Once in a while you come across an old tune you’ve never heard before by a musician you’ve never heard before and it’s so great you can’t believe you didn’t know it. Like this slice of psychedelic soul.
Baby Huey is a new name to me but he should have been a big star in every sense – he stood six foot two and, due to glandular problem, weighed 400 lbs (or nearly 30 stone) in his twenties.
Tragically, he died of a fatal heart attack just before his debut album was about to be released, only weeks after his 26th birthday in 1971.
With a voice that drew comparisons to Otis Redding, and his own signature scream (the “Huey howl”), he was set for stardom with his flamboyant image (giant Afro and colourful African robes) and music channelling exuberant soul with the psychedelic R&B of a garage rock band.
Baby Huey – Jimmy Ramey to his mum – came from Indiana and moved to Chicago after he left school, singing with a local band called The Vets before forming The Baby Sitters. Good luck if you can find an original copy of any of their four singles, which are prized by collectors.
Monkey Man, their first release from 1965 (sadly they never made an album) sounds like something you might find on one of those Nuggets albums of underground Sixties psychedelia, before a change of style under the influence of Sly & The Family Stone.
At live shows Huey would ad-lib rhymes similar to what would one day become rap, and The Baby Sitters (Huey, organist/trumpeter Melvyn ‘Deacon’ Jones and guitarist Johnny Ross) became a popular live act, touring the USA and being flown to Paris by the Rothschild family to play at a family ball, leading to a feature in Vogue magazine.
Sadly, they never got round to recording an album but in 1969 they were seen by Donny Hathaway at a Chicago club called the Thumbs Up and he brought Curtis Mayfield to see them the following night, with a view to signing them to his Curtom label.
Mayfield wanted to sign Huey, but not the other band members, who left during recording sessions for what became his only album, produced by Mayfield and featuring four of his compositions, plus a ten-minute version of Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come that includes a moving monologue by Huey on his own failings, and two Huey originals.
Sadly, by the time of the recording Huey had become addicted to heroin and alcohol, regularly missing gigs and turning up late. On 28 October 1970 he died of a drug-related heart attack in a Chicago motel room. His album was released posthumously with the oddly ironic title The Baby Huey Story: The Living Legend.
If you’re a hip hop aficionado, you’ll probably recognise many of the tracks not least this one – the Mayfield-penned Hard Times – later sampled by everyone from Ghostface Killah and The Notorious B.I.G. to Lil Wayne, A Tribe Called Quest, Raekwon, Biz Markie and Ice Cube.
As for The Baby Sitters, they played at his funeral back in his hometown of Richmond, Ohio, before carrying on for a while with a new teenage singer called… Chaka Khan.