The Baby Huey Story:The Living Legend (Expanded Edition)
3 1/2 out of 5 stars
The Rhino label’s annual musical celebration of Black History Month ramps up again this year with the reissue of some classic artists’ work on vinyl and digitally. The most unique and idiosyncratic of 2021’s batch is this expanded debut from obscure soul singer Baby Huey (born James Thomas Ramey), originally released in early 1971 just months after his untimely 1970 death due in part to drugs and health issues.
It’s odd that those involved at the time didn’t expunge the “living” or “legend” words from the title because neither was true when the album initially appeared. The gruff voiced, burly Huey (somewhere between 350-400 pounds due to a glandular issue that hastened his death at 26) was a local celebrity around Chicago; enough so that Curtis Mayfield signed Huey to his Curtom label (on Donny Hathaway’s suggestion), and produced this, his debut and lone release.
Despite the attention, and the quality of Huey’s powerful performance along with that of his sizzling 10 piece Babysitters backing band, the record didn’t cause much commotion when it finally hit the street and ended up as a common item in vinyl cut-out bins.
But over the years, it picked up fans and, with high profile samples used in various rap songs, got an unanticipated new lease on life. The Mayfield song “Hard Times,” one of three Curtis covers on the album, was recently used as the theme to the Netflix documentary Fear City: New York vs. The Mafia, which might have prompted this newly expanded, digital only, release.
Interestingly, there isn’t that much Baby Huey on it. The initial eight songs total 41 minutes yet three are funky instrumentals by his band with Huey MIA, which eats up a third of the time. But the singer makes his mark on the remaining five tracks, extending a version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” to over nine minutes. It includes what seems like an improvised talking section where Huey recounts difficulties of his life as the band simmers behind him. The sound is rugged early 70s R&B with the horn injected Babysitters chugging away with a combination of Stax styled thump and Mayfield’s more melodic Chicago soul. There’s a clear line to a Sly and the Family Stone psychedelisized vibe in “Running” and the opening “Listen to Me,” where Huey’s falsetto scream explodes out of the speakers, borrows its percussive groove from any number of James Brown jams.
Perhaps we could have done without the five minute instrumental cover of “California Dreaming” even with its fiery flute solo, which might have been better saved for the live show. But when Huey is featured, there is no questioning his vocal authority and oversized, so to speak, talent.
This edition adds eight tracks, all instrumentals, to increase the album’s length by about a half hour. None are essential as they feature the band in a dated but muscular party-ready form. Regardless, that makes it the most comprehensive version of a late blooming yet legitimately legendary release; a once footnoted item that has belatedly become an American soul music classic of sorts.