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"Baby Face" Leroy Foster (February 1, 1923 - May 26,
1958) was an American blues singer, drummer and guitarist, active in
Chicago from the mid 1940s until the late 1950s. He was a significant
figure in the development of the post-war electric
Chicago blues sound,
most notably as a member of the Muddy Waters band during its formative
Foster was born in Algoma, Mississippi. He moved to Chicago in the
mid 1940s, and by 1946 was working with pianist
Sunnyland Slim and harmonica player
John Lee "Sonny Boy"
Williamson. He was introduced to singer and guitarist
Muddy Waters by an acquaintance Waters
met at a recording session in 1946, and was soon playing guitar and
drums in Waters’ band, along with guitar and harmonica player
Jimmy Rogers, with the band later
joined by Little Walter on harmonica.
Calling themselves the Headhunters, the trio were known for going from
club to club and “cutting” (i.e. engaging in musical duels with) other
Between 1948 and 1952 Baby Face Leroy Foster waxed a handful absolutely terrific sides under his own name for a number fledgling Chicago labels aided by some of the windy city’s best blues musicians. In addition his vocals, drumming, and guitar playing can be found backing some of the greatest Chicago blues records of the era. His death in 1958, at the age of 38, robbed the blues world of a singular, memorable talent and likely did much to hasten his unwarranted obscurity. Mike Rowe summarized his appeal in Chicago Breakdown, his classic survey of the Chicago blues scene: “He was a fine singer with a warm insinuating voice which, like the late Sonny Boy [Williamson], ‘got to people’. Baby face had a curious style; high pitched, it was a mixture of Sonny Boy’s and some of the eccentricities of Doctor Clayton, and between verses he kept up a constant barrage of shouts and encouragements, admonitions and asides. Baby Face’s natural exuberance never trivialized his performance, and he sings movingly on bouncy up-tempo songs and slow blues alike. …He played unfussy drums in the tight, Chicago manner and guitar, not too well, in the sparse city style. But his main talents were drinking, singing and clowning and he was very popular.”
Foster was first cousin to Johnny Jones and Little Willie Foster and came up to Chicago in 1945 in the company of Jones and Little Walter. He worked for tips on Maxwell Street before graduating to the clubs playing with the likes of Sunnyland Slim, Sonny Boy Williamson and Lee Brown. Around 1947 he became one of the founding members of the fabled “Headhunters”, a group who included Muddy Waters and Jimmy Rogers and got their name for cutting the heads of any musicians foolish enough to cross their path. Foster first appeared on record in 1945 playing guitar on Lee Brown’s “My Little Girl Blues” b/w “Bobbie Town Boogie” on the Chicago label. He pops up again with Lee Brown on a 1946 date for the Queen label, backs James (Beale Street Clark) the same year, Johnny Jones in 1949 (“Big Town Playboy” b/w “Shelby County Blues”), J.B. Lenoir in 1950, Little Walter in 1948 and 1950, Floyd Jones in 1948 (he plays drums on “Hard Times”), Muddy Waters in 1948 and 1949 (notably “You’re Gonna Miss Me (When I’m Dead and Gone),” “Mean Red Spider,” and “Screamin’ and Cryin’”), Snooky Pryor in 1949, Mildred Richards in 1950 (only two copies of this rare record are known to exist) and Sunnyland Slim in 1948 and 1950.
Foster made his debut for Aristocrat at the end of 1948 with “Locked Out Boogie” b/w “Shady Grove Blues” with the record billed as Leroy Foster and Muddy Waters. Propelled by Ernest “Big” Crawford’s thumping bass, “Locked Out Boogie” is an infectious, rough and tumble shuffle with Foster’s engaging, lively delivery. The song is essentially a vocal version of “Muddy Jumps One” cut at the same session with the same group. The mellow “Shady Grove Blues” is sung in what would be Foster’s trademark intimate, laconic style featuring Muddy’s down-home guitar that was so popular with audiences and propelled him to stardom.
Foster’s next entry was a lone outing in 1949 record for J.O.B., “My Head Can’t Rest Anymore” b/w “Take A Little Walk With Me” backed by Snooky Pryor on harmonica and Alfred Elkins on bass. This was a magnificent coupling again with Foster’s reflective, dreamy singing backed superbly by Pryor’s calm, masterful harmonica blowing as Foster encourages him on with Pryor doing the same.
In 1950 Foster cut eight remarkable sides for the small Parkway label. According to the Red Saunders Research Foundation: “Parkway is one of those small Chicago postwar blues labels that developed a legendary reputation based on a handful of recorded sides. In all, the label was in business for little more than 4 months and produced only 23 recordings, of which 14 were released at the time—four by the Baby Face Leroy Trio, four by the Little Walter Trio, two by Memphis Minnie, two by Sunnyland Slim, and two by harmonica-blowing Robert Jenkins. Just four singles are known to have come out on Parkway. …The Baby Face Leroy Trio (featuring vocals by Leroy Foster) and Little Walter sides were recorded in one 8-tune session… Most outstanding of the four Baby Face sides was the two-part “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” which ranks as one of the most exhilarating products of the Chicago postwar bar-band blues explosion (Muddy Waters and Little Walter were both in the band). The notable Little Walter Trio release featured blues harpist Little Walter on “Just Keep Lovin’ You” and “Moonshine Blues.” Two other Little Walter sides were sold to Regal and not released on Parkway. …Foster played guitar on some of the sides while operating the bass drum and high-hat with pedals.” “
Red Headed Woman” and “Boll Weevil” were paired for release on Parkway 104 featuring Little Walter, Muddy Waters and possibly Jimmy Rogers. “Boll Weevil” is in the best southern blues meets Chicago tradition as Foster relates a well worn theme that has been covered by Ma Rainey and Charlie Patton among others. “Red Headed Woman” is a chugging, wailer that crackles with energy, boasting stupendous blowing from Walter.
Perhaps the most outstanding record was”Rollin’ And Tumblin’ – Part 1 & 2″ issued as Parkway 501. The record was as primal and raw as anything waxed up North resembling more of a southern field recording than a commercial Chicago blues record. Part 1 was a wordless moaning and humming by all participants while Foster sings the verses on the second. According to the Red Saunders website: “Waters had been playing in clubs with this lineup in the previous months, and was frustrated by Leonard Chess’s lack of interest in recording it. The session, reportedly, did not take place in a regular studio. Muddy Waters’ biographer, Robert Gordon, declared that it took place in a ‘warehouse.’” This bit of moonlighting on Muddy’s part got him into trouble as Mike Rowe relates from a story told to him by Jimmy Rogers: “Leonard [Chess] didn’t want Muddy to use that slide on any other label-but here’s Muddy slipped off and cut this thing and Leonard heard it y’know. Then Muddy had to record this same number by himself on Chess.” Foster also plays drums on four Little Walter numbers for Parkway: “Bad Actin’ Woman”, “I Just Keep Loving Her”, “Muskadine Blues” and “Moonshine Blues.”
Again according to the Red Saunders website: “…Leroy Foster returned to JOB after Parkway failed in the middle of 1950 (he had quit Muddy Waters’ band after recording for Parkway, in the mistaken belief that his Parkway releases would establish him as a bandleader). Backed by Sunnyland Slim and Robert Jr. Lockwood, Foster cut “Pet Rabbit” b/w “Louella” in 1951 and “Late Hours At Midnight” b/w “Blues Is Killin’ Me” in 1952. All four songs are built in the same slow, deep blues mold and once again Foster’s laid back, conversational singing casts a compelling, powerful spell over the listener nicely counterpointed by Sunnyland’s rumbling piano.
All of Leroy Foster’s sides under his own name, plus the four Little Walter Parkway sides, can be found on Leroy Foster 1948-1952 on the Classics label. Stayed tuned in the next month or two as we spotlight Foster’s music on an upcoming radio program.