When D.C.’s R&B aristocracy gathered at the Birchmere for a reunion show on Mother’s Day of 2006, the Alexandria music hall, which often hosts nostalgia tours for white rock acts, looked like seniors’ night at the Apollo. William DeVaughn was resplendent in a classic white suit. The Jewels, the only all-female act ever recruited by James Brown for his touring revue, shimmered in sequins. Pookie Hudson chatted backstage in his signature derby. One of the original Unifics had flown in from California.
The marquee read “D.C. All-Stars,” and everyone who mattered was present. Except, that is, for Terry Huff.
“We called it the ‘D.C. All-Stars,’” recalls Captain Fly (né Robert V. Frye), the WPFW DJ who hosts the station’s Oldies House Party show. “And the one person that they were looking for that they could not get was Terry Huff. Man, they were all there: Pookie Hudson and the Spaniels, the Jewels, the Orioles, Skip Mahoney and the Casuals, William DeVaughn...Ernie Fields, the Winstons, you name it. And the one person that was needed for that to be complete—excepting the deceased artists—that person was Terry Huff.”
Captain Fly had worked on benefits with Huff before, most recently 2002’s School Tickets—a “soul opera” tribute to the Howard Theatre. For that show, Huff shared the stage with an assortment of old D.C. soul luminaries. Since then, according to Captain Fly, he’d gone to ground. “It was almost like going after Bin Laden,” he says. So the question bounced around: What happened to Terry Huff?
People have been asking variations on that since 1976, when Huff, a onetime Metropolitan Police Department officer, was lauded as R&B’s next big thing, the scion of a musical family whose voice was going to carry the emerging D.C. sound onto radios nationwide.
That future, though, never came. Huff’s can’t-miss group split up before even finishing its record. And in the years since, Huff has floundered, living in many homes, none of them his own; managing a carryout; selling insurance; and fighting a losing battle to recoup his songwriting royalties. He’s been homeless. He’s been ill. Today, Huff is dispossessed, at odds with most of his surviving siblings, living at the Petworth home of a sister he hardly speaks to, and still convinced he’s going to get a record deal.
And he’s also dying—how fast, no one knows—of cancer.
Huff and a cat named Sam sit on his sister’s porch on the 4000 block of 4th Street NW. Huff still sports the curled mustache that, in more manicured form, graces the cover of his first and only LP. His cheeks, rounded with age, still dimple when he smiles. His speaking voice still carries a trace of the sweetness that briefly made him an icon. But at 62, he’s got vocal-cord polyps. He apologizes for the way he sounds. “I haven’t been talking much recently,” he says. “Let alone singing.”
I first met Huff when I lived around the corner. We got to talking about music; from time to time we’d also spend evenings playing guitar together. Now I’m pushing Huff to talk about the old days. The polyps aren’t the only thing that makes this tricky. Huff, it seems, has a revolutionary plan to end global poverty. And whenever my control over the conversation slackens, he gravitates back to the subject.
I coax him back to the topics in my notebook: His days as a plainclothes MPD officer, when he drove around in a VW bug busting bad guys. The distinction of having been, at 24, one of the MPD’s youngest detectives. And, more than anything, the music: the early years, before he became a cop, when Huff played with his brothers in an act called Andy and the Marglows. And the stretch of the 1970s after he left the force, a career that peaked with a 1976 LP called The Lonely One and credited to Terry Huff and Special Delivery.
The king of D.C.’s short-lived R&B golden era is also talking about the cancer that was diagnosed in his colon two months ago. “I came in there with pain—I’ve never had pain like that in my life,” Huff says. “I thought, ‘I’m dying.’ And it turns out that my bowels were blocked by a tumor….I have two lymph nodes out of 16 that were already affected, and my abdominal wall where it’s spreading—they can’t do a thing about it.” Huff’s third chemotherapy appointment was the day before. He won’t know for another four weeks whether the cancer has stalled.
But then there’s a pause, and Huff is right back to his plans for world enrichment. “Let me tell you something, my good brother,” he says. “I’m right now in the throes of launching—check this—a worldwide space-age income-creation service. It’s scientifically created so that people don’t have to work.”
He stops to look at Sam, who is sleeping. “I could make that cat wealthy,” Huff says.