Review Summary: An album not without its flaws, "The Baby Huey Story: The Living Legend" has enough strengths to have stood the test of time, in spite of the fact that it's the bands only release.
If you're a fan of hip-hop, chances are you know Baby Huey. You may not realize it, but you do. Despite only recording one album before succumbing to a drug-related heart attack at the age of 26, Baby Huey (born James Ramney) helped influence the future of psychedelic soul and funk, as well as having a small part in the birth of hip-hop. Ramney got his start with under the title Baby Huey & The Babysitters, recording a handful of singles, which caught the eye of Curtis Mayfield. Mayfield signed them to his label and dropped the "Babysitters" from the name, focusing all of the attention on Huey. It was an understandable decision, as Huey commanded attention at 400 lbs with a penchant for brightly colored attire. Add in the fact that he had one of the best soul-voices this side of Otis Redding, and Ramney would have been destined for stardom were it not for his life being cut short. Sadly, what we're left with is one album of unfulfilled potential, but what a beast of an album it is.
Produced by Mayfield, the album only features 8 songs,three of which are instrumental tracks (and one of those is one of the two cover songs on the album), but it gets things moving right out of the gate with "Listen To Me". The song begins with a slow, funky rhythm and builds slowly, bringing in Huey's versatile voice--which is all nervous shouts and screams--before turning into a full-fledged jam. Despite what I said above, this album would be nothing without the incredible instrumentation of The Babysitters to back-up Huey's bombast. The bass-section moves the song at a brisk pace, and the horns flesh out the track. It continues with the very Mayfield-esque "Mama Get Yourself Together". After that, things get weird.
Covering Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Going To Come" (one of the best songs ever made. Inarguably, as far as I'm concerned) takes some brass-balls as is. To make it a nine-minute-plus track that ventures so far from the original it may as well be another song altogether takes ones made of diamonds. Especially when the final few minutes involves a spoken-word section mentioning outhouses, funny-looking cigarettes, and pointy-toed shoes. While not a patch on the original, it's still a great song, and the final few minutes are one of the things people point to when giving examples of this album's influence on hip-hop. Still, it's not the weirdest song on the album. That award goes to the cover of "California Dreamin'", which is re-imagined as a pan-flute, Latin-influenced, instrumental freak-out.
Despite the final minutes of the Cooke cover, the biggest hip-hop influence this album contains is the oft-sampled "Hard Times". The most reigned-in song on the album--from both the bands point as well as Huey's--its stripped down arrangements fit the song, which deals with the effects of addiction. Huey's wails toward the end convey genuine pain, which makes the song haunting in retrospect. Yet while "Hard Times" is the most famous track on the album, "Running" is the highlight, driven by electric piano and guitar twisted into the funk.
The album closes with "One Dragon Two Dragon", which sounds all-too-similar to the "California Dreamin'" cover. It's a good way for the album to go out, but it leaves you wanting something more, and the fact that it never got to happen is really unfortunate. Still, for only making around a dozen songs in their time as a band, they managed to make quite a mark. Aside from influencing future generations within their genre (and outside of it), they've had tracks covered by Mayfield himself, as well as being sampled by everyone from Ice Cube, Eric B. & Rakim, A Tribe Called Quest and Ghostface Killah. The fact that they didn't just vanish into obscurity speaks to the strengths of their one effort, and while it's not perfect by any means, it is a great album. It's just too bad they never got to make another.