1971 was an extraordinary year in music history, as the creative explosion of the late ‘60s continued to reverberate and artists began building the sound of the next decade. It can be hard to tell the difference between the canons of greatest ‘71 albums and greatest albums of all time — What’s Going On, Blue, Maggot Brain, Led Zeppelin’s IV, Who’s Next.
So it’s no surprise that next to this blockbuster competition, some equally great records slipped through the cracks — Jimmie Spheeris’ softly entrancing Isle of View, The Last Poets’ decades-too-early rap masterpiece This Is Madness, Comus’s unclassifiable, otherworldly freak folk freakout First Utterance, which despite its title, turned out to be their last for the next forty years. Little Richard announced his return with The King of Rock and Roll, and even though he was as bombastically brilliant as ever, no one seemed to notice. And as we’ll see later this month, Nina Simone was still just as good as ever almost two decades into her career.
But no might-have-been hit is quite as intriguing, or tragic, as The Baby Huey Story: The Living Legend.
By the time Huey got into the studio, he was already a legend on the Chicago concert scene. Like his cartoon namesake, he was an enormous presence, “400 pounds of pure soul” with an equally enormous ‘fro. And he threw every one of those pounds into a voice that would have popped a smaller man’s lungs like water balloons. He and his band the Babysitters got the attention of no less a star than Curtis Mayfield, who produced The Living Legend and wrote three songs for them. There’s been some speculation the Babysitters inspired his own masterpiece Super Fly, a few years later.
Unfortunately, Huey didn’t just inspire Super Fly’s form, but the anti-drug content too. He died of a heroin overdose in the middle of the recording sessions, only 26 years old.
If he’d lived, he could have been an icon. Even without a lifetime’s worth of material, his classic rock star story should have propelled him to mythic status. The album certainly isn’t shy about the tragedy behind it, from the bitterly ironic title to the black-and-white portrait of its uncharacteristically somber star, the kind of thing you might see on a funeral bulletin.
But even in death, Baby Huey never got the recognition he deserved. If anything, that makes the album even more enticing, adding another music-industry myth to the Tragic Rock Star — the Hidden Treasure. Listening to The Living Legend, you feel like you’ve been let in on a secret, welcomed to a secret fraternity of Baby Huey fans.
I realize I’m probably sounding like a broken record at this point with unsung genius this and overlooked classic that, which isn’t a million miles away from the old “you’ve probably never heard of it” hipster bullshit. But this kind of art is the most personal to me, just by definition — it’s way easier to feel a personal connection when you don’t have to share it with fifty million other people. As for The Living Legend, the few people I do share it with are quite the company to be in. If samples are anything to go by, it includes everyone from Eric B and Rakim to A Tribe Called Quest to Ice Cube to ?uestlove.
In a roundabout way, I have that last one to thank for my own discovery of the album. When Rolling Stone’s Tom Moon was assigned to choose 1000 Recordings to Listen to Before You Die, he tapped the Roots DJ as one of his “MVPs” in hunting down essential records. “I sat down with ?uestlove one day,” Moon says. “And he said, ‘You know about the Baby Huey, right?’”
I spent most of 2015 working my way through Moon’s book, listening along as I read with the suggested tracks from each album and marking off the ones I needed to come back to (I also have this book to thank for turning me on to Isle of View and John Prine, another overlooked ‘71 masterpiece that’s managed to find the following it deserves over the years). And so as I read about the superstar who might have been, I listened to the fiery opening salvo of “Listen to Me.”
The album’s first track wastes no time grabbing you by the collar. A voice shouts out “Uh!” over a drumroll and bassist Larry Sales chugs along to lay the groundwork for Huey’s entrance. His first words aren’t really words, because Huey doesn’t really need them, or maybe his emotions are just too big to put into words. He adds, “Come on. Time to get on up now,” and that might be a soul cliché, but he really means it, and he shows it with the first ear-piercing shriek of “Sayyyyy!” that he’ll deploy throughout the record. It’s gravelly and rough, like he’s physically shredding his vocal cords.
But Huey’s a versatile performer, and he sustains long, smooth notes in each chorus for incredible amounts of time without a break. He’s the star here, but the Babysitters are more than capable of keeping up with him, and for a good chunk of the track, Huey’s happy to serve as their hype man instead of trying to say anything meaningful with that incredible voice of his — “Kind of funky! Kind of funkayyy! … Take me home, take me home.”
That was more than enough to get me to draw a great big arrow next to Huey’s name in the book. But then I read Moon’s description of his “spine-chilling version of Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come.’” The original is already as good as a song could possibly be. What could these guys have done with it?
What I heard knocked me right out of my chair. “Spine-chilling” sounds like hyperbole, but it barely begins to describe “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Baby Huey and the Babysitters don’t just improve on perfection. They turn Sam Cooke’s blues anthem into the single most cathartic thing I’ve heard in my 28 years.
The first note announces how huge this song is going to be, enhancing Huey’s powerful voice even more with layers of reverb. From there, he eases you in with a straightforward cover of Cooke’s song. But then he repeats it five times over the next nine minutes, building in intensity each time. That same rallying scream of “Sayyy!” is back. But he’s not just pumping the crowd up this time. He’s screaming his pain from the very depths of his soul. When he says, “He winds up knocking me/Back down on my knees,” you can feel every blow.
Huey brings out the spirit of Cooke’s song by disregarding the letter. Like his inspiration, Otis Redding, who famously recorded a definitive cover of “Satisfaction” without knowing more than the first verse, Huey’s not precious about the text. He expands and embellishes it with gospel-style improvisation, dropping his own words in between Cooke’s to fit the rhythm he wants —
But he winds up
Knockin’ me, child,
Right down on — my — bended — kneeeeeeee!
And the Babysitters are right there with him, pumping up the hammering horns from Cooke’s original into the soul equivalent of a headbanger, drums and brass right in time with each other.
If anything holds this track back from the top tier of greatest songs ever recorded, it’s the two-minute spoken-word interlude that stops it dead in its tracks. For years, I figured it was some unrelated monologuing that Mayfield unscrupulously wedged in the middle of Huey’s masterpiece to get the album up to full length. Listening to it again, that’s obviously not the case — Huey switches between speaking and singing in a way that makes it clear that it was always meant to be part of his performance. But I’m still pretty sure Mayfield would have cut it way down if it didn’t represent such a large percentage of the material he had to work with. It’s pure hippie-dippie rambling: “But you know when you see a little boy or a little girl runnin’ down the street, runnin’ to meet the popsicle truck and all of the sudden and you get to turn around and say, Wow I’ll be glad when this cat gets here! All these changes I’m goin’ through!”
But there’s moments of poetry floating in the bullshit — “I come from back, way back in Indiana where like we’ve still got outhouses, and brother’s wearin’ pointed toe shoes and carryin’ 45s.” And it still serves a purpose. It lulls you into complacency, and it gives Huey time to recharge. That makes it even more shattering when he comes back with one more scream and lays into Cooke’s refrain more furiously than ever before. And the knowledge that he was dead mere days later gives the whole thing an almost haunted significance.
Huey’s absence hangs heavy over the album. I already speculated about the lengths Mayfield had to go to so he could get a full album of the singer’s small recorded legacy. For whatever reason, he didn’t use any of the five singles Huey had recorded throughout the ‘60s, which are still frustratingly difficult to find even in the current Information Age. Instead, The Living Legend supplements the five new tracks Huey recorded with instrumentals from the rest of the Babysitters. They’re full of funky, jazzy energy, enough to suggest the band could have made it big even after losing their leader, and they made a few attempts, even enlisting a very young Chaka Khan.
But the best tracks are still the ones with Huey on the mike. “Hard Times” became the album’s most lasting legacy, the source of most of the samples I mentioned before, and Huey proves himself the perfect vehicle for Mayfield’s proto-Super Fly social commentary. It’s an almost hallucinatorily vivid picture of life in the age of urban decay:
Sleepin’ on motel floors,
Knockin’ on my brother’s door,
Eatin’ Spam, Oreos,
Drinkin’ Thunderbird, baby.
And it’s a perfect companion piece to “Change.” That brother could be the same one who knocks Huey down on the other track, and he reappears across the song, sometimes making the parallels even clearer:
Although he be my brother
He wants to hold me up.
And Huey’s the perfect vehicle for Mayfield’s words. He totally scours all the songwriter’s smooth prettiness out of his voice. When Mayfield moves from exterior poverty to internal torment with the line, “I close my shades/So I don’t see them seeing me,” Huey’s delivery is haunting. And when he follows up that line about Spam, Oreos, and Thunderbird with a ragged shriek of “Paying dues!” as the Babysitters freak out behind him, it’s shattering.
Huey adapted “Mighty Mighty” from another confrontational political lyric from Mayfield (subtitled “Spade and Whitey”), but this track and “Running” show off more of Huey’s good-time side, and there’s plenty of it.
It doesn’t seem possible that a man so full of life could have died so young. The tragedy of losing him is bad enough, but who knows how much more transcendent music we lost when he died? These five tracks are just a fraction of the career that might have been. And shockingly, they’re a still smaller fraction of what he was capable of. Trumpeter/arranger Turk Littles said Huey never felt comfortable enough in the studio to match the energy of his live performances. If this is the restrained Huey, it’s hard to imagine what he was like at his best — I’ve got to imagine your turntable would explode if you even tried to play it.
The question of what might have been haunts The Living Legend. But I’ll never stop being grateful Huey left us as much as he did.