a listen to Baby Huey and the Babysitters’ LP The Baby Huey Story: The Living Legend (an odd title for a man who was functionally deceased at the time of the LP’s release; some fact checker somewhere was hitting the ODs too) will make you bemoan his early death at age 26 in a Chicago motel room, because the goddamned album, so frustrating in places, in others shows Baby Huey to be one badass funk and soul man. Produced by Curtis Mayfield, who most likely used pre-existing tracks and session men after Baby Huey’s demise to fill in the backgrounds because he was no fan of the Babysitters, The Baby Huey Story is all over the place: from a fantastically weird cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” to a take of Mayfield’s own “Mighty, Mighty” that was recorded live to one very jazz-centric take on “California Dreamin’,” Baby Huey covered all the bases and then some.

Take his version of Mayfield’s “Running.” Big horns, a funky backbeat, some hardcore drum thump, and one psychedelic guitar provide Baby Huey with the backdrop, and he sounds bad. As in mean. Great, right? But it’s followed by the easy listening and flute-heavy instrumental “One Dragon Two Dragon,” which just bums me the fuck out. Ditto “California Dreamin’,” which is the horrible sound of a flute running loose. Kinda reminds me of the Will Ferrell flute scene in Anchorman. Except this one ends up sounding like a bad 1970’s TV theme song, one starring Jean Paul Sartre as a crime-solving detective suffering from existential nausea and frog eyes.

“Mama Get Yourself Together” is an instrumental too, and also sounds like a TV theme song, but for a show you might actually want to watch. The horns are all over the place, the organ is tres funky, and the percussion has whomp. In short it’s a cut above the aforementioned tunes, and has the decided advantage that you can—and will want to—dance to it. And so it goes—three of the eight cuts on The Baby Huey Story don’t even have Baby Huey on them. But don’t despair, because the rest of the songs—including the aforementioned “Running” are as funky as Baby Huey’s Afro and mutton chops.

“Listen to Me” opens with some hard funk guitar and a bevy of horns, and Baby Huey shows he has the right stuff; he shouts, croons, shrieks in one mighty falsetto, while the band churns behind him. He goes low, he goes high, he says life is a drag, and I’ve never heard anyone—Prince included—hit a high note the way he does. Baby Huey’s live take on Mayfield’s “Mighty, Mighty” (he seems to have dropped the “(“Spade & Whitey)” tagged on to the end of Mayfield’s versions) demonstrates the energy he could generate in a club, even if all he does is talk his way through the song. “Good god almighty,” he says, how he wants to get back to his red beans and rice, and let’s not forget good old Thunderbird (“What’s the word people?” he shouts, and they shout back, “Thunderbird!”) and he lets out another one of those shrieks that nobody could match. It’s a great song; he carries on a conversation with a little girl, and it’s cute beyond words.

“Hard Times” is yet another Mayfield tune, but its import is momentous; listening to it you hear Public Enemy, right there in your ear phones, and it’s eerie. The horns are spot on, and rise to a crescendo, while the guitarist goes psychedelic and Baby Huey complains there’s no love to be found in this town. Numerous rap and hip-hop artists have either sampled (Ice Cube, A Tribe Called Quest) or covered it (The Roots), recognizing it for what it is, a proto-hip-hop masterpiece. As for his cover of Cooke’s “A Change Is Going to Come,” Mayfield throws in lots of echo on the vocals, but it’s not necessary—Baby Huey’s straight-up take is one of the most moving I’ve ever heard. And one of the strangest—his wailing shrieks, which seem to come out of nowhere along with the horns and organ, are otherworldly. And he ends it with a strange monologue that describes the journey from innocence (chasing after the ice cream truck) to experience (“Space Odyssey,” he says, taking you down the psychedelic highway) before letting out one final shriek before the final fade out. If you listen to just one song off this LP, make it this one; if it doesn’t convince you we lost a vital artist with Baby Huey’s premature demise, there is something wrong with you, sister.

That Mayfield couldn’t even fill an LP with Baby Huey’s vocals is beyond sad; one wonders if more of the live material, from which Mayfield culled “Mighty, Mighty,” isn’t buried in a vault somewhere, waiting to be discovered. In any event, what Baby Huey left behind was so full of promise that it’s almost an understatement to call it a tragedy. The needle and the damage done; it’s a plague and a pandemic, and it took Huey before he could ravage the world with those far out vocals of his.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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