“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 postwar electric Chicago blues sound, notably as a member of the Muddy Waters band during its formative years.
Foster was born in Algoma, Mississippi. He moved to Chicago in the mid-1940s and by 1946 was working with the pianist Sunnyland Slim and the harmonica player John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson. He was introduced to the singer and guitarist Muddy Waters by an acquaintance Waters met at a recording session in 1946. Foster was soon playing guitar and drums in Waters’s band, along with the guitar and harmonica player Jimmy Rogers. The band was later joined by Little Walter on harmonica. Calling themselves the Headhunters, the trio was known for going from club to club and “cutting” (i.e., engaging in musical duels with) other bands.
Foster’s first recordings were made with the pianist Lee Brown in 1945 for J. Mayo Williams’s Chicago label. In 1946, he took part in on another session with Brown and recorded with James “Beale Street” Clark for Columbia. He accompanied Sunnyland Slim on a 1947 or 1948 session for the Opera label. Further recordings followed, under his own name for the Aristocrat and J.O.B. labels, and also backing Sunnyland Slim, Muddy Waters, Little Walter and pianist Johnny Jones, before his most notable session, for the Parkway label in 1950.
The Parkway session
The Parkway session featured the personnel of Muddy Waters’s band at that time: Foster, Waters, Little Walter and (on two tracks only, since he was late for the session) Rogers. Four singles were released from the session, two by Foster and two by Little Walter. One of the singles, the two-part “Rollin’ and Tumblin'” was notable enough to be reviewed (unusually for a down-home blues release) in the Chicago Defender by Edward Myers, who described it as having “the sound and beat of African chant”. The track featured only Foster’s drumming and singing, Walter’s harmonica and Waters’s slide guitar, with hummed ensemble vocals on one side. Unfortunately, Waters’s guitar playing and backup singing were distinctive enough for the record to come to the attention of Leonard Chess of Chess Records, who had Waters under an exclusive recording contract. As a result, Waters was made to record his own version of the song for the larger Chess label in order to “kill” the Parkway recording.
Later career and death
After signing with Parkway Foster left Waters’s band, possibly in the hope of a solo career resulting from the releases on Parkway, but the label soon folded. Foster recorded two further sessions for J.O.B. in 1951 and 1952, although only the first of these resulted in a single being released.
Foster died of a heart attack, possibly as a result of alcoholism, in 1958, at the age of 35. He was buried at Fern Oak Cemetery in Griffith, Indiana. In 2012 the Killer Blues Headstone Project, a nonprofit organization, placed a headstone on Foster’s unmarked grave.
Influences and performing style
Foster sang in a style influenced by Sonny Boy Williamson and Dr. Clayton, and while he played guitar and drums competently, the talents for which he was popular have been described as “drinking, singing and clowning”.