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.

The Huffs left North Carolina when Terry was a toddler. His father went first to New York, which he deemed unsuitable for raising kids, and then, in 1951, to Washington. The rest of the family followed—Terry, his mother, and his small army of siblings. The Huff children numbered 18 in total. Terry was the ninth child, three years younger than Andrew, who would be his main musical collaborator.

The family’s stay at 50th and C Streets SE ended when a fire burned them out. Several of the kids were put into a foster home. Terry wound up on a farm in Croom, Md. Eventually the Huff parents reunited the family in a home on the eastern edge of Capitol Hill, where they attracted the attention of a young man who’d just opened his first business.

The prime mover in Terry and Andrew’s impressionable years was John “Johnny Boy” Katsouros, a Greek-American from the island of Naxos. In 1945, Katsouros’ father was gunned down by the Nazis for breaking curfew. Once the postwar shipping routes opened up, Katsouros came to D.C., where his mother had been born. When he met the Huffs, he’d just left a job at Safeway to open the first Johnny Boy Carryout at 15th Street and Independence Avenue SE—right down the street from their new house.

Katsouros had fallen hard for the music he encountered in Washington. “In D.C., we ran across Smokey [Robinson] and the Miracles when I was a really little kid,” he says. “We saw Tina [Turner] when she was with Ike up at the old WUST studio off of Riggs Road. See, I was raised up around black people. And when I was looking to open my business, I was looking for a black neighborhood.”

That’s where he met the Huff boys. “So there I was, 22, 23 years old, and you got these young guys harmonizing on the corner, singing old Del Vikings, the Coasters, the Drifters, the Platters—I loved that music.”

“He heard us singing and he came out to the corner where we were at, and he just stood there and watched,” Huff says. “We were harmonizing on ‘I Know’ by the Spaniels. Incredible song. And he says, ‘We need to go to New York and see what we can do about getting you guys into recording records.’” Huff calls Katsouros the “most wonderful person ever in my life.”

Katsouros ingratiated himself with the family, even buying groceries for Huff’s mother. He outfitted Terry, Andy, and their neighborhood bandmates in bold green tuxes for the trip to Manhattan. “I did everything that the manager would do,” he says. “I bought them suits, and Terry—Terry practically lived with me for some time. He lived over top of the store….I more or less adopted him.”

If Terry was the favored child of the ensemble, Andrew was still the leader—three years older than Terry, with a wicked grin and an oversize stage presence. The boys began to gig around town. When Katsouros brought Terry backstage after an Inez and Charlie Foxx show at the Howard Theatre, the R&B duo were so impressed with the young man that they asked him to open for them in New Jersey.

An early shot of Andy & the Marglows (Terry, top left; Andrew, bottom right) (Courtesy of Andrew Huff)

“She only wanted Terry,” Katsouros says. “So Terry went. I took him up to New Jersey, bought him new suits, and when we got up there, the rest of the group didn’t take to Terry. They felt threatened by him. We did the one night and Inez asked us to leave, and that was heartbreaking ’cause we thought we really had a break.”

Katsouros ferried the boys to New York a dozen times in his white 1961 Cadillac Seville. His persistence finally paid off in a contract with Liberty Records, the same label that was pushing 45s by the doe-eyed likes of Bobby Vee. Terry was 16. Andy and the Marglows, as they styled themselves, recorded three songs at Liberty’s studios in New York: “Superman Lover,” “Symphony,” and—the one track that made it onto the pop charts—“Just One Look,” which they learned straight off the original Doris Troy demo.

The only problem, according to Katsouros, Terry Huff, and fellow Marglow Lamont Russell, was that a tin-eared producer tried to funk things up too much, insisting on a sped-up rendition. The record charted in Detroit in May 1963, beating Dion for “new release hit of the week.” But the success ended a week or so later, when Troy heard the tune, labeled it a misinterpretation, and cut her own version for Atlantic, which quickly rose to No. 10 on the U.S. singles charts.

“Liberty was a white label—they had all white performers, Gene Pitney and all that,” Katsouros says. “If we had a guy that was used to dealing with black groups and arranged it right, we would have been there. We had a contract to do three singles, six sides, and then Doris Troy came out with her version of it. She wiped us out and the label dropped us.”

It’s still a sore spot for Andrew Huff. “The companies we were on took everything that we made,” he says. “It’s disturbing. We were just young and stupid.”

“Just One Look,” 1963 (Photograph by Ted Scheinman)

A few months later, Terry and Andrew—as a duo—met with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff (no relation) in Philadelphia. The inventors of Philly soul had heard the recordings courtesy of Katsouros and been charmed by the brothers’ live performance. “Let’s do business,” they said. “Come back in the fall.”

But Terry and Andrew never saw Gamble and Huff again: Back in D.C., the brothers nearly came to blows at a rehearsal, ending their musical partnership. “Terry, as you might have heard, was difficult to work with,” Andrew says. “I guess we were rehearsing, and Terry’s the type of dude, he has no fun. So one guy was reading the newspaper and Terry said, ‘Could you put down that newspaper?’ And then, well, things just got out of hand.”

It was also the end of the family’s musical relationship with Katsouros, who in the following years would build a food empire of sorts in D.C. and Prince George’s County. Johnny Boy’s name still graces carryouts throughout the Washington area. (The only location he maintains a stake in is Johnny Boy’s Ribs in Upper Marlboro, Md.) But he says he hasn’t heard from Terry Huff in years. “Give him my number. I’d love to talk to him,” he says. “Last time I talked to him he said he’d finally made it and I was going to be rich.”

Determined to avoid the draft, Terry became a D.C. cop in 1969. His four years with the MPD were marked by bravery—and clashes with superiors. One of the scarier moments was when Huff and partner Bob Horan cornered a notorious heroin pusher in the lobby of an apartment building. The perp pulled his gun. “In that moment, God showed me his arm,” Terry says. “[The gunman] suddenly spun around and backed up into a fire extinguisher, which started spraying everywhere.” Then Terry shot him through the right side of his chest. The dealer was paralyzed.

Soon, Huff started hearing whispers of a contract on his life. Here and there he’d get tips—on his 3rd District patrols, at the station, at home, even down on the Maryland farm where he’d lived during his foster-home days. “He was one of the most notorious guys in D.C.,” he says. “And one of the reasons I never sang in nightclubs all of the years is because I know that there are guys out there who would hurt me if they knew I was there and they could get a bead on me.”

Later, Huff and Horan tracked down a suave bank robber whom local media had labeled the Gentleman Bandit. They cuffed him in the Dupont Plaza Hotel. But, according to a Washington Post piece on the arrest, they never got to close the case—the FBI swooped in and took the Gentleman Bandit into federal custody.

Huff was quickly promoted, but his tenure didn’t last long. As he tells it, the swaggering and jockeying within the robbery squad ultimately got to him. After a string of altercations—Huff is hazy on the details—his sergeant told him, he says, to “shut up.” Terry was not amused. “I didn’t really like the quasimilitary thing. After I got into that thing with my sergeant, right in the squad room, I said, ‘You have no business speaking to me in this manner in public. Let me just say to you: I’m bigger than this job.’”

“They were always speaking to you like you had to beg for the job,” Huff says. “‘You don’t like it? Then quit.’ Well, that’s exactly what I did.” By December 1973, he was off the force and determined to get back into music.

“I Destroyed Your Love” remains Terry Huff’s masterpiece. To old-timer local DJs—Captain Fly, Scooter Magruder, Chuck McCool and their various contemporaries—the song is synonymous with a high point in pre-go-go D.C. R&B.

The tune is three-chord soul, structured like a call-and-response Gladys Knight song and dressed with sporadic strings and a fluid guitar lead. It begins with the guitar and a soprano sax trading licks, after which the strings sweep in and the background singers—Special Delivery—start a volley of harmonizing. At the 26th second, an impossibly high-pitched voice enters. It’s a woman—it has to be; it’s too high to be a man. But it’s Terry. The vocals have a one-take quality, as if a man entered the studio and laid down a single, extended, unrepeatable wail of knowing anguish.

I destroyed (I destroyed your love, your love for me)

Made you a victim of my insecurity

And when you had to go I just couldn’t understand (I couldn’t understand)

I thought (Naw, naw) you found yourself a brand new man

The song rotated modestly across the country and was huge in D.C. According to Captain Fly, it turned Huff into “a hometown hero with a national piece.”

“Terry was one of those singers,” Captain Fly says. “He can hit notes like Patti LaBelle, and then go even higher. No competition. Terry had that kind of gift where all you need is one voice.” But by the time the record came out, in 1976, Huff’s group was already history.

“I Destroyed Your Love” was written in 1973, before the birth of Special Delivery but after the disintegration of Huff’s relationship with his wife, Wanda. They had dated since childhood and married young. But the attention Wanda drew from other men drove Huff crazy. “I was jealous ’cause there were always guys trying to talk to her,” he says. “And you know what jealousy does—that destroys marriages and loves and all that.”

Huff directed his sense of loss into more songwriting. Taking music classes at Catholic University and living in a guitar-crammed apartment off of 7th and Franklin Streets NE, he composed the cycle of sad songs that would eventually become The Lonely One. Along the way, he picked up a new girlfriend, Deborah Broomfield, who insisted he show his songs to her friends George Parker, Reginald Ross, and Chet Fortune, who were gigging under the name Act 1.

The group, Terry says, had already charted in England with a tune called “Tom the Peeper” and broke onto U.S. soul charts with a song called “Friends or Lovers.” Now Act 1 needed a first tenor. And its members were a perfect match for “I Destroyed Your Love.”

After the disintegration of the Marglows, Huff says, he determined to stay solo. That’s what he’d told his brother Andrew, and that’s what he told Broomfield. “I told her, ‘No groups,’” he says. “‘I’m going to be a Quincy Jones someday.’”

But the allure of the front spot in an established act was too much. Before long, Chuck McCool had hooked Act 1 up with producer Van McCoy, an icon who’d worked with Gladys Knight and Aretha Franklin. With Huff firmly in place as chief songwriter—he also helped write vocal charts—the group changed its name to Special Delivery, signed to Mainstream Records, and went to New York to record.

The sessions were fruitful—Captain Fly calls the songs “classics that represented that essence of D.C.”—but hot with tension. In Parker, Huff had once again found someone as stubborn as he. They fought over the vocal arrangements; they fought over the backing orchestra. Parker wanted a Spartan production; Huff a full string section. Huff eventually got his way. But in the process Special Delivery had started to fall apart.

Predictably, memories differ on why the group split. Huff says it was about money, explaining that things went south after he tried to backpedal out of a contract that gave Special Delivery an equal stake in songs he’d written alone. “George Parker is the one who destroyed the group….He went into a jealous rage.” Parker, Huff claims, fired him.

Parker doesn’t recall any squabbling over money. “There was a series of things that caused us to split,” he says. “For example, we were the kind of group that would do a lot of choreography. One of our disagreements had to do with the fact that Terry didn’t like to move a lot.”

And bandmate Chet Fortune doesn’t even recall any fireworks. “I think it was a friendly disagreement,” he says. “I don’t think George Parker fired Terry. They had a disagreement because George was the producer and the leader of the band and Terry was a co-producer and the writer of our biggest hit. Rather than George firing Terry, I think Terry walked.”

But as things fell apart, there was still one key track to lay down: “The Lonely One.” Huff called on his brothers Jimmy and Andrew to provide a backing track in his group’s place. “We allowed him to complete the rest of what he wanted to do with that album because we knew at the end of it we’d be going our separate ways,” Parker says.

For all of the people involved, making the disc was as close as they’d get to the musical big time. Parker and Special Delivery went on to record two full records without Huff. Parker also started teaching school, becoming involved in the D.C.’s teachers’ union. Today, he serves as the organization’s president.

Andrew Huff’s cameo didn’t bring him back into the game. He went to work for the Smithsonian. He raised a family and got jobs as a chauffeur, a truck driver, a postal worker. He also developed a sophisticated relationship with drugs. “In the early days there was maybe a little marijuana,” he says, “but no drugs. Maybe some alcohol to keep your voice in order….The real stuff was later. But the rest of ’em didn’t mess around—Terry didn’t do no drugs.” Last week, Andrew was hospitalized with high blood pressure and a pancreas that has him throwing up half the time. He’s gearing up for a back operation, too, though he’s still quick with a smile.

Terry on his sister’s porch in Petworth (Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

The end of “The Lonely One” was the end of the line for Terry Huff, too. “When George Parker put me out of the group, I had to go back to work,” he says. He picked up some shifts at Johnny Boy’s and then made what he says was a good living selling insurance. But he kept bouncing around, physically as well as professionally. He lived with various family members until they asked him to move along. At one point he sold cemetery plots. In 1983, he spent time in Los Angeles trying to get a record deal and to coax royalties out of producers he says wrongfully appropriated his songs. Back in D.C., his insurance-sales gig hit the skids—the victim, he says, of a blizzard that shut down his car.

Huff moved in with his mother to help her recover from back surgery. But he says she got sick of his refusal to hold a job. So she put him out, too. The pattern continued for a decade, long enough to wear out Huff’s welcome even among the members of his sprawling clan. One niece threw out Huff’s bed after he bought a car instead of contributing to her household. By 2003, he was spending nights in D.C. shelters between nights with his increasingly frustrated siblings.

As for that 2006 Mothers’ Day concert? He says he doesn’t remember where he was.

Huff was for the most part alone—and he didn’t mind. The man behind “I Destroyed Your Love” had decided there was no one he could trust. “In this world, when you put love out there, you never get love back,” he says. “In fact, more often than not, you get colossal evil in return.”

I’m supposed to meet Huff at 10 a.m. at his sister Becky’s place. Around 9, he calls me on his new cell phone to say there’s been a change of plans: His “music guy” wants him in Chinatown by 11. There’s a New York–bound bus to catch. Something about a record contract. Terry Huff still wants to make it big.

They’re queuing for the bus when I arrive. Huff, sporting new sunglasses, greets me with a grin. “My brother! It’s good to see you,” he says.

Huff’s music guy, who is less happy to see me, is Dana Mozie, a hip-hop impresario who’s brushed shoulders with Diddy, Salt ’n’ Pepa, and Michael Jackson. More recently, he’s known as the GOP’s “hip-hop ambassador.” (He did urban outreach for the Bush White House). Mozie has been trying to get Terry a comeback for a couple years now.

“I want to do an upgrade of his style into today’s style, today’s R&B,” Mozie says. “I just wanted to take his voice and put it in the mix so people could fall in love with it again. Give him his last opportunity to be in on some other projects—kind of get his props.”

The bus lurches down H Street NW and eventually north, to the city where Huff recorded with Van McCoy, where Johnny Boy Katsouros dressed him in a bright green tux and told him to go out and charm the world, where he used to turn up in a ’61 Seville. As he boarded, Huff looked like a star: dark glasses, wide smile—an elder statesman of R&B unconcerned with his own demise.

It almost doesn’t matter that there wasn’t a record deal, after all. Mozie just showed Huff around—the Puerto Rican street parade, a quick stop in Chinatown, a spin around Times Square.

They even made time for a visit to the Apollo.