James “Baby Huey” Ramey was an unusual specimen: though he was six foot one and weighed more than 300 pounds, he could work a stage like a young James Brown. His group the Babysitters played high-energy funk, soul, and R & B that could whip a crowd into a frenzy–at an infamous show at Notre Dame in 1966, a stage invasion by enthusiastic fans turned into a melee that ended with the arrival of riot police. But on October 28, 1970, when the Babysitters were on the cusp of stardom, signed to Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom label and working on their first LP, Huey died of apparent heart failure in his hotel room. He was just 26.
That LP, The Baby Huey Story: The Living Legend, came out in 1971 and sold poorly, but for a generation of devoted soul, funk, and hip-hop fans it’s been a touchstone, a testament to a great lost talent. This week, after decades out of print or as a hard-to-find import, it’s getting its first stateside CD release from the San Francisco reissue label Water.
Little has been written about Baby Huey & the Babysitters, but the reissue coincides with new Huey-related endeavors from two founding members of the band. Organist and trumpeter Melvin “Deacon” Jones, who went on to play behind Freddie King and John Lee Hooker, has just self-published an autobiography called My Forty Years With the Blues Legends, which also details his time with Huey. And guitarist Johnny Ross, who’s been scoring films for blaxploitation legend Fred Williamson and hosts a weekly cable show in Indiana, devoted a recent broadcast to his old band’s story, airing rare and unseen photos. Ross is also selling an EP that combines both of the Babysitters’ long-unavailable mid-60s singles, the only other tracks they ever released.
Born in 1944 in Richmond, Indiana, James Ramey arrived in Chicago in late 1963. He and Jones, high school friends, had already played around Indiana and Michigan with a group called Richmond’s Own Vets. “Jimmy didn’t have a beautiful voice or anything,” says Jones. “But he was the kind of showman that could win you over. He could outdance anybody. When he walked out onstage you immediately loved him.”
Ramey had a glandular disorder that accelerated his growth, causing him to put on weight even if he ate sparingly; he borrowed the Baby Huey name from Harvey Comics’ oversize duckling, and for early publicity photos he squeezed into a schoolboy outfit and carried stuffed animals. To form the Babysitters, Jones and Ramey enlisted Ross (who’d left Richmond a couple years before), a string of drummers, and later a bassist. At first they couldn’t find a place to play. “The black clubs that we went to and auditioned for in the south side and west side of Chicago turned up their noses at us,” says Jones. “But we didn’t stop, we kept on going until we got to the Thumbs Up.”
The Thumbs Up, on Broadway just north of Diversey, was a tiny, no-frills bar with a modest stage. Beginning in 1964, the Babysitters made it their home base, rehearsing their choreographed stage show at the club during the day and gigging there five times a week, usually delivering four sets a night. They played almost exclusively covers, from Beatles hits to Motown favorites, but remade the tunes in their own image, writing radical, funked-up arrangements to complement Huey’s full-throttle showmanship.
“People would come and see us, get up to go to the phone or leave, and bring friends back with them. They’d be like, ‘You gotta come and see this. I can’t even describe it to you,'” says Jones. “We went from like 20 people a night to 40, to 80, to 160.” Late in 1964 the Babysitters were written up in the Tribune and the Sun-Times after police and fire marshals had to deal with crowds overflowing into the street outside the club. (Huey also made the papers that year when he was busted for pot possession.) Before long the Thumbs Up moved to a larger location across the street that could hold more than 400 people, but the shows were still packed. In a city and an era marked by racial tension, the Babysitters were an anomaly: an all-black band playing on the north side to an almost exclusively white audience.
Baby Huey attracted the lion’s share of the attention, and much of it was female. “As a young guy he didn’t have very many girlfriends because of his size,” says Ross, “but when he started to gain popularity the girls were hanging all over him.”
The Babysitters were soon an eight-piece band with a full horn section. They shared bills with Jan and Dean, Muddy Waters, the Isley Brothers, and the Yardbirds, and in 1965 the group cut those first two singles. The second, a novelty tune called “Monkey Man,” became a minor hit, reaching number 26 on WVON, Chicago’s leading R & B station, and getting airplay as far east as Philadelphia.
Before long the Babysitters were performing seven nights a week, both at the Thumbs Up and at other venues around town. They developed a reputation for being willing to play anywhere–not just clubs and colleges but cruise ships and cotillions. In January 1967, French wine magnate Philippe de Rothschild whisked the band to Paris to play a private party for his daughter, and what was supposed to be a weekend jaunt lasted three months. The Babysitters were booked for several sold-out weeks at the Le Keur Samba nightclub in Paris. The buzz from the trip preceded the band back to the States, and in Chicago the Babysitters’ fans hotly anticipated their return.
In 1967 Marv Heiman was a young agent in Chicago, booking up-and-coming acts like the Cryan’ Shames, the Buckinghams, and the Shadows of Knight on the regional club and college circuit. On weekends, after their own gigs ended, those bands would head to the Thumbs Up to watch Baby Huey & the Babysitters tear it up until the wee hours. Heiman soon caught on and became Huey’s agent and manager.
Huey had a “huge underground following,” Heiman says. “Every major rock act–including the Rolling Stones–when they were in Chicago came to see Huey at the club.” Ross claims that George Clinton, future ringmaster of P-Funk, would come down from Detroit to check out the band and cop moves from Huey.
Heiman kept the Babysitters on the road six or seven months out of the year, booking a string of one-nighters on campuses across the country. “The kids were following them from gig to gig and it just mushroomed,” he says.
As the hippie era flowered and styles changed, the Babysitters changed along with them. Gone were the satin baseball jackets and matching suits of the band’s early years; Huey began wearing African robes and grew out his Afro. The music took on a psychedelic hue, and onstage Huey peppered the songs’ long instrumental breaks with lascivious raps: “I’m Big Baby Huey, and I’m 400 pounds of soul. I’m like fried chicken, girls, I’m finger-lickin’ good!” With these impromptu freestyle verses, Huey was developing what many see as an embryonic form of hip-hop. “Baby Huey was rapping back in the 60s,” insists Jones. “Way before the Sugar Hill Gang or whoever.”
In 1968 the Babysitters spent several weeks in New York, playing hot spots like the Cheetah and Trudy Heller’s. Miles Davis sat in with the band, and Mama Cass had them as houseguests. The following year they traveled to Los Angeles to hit the talk-show circuit, appearing on programs hosted by Della Reese, Merv Griffin, and Mike Douglas. Heiman says that after he’d represented Huey for about a year and a half, the band had “picked up a national name without a record out.” But Huey was frustrated. By 1969, several Chicago bands active at the same time–including the Buckinghams and the New Colony Six–had scored record deals and radio hits. The Babysitters weren’t even working on an album, both because they had no original material to speak of and because the good money they were earning on the road made them disinclined to take time out for studio work.
Encouraged by Huey, Heiman pitched the band to Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom label. Curtom, which was based in Chicago, dispatched an A and R man to the Thumbs Up–soul singer Donny Hathaway, still a year shy of his own first LP. “Donny came in and flipped over Huey,” says Heiman. “He brought Curtis the next night. Curtis saw him and said, ‘I wanna sign him. I wanna record him.'”
The Babysitters scheduled sessions during gaps in their touring schedule and worked up a version of “Mighty Mighty (Spade and Whitey),” originally by Mayfield’s group the Impressions. Mayfield wrote a handful of tracks for Huey, and Huey penned two songs of his own, the chill-out instrumental “One Dragon Two Dragon” and the funk free-for-all “Mama Get Yourself Together.” In 1970 the band recorded a nine-minute take of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” punctuated by echoing shrieks and howls from Huey. The tune is interrupted by his long, spaced-out rap about childhood, drugs, and death.
Success seemed just around the corner for Baby Huey, but his life was coming apart. By late 1969 both Ross and Jones, his oldest friends, had left the Babysitters after a contract dispute–Heiman had signed only Huey, and they felt reduced to the status of interchangeable employees. Their departures were a blow to Huey, who’d come to see the band as a family. Aron Burton, one of the Babysitters’ regular bass players at the time, says Huey was prone to melancholy moods and hated being alone–he’d insist that his new bandmates hang out with him at his Hyde Park apartment, and demanded so much of their free time that he angered many of their wives and girlfriends.
Huey had topped 400 pounds and his health was suffering. More significantly, he’d developed a serious heroin habit. As Jones puts it, Huey had started “running with a bad crowd.” He grew increasingly depressed and unreliable, turning up late or missing rehearsals and gigs entirely. “He was on the slide down. I said to him, ‘Look, I can’t just sit here and watch my best friend slowly killing himself.’ And he made some kind of sarcastic remark to me,” recalls Jones. “You just can’t save a drowning person if they don’t want to be saved.”
In spring 1970 Heiman stepped in, checking Huey into an experimental rehab program at the University of Wisconsin at Madison for a week or so. “We got him into this facility, but it wasn’t even screened. All his guys from Chicago would come and bring him dope while he was there,” says Heiman. “I think deep down he was an unhappy person. . . . The drugs kept him happy in his own mind, so it was an excuse to do it.”
Six months after the rehab attempt, Huey was found dead of an apparent heart attack at the Roberts Motel on Chicago’s south side. His weight and his drug problems probably both contributed to his untimely demise, but no extensive autopsy was performed. His body was sent back to Indiana to be buried.
“It was the biggest funeral Richmond ever had,” says Ross. “Bigger than the mayor’s funeral. They had well over a hundred cars.” A contingent of mourners from Chicago, who’d forgotten about the time difference, arrived late. “They were just ending the service when a throng of people, maybe 300 or so, came into the church. So they held another service.”
“The really sad part of the whole situation is that it was just a matter of time before he was going to be a big star,” says Heiman. “It might’ve taken a few years, or a couple albums, but it would’ve happened.”
The Babysitters soldiered on with a young Chaka Khan, wife of bassist Hassan Khan, fronting the band. But as Jones puts it, “couldn’t nobody take Baby Huey’s place,” and the group soon disbanded.
Over the next year, Heiman and Mayfield tinkered with the material the Babysitters had already recorded, editing and overdubbing until they’d cobbled together three instrumentals and five vocal numbers, including “Mighty Mighty” and “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Curtom released The Baby Huey Story: The Living Legend with liner notes that read like a eulogy.
“I felt like it would’ve been a waste of Huey’s life if something didn’t come out on record,” says Heiman. “I just wanted a memorial for Huey.”
For decades Huey’s music has been kept in circulation by hip-hop artists: it’s been sampled by Eric B. & Rakim, Public Enemy, Ice Cube, A Tribe Called Quest, Ghostface, Tha Liks, and many more. New York DJ Andrew “Monk One” Mason, who helped track down unpublished archival photos for the reissue’s liner notes, believes The Baby Huey Story is an important piece of hip-hop history. “To hear a Baby Huey track like ‘Listen to Me,’ it’s not a song that you would immediately identify with hip-hop, but that’s really one of the fundamental records that hip-hop was based on, when it was not so much a musical genre, but when it was more a lifestyle that had a sound track to it,” he says. “And that’s coming directly from people like DJ Red Alert, who was there at the birth of hip-hop.”
Heiman didn’t fully grasp the importance of this part of Huey’s legacy until 1999, when he attended a ceremony at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Mayfield was being inducted by Eric Clapton and P. Diddy. “I’m talking to P. Diddy backstage, and one thing led to another, and it came out that I had represented Baby Huey,” says Heiman. “I tell you, he was completely blown away. He said he had the album and how much he loved it. And he told me, ‘You have no idea how important Huey was; he was one of the true fathers of hip-hop and rap.’
“In a strange way,” says Heiman, “even though he never became a superstar, he really has lived on.”