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Dead at 26, Baby Huey left the world one grand LP

Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.

Surrounded by golden cornfields and rolling country roads, Richmond, Indiana, is a small Midwest enclave, located a few miles west of the Ohio border—less than an hour’s drive from Dayton. As the one-time home to the Starr Piano Company’s legendary Gennett imprint (showcasing Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and more), Richmond is hailed the “cradle of recorded jazz.” While Gennett’s memory is now reduced to a commemorative “Walk Of Fame” outside Richmond’s Whitewater Gorge Park, the declining city of roughly 37,000—decorated by a pastiche of historic buildings, chain businesses, and American flags—still takes pride in its musical legacy. And rightfully so.

It was out here that soul singer James “Baby Huey” Ramey was born on August 17, 1944. As the Chicago Tribune reported in his obituary, “Ramey played tackle on the Richmond High School varsity football team. He sang in the school choir and played in a rock group known as ‘The Vets.’” The feature ran on page 18, section 2 of the Tribune’s Thursday, October 29, 1970 edition under the banner, “Rock Star Baby Huey found dead.”

In his book The Blues Man: 40 Years With The Legends Of The Blues, Ramey’s boyhood friend and lifelong bandmate Melvyn “Deacon” Jones describes his first encounter with Ramey:

I’ll never forget the first night he came down the stairs… 6’2” and 320 pounds of pure soul. He was 16 years old wearing tennis shoes that his feet didn’t fit all the way into; no socks and a great big tee shirt; big wide khaki pants.

Jones, who would go on to play with John Lee Hooker, Freddie King, and others, also sadly remembers Baby Huey’s “drug kit” falling from his Wheaties box at breakfast. With a glandular problem that kept him over 350 pounds, and a massive drug habit, Ramey died 10 weeks after his 26th birthday, on the bathroom floor of a Southside Chicago motel room.

But Baby Huey (who appropriated his moniker from a giant 1950s cartoon duck of the same name) did leave behind one release: The Baby Huey Story: The Living Legend. Released posthumously, the record provides a small glimpse into the life and mind of a brilliant Midwestern artist, who died before he could wholly share his remarkable gift.

Alternating between sweet, soulful, unbridled, and biting, Baby Huey’s voice was extraordinary. He draws comparisons to Otis Redding, but his style really was his own. When Huey sang, he often let out a spastic, startling scream—as if he was channeling something outside himself. This signature Huey howl is heard within the first minute of The Baby Huey Story’s leadoff track “Listen To Me,” and his talent is undeniable. The horn section elevates the initially spacious opener into an upbeat R&B crusade—Huey moaning and groaning and screaming and testifying: “Listen to me.” The song would later guide the hip-hop world; samples of it appear in Erik B. & Rakim’s “Follow The Leader,” Grandmaster Flash’s “Gold,” Public Enemy’s “Revolutionary Generation,” and more.

The Baby Huey Story had a strong backer in soul legend Curtis Mayfield. When Ramey relocated to Chicago, Mayfield signed him to his Curtom label, produced his record, and lent him three songs: “Mighty Mighty,” “Hard Times,” and “Running.”

The Baby Sitters, Huey’s backing band, featured ace players that were raw enough to properly complement their eccentric leader. At points, they sound like a tougher version of Cymande, or a slightly looser Jimmy Castor Bunch. Over the course of 15 minutes, Huey’s entourage of Baby Sitters take listeners through three instrumentals: the Ramey-penned “Mama Get Yourself Together” and “One Dragon, Two Dragon,” and a wordless rendition of The Mama & The Papas’ “California Dreamin’.”

Though proficient, the instrumentals cause Huey’s lone LP to sound unfinished. On the long-drawn-out “Mama Get Yourself Together,” horns and organ crescendo amidst percussive breakdowns for over six minutes. While on the classic “California Dreamin’” and album closer “One Dragon, Two Dragon,” flutist Othello Anderson renders both tracks schmaltzy and dated. In Baby Huey’s obituary for Rolling Stone, Marshall Rosenthal reported that, at the time of his death, Huey was “in Chicago to finish an album on Mayfield’s Curtom label.” The Baby Huey Story feels abandoned.

But Ramey’s voice still carries the existing record to a place of greatness. “I’m too big to be running, baby / Don’t you know that I’m gettin’ out of breath, honey / I can’t take it much longer, honey,” he shouts on “Running.” Bookended by a psych intro and outro, Huey sings of heartbreak, pain, and foolish love while the Baby Sitters barely keep it together—each member playing off-the-cuff, attempting to steal the spotlight.

Just as Al Green annexed The Bee Gee’s “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart?” and Jimi Hendrix reconstructed Bob Dylan’s “All Along The Watchtower,” Baby Huey had a way of commandeering tracks. Such is the case in Huey’s rendition of “Mighty Mighty.” Unlike Mayfield’s version, nowhere in the song does Ramey sing, “Your black and white power has grown to be a crumblin’ tower.” Rather, he goes apolitical, opting instead to playfully rap on about Lou Rawls’ old stomping grounds, Walgreens, turkey dinners, red beans and rice, oxtails, and Thunderbird.

Baby Huey | Mighty Mighty

This love for Thunderbird—a high-alcohol, low-cost wine, first introduced post-Prohibition—reappears on his unparalleled rendition of “Hard Times.” It’s one of the album’s most memorable lines: “So many hard times / sleepin’ on motel floors / knockin’ on my brother’s door / eatin’ Spam and Oreos and drinkin’ Thunderbird, baby.” Sampled by Ghostface Killah, The Notorious B.I.G., Lil Wayne, A Tribe Called Quest, Raekwon, Biz Markie, Ice Cube, and many more, “Hard Times” is Huey’s most recognizable track. When Ramey sings about having hard times, you believe him: “Havin’ hard times / in this crazy town / havin’ hard times / there’s no love to be found.”

Baby Huey | Hard Times

Though he sang about strife, onstage Baby Huey purported to be carefree. He wasn’t. “Jimmy was very sensitive to the world around him,” says Ramey’s manager Marv Stuart in Water Records’ 2004 reissue of The Baby Huey Story. “I knew him during his up and down periods, his heartaches, his problems, his loves, fears and worries. He said what he felt and truly felt everything he said. The depression brought on him was just too great for any man to carry, no matter how big you are.”

Deacon Jones also recalls a painful anecdote from their high school days with The Vets:

One weekend shortly after Jimmy Ramey joined us, The Vets had a gig out of town. I rode to the gig with the drummer and when we got there, there was no Ramey. It turns out that the guy that brought Ramey to the last gig didn’t want him in his car anymore … He complained about the weight on his shocks and springs. I can still picture, very sadly to this day, Jimmy Ramey standing in front of his home … waiting for a ride that never came.

Throughout his short life, Baby Huey always seemed isolated and unsettled, even as Mayfield led him to a record deal, international tours, and a Merv Griffin Show appearance. While “Hard Times” conveys this sentiment, it’s Huey’s crying out in his massive psychedelic rendition of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Going To Come” that serves as a sort of premonition of the (final) changes he was soon to face. Around the six-minute mark, Huey goes into a strange stream-of-conscious preaching:

It took about 20 years of very serious smoking / a few ups and downs, a few trips / a little space odyssey once in awhile / to get back to bein’ a kid all over … back home again, baby! … / I come from way back in Indiana / where, like, we still got outhouses / and brothers wearing pointed-toe shoes and carry .45s / but, you know, there’s three kind of people in this world / that’s why I know a change has got to come / I say, there’s white people, there’s black people … and then there’s my people.

Baby Huey died before the record was even released, leaving statements like this one behind. After performing at Ramey’s funeral, the Baby Sitters attempted to employ a teenage Chaka Khan to replace Huey, but it didn’t stick. They soon disbanded.

In the Rolling Stone obit, Rosenthal described him as “the best known unknown in Chicago. His appearance always drew the other musicians in town… his reputation was building across the country.”

Jones stated, “There is no doubt that Jimmy Ramey would have went past the top had he lived.”

Now Baby Huey is buried back in Richmond—surrounded by the golden cornfields and rolling country roads of his childhood—adding prophetic meaning to his lyrics on “A Change Is Going To Come”: “You know, it seems like I tried so hard to get back where I started from / Back home again.” The Baby Huey Story not only showcases James Ramey’s unassailable talent, but it stands as a lone marker of the singer’s unrealized potential.

Baby Huey’s grave at Richmond’s Glen Haven Memorial Gardens. Photo taken on site.