Who Was Baby Huey? [S01E03]
In this episode, we focus on the young 60’s artist James Ramey. Psychedelic soul, depression and the gem he left behind.
James Ramey was born on August 17, 1944 in Richmond, Indiana. He soon after moved to Chicago Illinois. At age 16 “Ramey played tackle on the Richmond High School varsity football team,” but his love for music would eventually steer him to the school choir and to a rock group called “The Vets.”
From a young age, James suffered from a glandular disorder causing him to remain overweight. At age 19 he weighed about 350 pounds. But health problems would not stop James from working with numerous local bands as a singer. Although his weight intensified his health problems, at 6ft 2, his size set him apart on the stage.
James adopted the nick name “Baby Huey” after seeing an oversized duck cartoon character in a 1950’s Paramount Pictures movie with the same name.
In 1963, Huey and friends Melvyn “Deacon” Jones; a Chicago organist/trumpeter, and guitarist Johnny Ross, decided to start a band, called Baby Huey and the Babysitters. Their rise in popularity had just begun as they became a well-known local band releasing several 45 RPM singles including “Beg Me”, “Monkey Man”, “Messin with the kid” and “Just being careful”.
"I'll never forget the first time he came down the stairs... 6ft2, 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"
Read The Blues Man: 40 Years With the Legends of the Blues by Deacon Jones
Baby Huey and the Babysitters were originally a cover band. They drew in large crowds wherever they went. Perhaps Huey always knew he wouldn’t remain as such, because according to Jones, Huey “…was kind of lazy when it came to learning new songs. I told him he had to know more songs if he was going to make it with any band.”
Huey’s presence alone would draw other musicians to town, and he was becoming a house hold name across the country. And as the crows grew bigger, their music became less about Motown, the most popular sound during that time, and more about experimenting with the different sounds they could come up with. The 60’s flowered a new hippie sound, and the Babysitters flourished with them.
In the mid 1960’s the sound of the band changed following the footsteps of Sly & the Family Stone. It was out with the satin baseball jackets and matching two piece suits. The band became a psychedelic soul act. Huey started wearing his hear in an Afro, wore psychedelic African inspired robes and added self-referential rhymes and ad-lib’s to his live performances. Much like what Rappers, in Hip Hop music do today.
By the late 1960s, the band had reached quite a high-profile status with their live performances but had yet to record a single album. At this point, all the group needed was one lucky chance encounter. At one of their live circuits, famed singer Donny Hathaway was in the audience and was amazed by the raw talent the group possessed.
As luck would have it, Hathaway just happened to be friends with legend producer Curtis Mayfield and insisted that he come to see them play the following night. When Mayfield heard, the boys play, he was just as captured with their sound. Mayfield initially wanted to sign Baby Huey alone, as a solo artist. But even in front of a legend, the boys managed to hold their ground and refuse to work a solo. They were all signed to Curtom Records to produce an album. But the favouritism at the label drove a wedge between the boys and one by one, they would eventually leave the group.
James was also dealing with a heroin addiction. According to Jones, one morning “he was pouring cereal in a bowl at Baby Huey’s place when the singer’s ‘drug kit’ fell out of the Wheaties Box.'“
Huey had this carefree air about him, he enjoyed life and to those around him, it would seem as though nothing bothered him. His self-deprecating humor and demeanor eloquently reflects his personality. Juxtaposed with his lyrics, he enlightens listeners with the struggles, trials and tribulations expressed in his music. In reality, Huey was very sensitive to the world around him. His band members recalled him always seeming isolated and unsettled.
One weekend soon after James Ramey joined The Vets, they had a gig out of town. Band mate Deacon Jones recalled riding with the drummer to the location, and upon arrival, realized that James was nowhere to be found. The man who brought James to a previous gig did not want him to ride in his car. Essentially, he said James was too fat to ride in his car, he didn’t want him damaging the shocks and springs.
In 1970, Huey and his band were at Curtis Mayfield’s record label in Chicago working on their album. It was a few months before The Baby Huey Story: The Living Legend was released. Some sources say that the band was still in the studio and did not finish their recordings, and other sources say that they were finished recording and Mayfield was just finalizing the album during this time. Regardless, Huey’s glandular problem had pushed him over 400 pounds, which intensified his depression, and his massive alcohol and drug addiction had finally taken its toll. Baby Huey died in his Robert’s Model room on Chicago’s South Side from a drug related heart attack, resulting from an overdose, just 10 weeks after his 26th birthday.
The instrumentals on the album leave the LP sounding unfinished and abandoned. Perhaps this was done intentionally to demonstrate the idea of potential. To reflect the gravity of a young magical artist gone before he could fully share his remarkable gift with the world. But the world will always remember Baby Huey. The larger than life rock and soul singer, a trouble soul with a heart of gold, that left behind a gem that inspired a new generation of music.
In the 2004 Issue of Water Records, Huey’s manager Marv Stuart said…