Who Was the Baby on Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?”

Jeremy D. Larson tracks the source of an iconic sample that has so far eluded the internet’s pervasive annotative efforts

Late one night after a show in 1998, Timbaland received a phone call. On the other end was Barry Hankerson, Aaliyah’s manager and uncle, asking Tim to produce the lead single for the Dr. Doolittle soundtrack. The deal was already “etched in stone,” and Tim would get $400,000 to do it. There was just one catch: He had to have the master of the track to the label at 8 AM. It was 4 AM, and he had nothing.

Tim, his songwriting partner Static Major, and Aaliyah came together and took shelter in The Village Studio in West LA. It wouldn’t be enough to put just any song together – they expected a chart-topping radio hit. They had four hours.

As he tells it in a brief clip posted on YouTube, Tim made short work of the beat and, soon after, Static found the hook. Then, Tim had an idea: He flipped through his CDs, found the one he wanted and played it for everyone. It was a baby cooing happily, lilting up like the softest arc extending from the gentlest slingshot, lasting no more than half a second in the air before falling back down to earth. Its melodic curve mirrored a glissando on a violin, from a note high on the staff to a harmonic far above the fingerboard. Aaliyah thought the baby coo was cute and, with that, it was slotted snugly inside one of the empty spaces in Tim’s beat, becoming instantly iconic.

By 8 AM, the track was mastered; according to Timbaland, later that morning “Are You That Somebody?” and this baby coo were already being played on the radio.

Aaliyah - Are You That Somebody?

As with many famous samples, this coo has a storied history in pop music. The same baby has crawled its way onto several songs, from the Rascals’ “Look Around” (1969), to Prince’s “Delirious” (1982), to TNGHT’sBugg’n” (2012). It’s like the Wilhelm Scream of baby samples, and it even mirrors the cadence of that famed cinematic sound effect. But even the identity of the Wilhelm Screamer is known (it’s actor Sheb Wooley). Who made this baby coo? Where is this person now?

Of all the curios Timbaland has folded into beats, this has to be the oddest, besting even the sample of 1960 Egyptian song “Khosara, Khosara” that became Jay Z’s “Big Pimpin’” or the traditional Israeli folk song (“The Joy of the Worker”) that underpinned Missy Elliott’s “Lick Shots.” But perhaps what’s most odd about this baby coo is that the origin of the sample couldn’t be found in 15 seconds.

Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock - It Takes Two

We live in the Genius age, where every line of text and every bit of information is now annotated, searchable and definable. The digitization of music has served as a mass cataloging project for anyone interested in dissecting a track down to its molecular makeup. Supernumerary sounds on records, no matter how seemingly insignificant, can usually be traced to its source. If you don’t know who’s screaming “Look at ya!” on Kanye West’s “Runaway,” just put the question to Google and you’ll find out it’s Rick James. Want to know who did the “Yeah! Woo!” in Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock’s “It Takes Two”? That’s Bobby Byrd with the “Yeah!” and James Brown himself with the “Woo!,” over a drum break from Lyn Collins’ 1972 funk single “Think (About It).” Finding all this out is as easy as: “Siri, who did the Wilhelm Scream?”

Somehow, this baby coo was not fully indexed in the great nexus. But trace it back in reverse chronological order and you get the closest there is to a patient zero: an obscure, almost-novelty 1966 Perrey and Kingsley track called “Countdown at 6.” The electronic music pioneers put this baby coo in the middle of a little riff on “Hello Mudda, Hello Fadda,” featured on their Vanguard Records release The In Sound From the Way Out! Maybe it came from one of their children at the time?

Jean-Jacques Perrey, now 85, communicates through his daughter Patricia via email. I message her about this baby coo on her father’s record, adding a parenthetical “Was it you?” She writes back: “It was Seymour Solomon, one of the directors of Vanguard [Records] in New York in the ’60s, who gave [Perrey] a magnetic tape with that sound. Seymour had got it from a company in New York that specialized in recording real sounds.”

Perrey and Kingsley were under contract with Vanguard Records, so now the focus turned to finding the record that Seymour Solomon gave Perrey. Almost everyone working at Vanguard now had no direct involvement with Solomon or Perrey and Kingsley, but they suggested to contact a man named Dana Countryman, who worked closely with Perrey in the day.

The baby coo now belongs on a shelf with a few increasingly rare artifacts of sound that must remain uncatalogued and adrift in an ocean of noise.

After a few back-and-forths, Countryman helped narrow the source down to a few sound effects records that would fit the profile. Because the recording had to pre-date 1966, there were only two or three realistic options. One of the records, Authentic Sound Effects Volume 8, had a track named “Happy Baby,” and it was for sale on eBay. I ordered it, it came to my door a week later, and I put it on. That was the one: the same gentle slingshot, the same soft-arc baby coo.

Authentic Sound Effects Volume 8 was released by Elektra in 1964; it was produced by Jac Holzman, founder of Elektra Records, and engineered by a man named Michael Scott Goldbaum. Jac didn’t remember the record much at all.

“The sound effects were recorded in 1962-1963 mostly, but not exclusively, by Michael Scott,” Holzman wrote in an email. “Additional effects were recorded by me and several others. Each sound effects engineer was given a specific list and frequently the lists overlapped on purpose. This gave us the opportunity to pick among the sounds (i.e. babies) and select which seemed to me the most representative... The Elektra Baby may have been recorded by more than one engineer and I have not the slightest idea who that baby (or engineer) might have been.”

With no paper trail or records kept at Elektra offices, the last bit of hope in trying to find this baby was Goldbaum.

Goldbaum, now 75, resides in upstate New York, but when we talk he is in LA with his wife. He speaks in a deep, warm New York accent, the kind you’d hear on a voice-over in some documentary about the city’s rich heritage. I give him an as-brief-as possible rundown of the story up until where he comes in, as the man who in all probability recorded this baby coo.

While in his 20s, Goldbaum went to work at Elektra for Jac Holzman, who pitched him the idea of creating a new sound effects library from real sounds, recorded with the highest-fidelity audio equipment available.

Over the next two years, Goldbaum travelled up and down New York and New England recording life’s sounds, becoming an innovator in his field. No one else was making sound effects like he was. He once skidded a car near some condenser mics, then went to a junkyard in Brooklyn and lifted a trashed vehicle on a magnetic crane and dropped it on a pile of headlights and headlamps; he then spliced the skidding and the junkyard drop together to make a car crash effect. He captured barnyard sounds from a live poultry market that used to operate where the Lincoln Center now stands. Shel Silverstein, who lived right around the corner from Goldbaum in the Village, actually played a role in his recordings, too: As Goldbaum recounts, “I just handed him the microphone and said, ‘Be a sheep,’ and he’d be a perfect sheep.”

Goldbaum goes on to talk about all the various human sounds he recorded, going into people’s houses to record their laughs and cries, their burps and sneezes, their yawns and snores, their horrified screams and birthday parties. When he started talking about these experiences, I had to ask about the baby. I played him the coo over the phone.

“Do you remember who this baby was?”

He pauses. “I honestly do not. It was so long ago and I recorded so many people.”

“It wasn’t a family member of yours? Or someone you know?”

“I can’t recall. It wasn’t anyone I knew. I recorded so many things and it was so long ago."

This is how the conversation with Mr. Goldbaum ends, and the last bit of hope flickers out. The one person who recorded the baby can’t remember who it was or where it was done – this was the end of the line. The baby coo now belongs on a shelf with a few increasingly rare artifacts of sound that must remain uncatalogued and adrift in an ocean of noise.

Despite the anticlimatic ending to this baby coo potboiler, I take solace knowing it is now a small outlier among our preoccupation with turning every bit of data into something searchable and definable. It’s above Siri’s pay grade and beyond the reaches of Google. Its placement inside “Are You That Somebody?” lives on as a myth, like Aaliyah herself. Goldbaum’s relationship to this baby mirrors that of Timbaland’s to Aaliyah: The architect and the inhabitant, two extant constructors of two lost voices, defined only as sound and the memory of a human.

Though, if you were a baby in New York during the early 1960s and a man with a microphone came to your house, maybe you are that somebody.

By Jeremy D. Larson on July 15, 2016

On a different note