Genre: Soul, funk, proto hip-hop
Recommended Songs: “A Change Is Gonna Come” (Sam Cooke Cover), “Hard Times,” “Mighty Mighty” and “Mama Get Yourself Together”
I love listening to artists describe themselves; it’s a personal pleasure of mine. When an artist describes himself or herself, it’s generally a trip into their mind, and paints a very brief but important picture of the way they view themselves amidst the music, fame, fans, drugs, whatever. With the exception of Mr. Kanye West, I have never found an artist’s self description that I enjoy more than that of James T. Ramey, known to the world as soul singer Baby Huey.
“I’m Big Baby Huey, and I’m 400 pounds of soul!” he would triumphantly announce as he stood on stage, his massive presence dominating anything and everything around him. Baby Huey was a monster. He stood well over 6’ 5”, weighed somewhere in the range of 350-400 pounds and sported a massive and wild afro atop his head like a crown. Ramey was the leader of his 10-man soul and funk group the Baby Sitters, a fully fleshed out band made up of an entire horn section, a very prominent keyboardist, a set of guitarists and one of the funkiest bass players ever to appear on God’s green earth.
The Babysitters were tight, and gave Huey an incredible backdrop of sound to work with. The music that the Babysitters created was heavily inspired by the likes of James Brown, Curtis Mayfield (who worked as a producer for nearly everything the band recorded) and most importantly, Sly and The Family Stone, the originators of the band's partly psychedelic sound.
As great as the band was, Baby Huey is without a doubt the star of his own vehicle and was the owner of one of the most powerful and original voices in all of soul music. If one can imagine a hybrid of James Brown, Otis Redding, and Howlin’ Wolf, then one can without a doubt imagine the sonic texture of Huey’s voice. A powerful instrument unlike anything else at the time, Huey had the ability to dazzle with a sort of secret weapon: a disarming unearthly shriek that would become his most defining characteristic. There isn’t anything out there quite like this voice, and honestly it’s the most prominent reason for remembering him.
It’s a shame that the only material we have from Huey and his Babysitters are all collected into a single posthumous LP entitled “The Living Legend: The Baby Huey Story.” Through a rather bad bout of poorly timed irony, Huey died of a drug related heart attack while recording “The Living Legend” and never saw its release or its completion. With the help of the previously mentioned Curtis Mayfield (who added a set of instrumental tracks including the incredible and energetic funk jam session, “Mama Get Yourself Together”), the LP had just enough material to see the light of day.
Mainly made up of covers, “The Living Legend” acts as a sort of promise, a taste of what was to come from what would likely have been one of the most dominant forces in soul music. Really, it is a shame that we will likely never see anything aside from this LP or the odd set of early recordings that many fans are still waiting for. Still, what we had with “The Living Legend” was awesome.
The most noteworthy of the tracks included are the massive take on Sam Cooke’s immortal “A Change Is Gonna Come,” a classic that Huey and the Babysitters warp into a nine and a half minute trip that includes a bizarre monologue given by the living legend himself, addressing coming of age and other important things like “pointy toed shoes” and outhouses. All of this, of course, is complemented by Huey’s dominating eagle-esque shriek. Other highlights include the awesome church yard stomp of “Mighty Mighty” which features a sound so jubilant and energetic that one would be forgiven for thinking that every musician in the recording booth were in the process of having their souls cleansed of sin.
Even more interesting is when Huey steps away from the mic and allows the band to take over, creating some of the most incredible funk jams you’ll hear on this side of the moon. Though Huey passed on before the album was even completed, his legacy is still one that is surprisingly prominent. Odds are, you’ve probably heard him before and liked what you heard. Don’t believe me? After giving a listen to the Huey’s take on the Curtis Mayfield penned “Hard Times,” take a second look at Ghostface Killah and Raekwon’s “Buck 50” or even A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It?” and you’ll find traces of Huey’s bright but shortly lived career.