There’s nearly a full minute of rally calls, shrill screams, throaty howls and blasting horns before Baby Huey insists, “Listen to me / Hear what I say.” When a possessed yawp escalates into the song main a moment later, you are indeed heeding his call. Because that’s what this man is–possessed. He’s more inviting than the consumed, bed-shackled soul in The Exorcist, but his possession remains just the same: bound within a form, he gyrates, spins, screams and spews, fighting the confines of his sound, stretching to its borders, blasting up against them and hurling back across to the other side.
Later on in “Listen To Me,” the curtain-raising track to his solitary, posthumous opus The Baby Huey Story: The Living Legend, he exclaims “Kinda funky!” “Kinda” is, to put it ever so commonly, an understatement.
The living legend, though, he wasn’t. His legend grew in stature when he died, at just 26 years old, a year before this record was released. Born James Raney–called Jimmy by friends–Baby Huey had what one might call a weight problem. Reports vary, but he weighed anywhere from 350 to in excess of 400 pounds. This was a choke-hold on life that, gripped with an added heroin and drinking problem, would squeeze the last breath from him in 1970. These are ancillary to the music at hand, pertinent only when postulating what Baby Huey might’ve been had he not died. But while he was living, he had the makings of a legend.
The record was curated by Curtis Mayfield, and includes seven of Mayfield’s songs. And this is a good starting point. Because to compare the two undoubtedly unfurls the wild spirit of Baby Huey’s music. Mayfield himself was the archangel of smooth, caressing funk, licking his way across your consciousness as a messenger of invite. The kind of music you open the door for just before it has a chance to knock, that partakes of your goods, drinks you clean and departs with your permission to return. Baby Huey, in contrast, is a fallen angel who sweats and bleeds the human soul, writhing to survive amidst humanly turmoil. This is all too apparent in the now classic cover of Mayfields’ “Hard Times.” Mayfield’s version patiently lingers across 50 seconds of quivering anticipation before he invites himself in with his words. But Baby Huey arrives much more immediately. The thumping bassline is more urgent, Huey coming just 12 seconds in. And if Mayfield’s voice is silk, then Huey’s is a slight tear in the fiber. The scratch in his throat is barely noticeable, a trace almost overlooked, but when he says he’s been sleeping on motel floors and drinking Thunderbird, you feel his hard times. Leery of his intent, you had to wait for the knock at the door. But now you’re wrapping your arms around the what portion of him you can, and insist that he rest his head.
You feel this earlier, when he embarks on Sam Cooke’s epic “A Change is Gonna Come.” He echoes his voice into being, the tone itself speaking the tragedy before you can pay attention to a single word. And when you do, you hear, “It’s been too hard livin’ / But I’m a afraid to die.” And you nearly weep for the man. Because, while Cooke has hope, you know that a change isn’t going to come for Baby Huey. You know that because you know that he knows this. And then his shriek takes over like a tortured nether-creature whose soul is slowly being ripped apart. Maybe this is prescient. Maybe he knew his lot was in. Maybe that’s why he drank, why he let the monkey on his back. Maybe it was too hard living and, too afraid to die, he tried to kill himself passively, letting his demons do the work for him.
Living Legend is not all desperate. In fact, it rarely is. It’s more that it’s resigned to fate. Because desperation would indicate the inability for triumphant voices. Resignation, though, means understanding in a way. Where finality is inevitable, one can balance the moments of difficulty with levity and, on a good day, muscle (see “Mighty, Mighty”). In fact, this trance of soul funk psychedelia can’t be accomplished without that dichotomy, without that fight in the soul. Possessed as that spirit may be, the demons and angels shall wrestle before the struggle is decided.
It can’t be said how much fight Jimmy had in physical life, but it seems very little. Maybe he exhausted the last of it in these songs. words/ j crosby
MP3: Baby Huey & the Babysitters :: Mighty Mighty (Mighty Mighty Children Pt. 2)
MP3: Baby Huey & the Babysitters :: Hard Times