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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Baby Huey and The Babysitters, "The Baby Huey Story"

Baby Huey and The Babysitters
"The Baby Huey Story"
Curtom (1971)

1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die

James "Baby Huey" Ramey is a figure who seems to have slipped through the cracks of music history; an irony considering that his most striking feature was his weight, which wavered between 350 and 425 pounds during his brief career.

Huey, who died of a heart attack (weight or drug-related is debatable) at the age of 26 did not stick around long enough to become a legend as he might have, given the chance. His voice is one that screams, literally and metaphorically, of potential. The mere eight tracks on "The Baby Huey Story," assembled after his death by his patron Curtis Mayfield, only leave the listener wanting more to sample from. Three of the tracks are just instrumentals, including a bombastic horn version of "California Dreamin'" that would most likely have featured Huey's vocals had he not passed.

The five remaining tracks that do feature Huey are the ones that force you to wonder what might have been. The opener "Listen to Me" reveals a man who could rival James Brown in terms of raw, gripping ability. Huey opens with a series of catcalls to the audience, climaxing in a shriek torn right from Mr. Brown's playbook. But when the song jumps into the verses, Huey delivers the hook in a strong, firm tenor reminiscent of rockers like Roger Daltrey of The Who. The lively horns and organ propel the mood along, but whether the playing on the album is that of the Babysitters or session musicians is a strongly contested topic; Mayfield initially sought only to sign Huey and not his band. Whomever the musicians are, it works.

Another element of Huey's music that is commonly cited is its influence on hip-hop. Huey was known for his "raps" at live shows. The closest he comes to it is the live recording of "Mighty Mighty" on this recording. Whether this constitutes a true rap is debatable; There is certainly a change of pace in his delivery and the "let's have a party" theme is suggestive of popular early '80s hip-hop. In my mind, it doesn't have the same bearing as the spoken word delivery pioneered by Gil Scott-Heron a few years earlier however. Regardless, Huey's tracks were frequently sampled by later hip-hop artists including Eric B. and Rakim in "Follow the Leader," Ice Cube and A Tribe Called Quest.

Moon describes Huey as a "well-known unknown," which is on point. Huey was a friend of Jimi Hendrix, and an icon in the Chicago music scene for seven years. After his death, with a lack of a proper record, he was widely forgotten. It's a reminder that there are talented acts everywhere that will never get their names to the big time. Everyone who is into their local music scene knows one. Do the rest of us a favor and spread the word.

INTERESTING FACT: Huey might not have been an international name, but he got international attention when money was involved. Baron de Rothschild, member of the most powerful banking family in Europe, flew the band to France to play at a debutante party for his daughter.

"Listen to Me"

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