It was the photograph that caught my attention. Performing before thousands of festivalgoers at a farm in central Wisconsin was a mountain of a young man, his afro highlighted by scarf tied into a headband, barefoot and wearing overalls with an open shirt. Backed by his band the Babysitters, James Ramey, who was also known as Baby Huey, was one the headline acts at the initial Sound Storm festival on April 24-26, 1970.
Some 30,000 people made the trek to the farm outside Poynette, Wis., about 25 miles north of the capital city Madison, for the three-day event that featured the Grateful Dead, Mason Proffit, Illinois Speed Press and others.
The photograph inspired me to find out more about the singer and to seek out his music. (Because of copyright restrictions and licensing fees, I can’t use the photo, but you can see it here at the Wisconsin Historical Society webpage.)
Forty-five years ago, on Oct. 28, 1970, just five months after he appeared at Sound Storm, Baby Huey, who suffered from a glandular disorder that pushed his weight to 350-400 pounds, was found in a Chicago motel room, dead of a drug-related heart attack. At 26, he wasn’t yet old enough to be a member of the “27 Club.”
Jet magazine ran a short obituary for Ramey on Nov. 12, 1970:
Baby Huey, the mammoth, 350-pound singer of the 10-member Windy City rock group, Baby Huey and the Babysitters, died in his sleep, apparently of a heart attack in a South Side motel room, according to Eddie Thomas, president of Curtom Records of Chicago. Thomas told Jet the rock star, whose Curtom tune Mighty, Mighty Children (Unite Yourself This Hour) sold nearly 200,000 copies early this year, just returned from a gig in Madison, Wis.
Baby Huey grew up in Richmond, Ind., and performing in Chicago clubs in with the Babysitters in 1963 soon became a popular concert draw. “As the ’60s wore on, Baby Huey’s sound moved from energetic R&B into a more psychedelic brand of soul, with a vocal style that drew comparisons to Otis Redding,” Steve Huey (no relation) wrote in an allmusic.com biography. Billboard magazine reported in May 1969 that Baby Huey was scheduled to appear on the Merv Griffin Show. Baby Huey was signed to Curtis Mayfield‘s Curtom label and recorded only one album: The Baby Huey Story: The Living Legend. (Here’s the full album on youtube.com) The album was released posthumously in 1971 and released as a CD in 2004.
In a cover of Sam Cooke‘s A Change Is Gonna Come, Baby Huey riffs about the changes in his been through.
“It took about 20 years of very serious smoking, a few ups and downs, a few trips, a little space odyssey once in a while … to get back to being a kid all over. … Then comes the age you start drinking wine, taking care of business at the drive-in movies. And then one day a partner of yours gives you one of them funny looking cigarettes and says it’s time for you to get mellow one more time. And after that first hit, the whole world sort of brightens up just a little bit.
“You know, there’s three kind of people in this world. That’s why I know a change has got to come. I said there’s white people, there’s black people and the there’s my people.”
Unfortunately, Baby Huey died before he could see those changes through.
The Chicago Reader published a lengthy piece on Baby Huey in 2004, on the CD release of The Living Legend album. If you want to learn more about the man and his music, this is a good place to start.