For those of you that know my music you know my song about the Huff Singers on the album “Penny Arcade”. Mr. Huff, the only living original member, and quite alive I must say, lives in North Philly, one of the most impoverished areas of our city, maybe any city, in the United States as far as crime and decay. But that’s doesn’t change the fact that many folks live there and have lived nowhere else. This is someone’s life and world just as any other.
I befriended Mr. Huff upon meeting him at the World Café in Philadelphia at their gospel brunch series and Mr. Huff, upon first meeting, held up a Polaroid camera and took a picture of me and then handed it back to me have a picture of myself. From there, we became life-long friends. He means what he says and does what he says he’s going to do. He thought that my first record shouldn’t be called the “The Ways We Try” but rather “The Ways We Do” cause, as he put it, “Tryin’ never gets it, you’re doin’ Bird”.
The last visit I had to his house he was in the basement fixing a pipe in the bathroom down there so the guys could wash their hands during rehearsal and I walked in to find him on the ground, legs out from under the sink, like the Wicked Witch of the West. This basement is his sacred spot, and is, for all the decades and decades he’s spent singing gospel in churches, his church. I’ve never read The Subterraneans, so I don’t know what it’s about, but I think of him in this basement when I hear that word and it connotes a much lighter thing than what it typically refers to. This is where he can be himself and be at peace with his wonder; he can reflect without judgment. Mr. Huff was a young man in his twenties in the 1940’s and has seen this country through decades and decades since, but in some ways he still behaves as a man who has been wounded, not physically but mentally, from the racial boundaries of being a black man in the United States. He has sung at executions of believed to be falsely accused from his neighborhood, been stuck on the side of the road in the middle of the night in the deep South, and been chased out of town in Florida for courting the white girls. The fact that he and I can have such a deep close friendship is something I, white and so much younger, might never be able to fully grasp the wildness of, but that Mr. Huff points out at every meeting.
Anyhow, Mr. Huff has prevailed, in all his joyous glory. He is here to be open to the world and he’ll let you know it at every turn, with modesty and child-like true-isms. Over time he has compiled a treasure of visuals in this basement, putting up anything and everything that calls to him, as it comes, without discrimination or pattern or process. It is a juxtaposition jubilee that I feel was meant to see the light of day.
you can see all of the photos in the series at birdiebusch.com in the "view my pics" section!
Some other interesting things about my time in North Philly:
*Sister Rosetta Tharpe, gospel and electric guitar legend, is buried there and until recently, didn’t have a gravestone. Through the efforts of The Huff Singers and many other gospel greats, they raised the money in a tribute concert for her.
* I attended Ira Tucker’s, lead singer of The Dixie Hummingbirds, funeral at The Met, which is a massive church on North Broad St., last year. Halfway through the 3-hour funeral Stevie Wonder got up from a pew to sing “I'll Fly Away” with Mr. Huff and others. It is one of the most moving moments of my musical life to see the two of them trading off verses together.