Baker, LaVern 1929–1997
LaVern Baker 1929–1997
Rhythm and blues vocalist
Her voice carried a fascinating mixture of sophistication and down-to-earth power that evoked Bessie Smith and the other vocalists of the classic era, and she did much to set in place the outlines of early rock and roll. LaVern Baker was one of the most original and significant African American vocalists of the 1950s and early 1960s. Yet she might have risen to an even greater level of renown had her career not peaked during an era in which the recordings of African American artists were routinely “covered” or copied by white vocalists, robbing African American creators of their full rewards in monetary compensation and social recognition.
Baker was born Delores Williams on November 11, 1929, in Chicago. Her aunt was the classic blues vocalist Memphis Minnie, and she began to sing with friends at an early age. The raw power in her voice, as it did for so many other African American singers, came from gospel; Baker joined the choir at her Baptist church at the age of 12. By her late teens, she was singing blues and pop in Chicago nightclubs. She had a separate alias for each of the two images she wanted to project; for the down-home crowds recently arrived in Chicago, she took the name of Little Miss Sharecropper, while for other club dates she used the name Bea Baker. The name might have been derived from Memphis Minnie’s real name, Merline Baker.
One of the musicians who recognized Baker’s talent early on was swing bandleader Fletcher Henderson, who heard her in a nightclub in 1947. Baker made some blues recordings under the Little Miss Sharecropper name in 1949, and while these vanished without a trace, her reputation in Midwestern clubs continued to rise. She toured extensively, both as a solo artist and with the Todd Rhodes Orchestra. Appearing at Detroit’s legendary Flame Show Bar, she made another influential ally in future soul superstar Al Green, who managed Baker for a time and landed her a recording slot with the Columbia label. She also took vocals, not always credited, on recordings by Rhodes and bandleader Maurice King.
Baker rose to stardom when she was signed to the Atlantic label in 1953; it was there that she finally adopted the stage name of LaVern Baker. Atlantic, under the direction of producers and founders Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, had pioneered a distinct
At a Glance…
Born Delores Williams on November 11, 1929, in Chicago, IL; early in career used stage names Little Miss Sharecropper and Bea Baker; died March 10, 1997, in New York, NY.
Career : Rhythm-and-blues recording artist. Recorded debut single as Little Miss Sharecropper, 1949; signed to Atlantic label and began to record as LaVern Baker, 1953; reachedpop top 20 with “Tweediee Dee”; success diluted by white cover versions of “Tweedlee Dee” and other songs; reached pop top ten with “I Cried aTear,” 1959; left Atlantic for Brunswick Records, 1963; suffered attack of pneumonia in Vietnam, 1969, with extensive convalescence in Philippines; became entertainment director at U.S. military base at Subic Bay, Philippines, 1969; performed at Atlantic Records 40th anniversary party, New York, 1988; replaced Ruth Brown in Broadway musical Black and Blue, 1990; recorded and performed extensively, 1990s.
Awards : Rhythm & Blues Foundation Career Achievement Award, 1990; inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1991.
rhythm-and-blues sound favoring sharp, precise arrangements that nevertheless kept in touch with the emerging rhythms of the streets. The material and sound that the label sent Baker’s way showcased her skills perfectly. Baker’s second recording session for Atlantic yielded the hit “Tweedlee Dee” in 1954. The recording rose to Number Fourteen on the pop charts and reached the one-million sales mark. As was common practice at the time, however, white recording executives moved to minimize Baker’s success by releasing a cover version of “Tweedlee Dee” by a white artist. Georgia Gibbs’s version of “Tweedlee Dee” on the Mercury label reached the Number Two chart position, and copies of Baker’s songs by Gibbs and other vocalists continued to appear during many of Baker’s prime recording years in the late 19503. Unlike many other African American artists, Baker protested this unfair practice. She filed suit, claiming that her own interpretation of “Tweedlee Dee” constituted a copyrightable arrangement, but her suit was unsuccessful. Baker also wrote a letter to a U.S. congressman describing the injustices that were being visited upon African American recording artists—but in return received only a publicity packet.
Baker pressed on, and recorded a tribute album to Bessie Smith in 1958. The following year, she reached the pop Top Ten charts with the sultry “I Cried a Tear.” The song featured saxophone work by King Curtis, who offered a close instrumental counterpart for Baker’s own style. At one point, embarking on an Australian tour with a group of early rock and roll acts, Baker mailed Gibbs a flight-insurance document she had purchased at the airport. She enclosed a letter saying Gibbs might need insurance against the possibility that, with Baker absent, she wouldn’t have any more material to copy. Baker had another minor hit with “Saved,” a quasi-gospel number penned by the masters of white rhythm-and-blues composition, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
With her highly rhythmic vocals backed by Atlantic’s zippy accompaniment tracks, Baker must be counted not only as a major rhythm-and-blues artist, but as one of the pioneers of rock and roll as well. However, as both African American and white music moved in new stylistic directions in the 1960s, Baker’s popularity declined somewhat. She moved to the Brunswick label in 1963, but derived much of her income from live concert appearances during the 1960s. During the Vietnam War, she gave concerts to entertain U.S. troops.
Baker’s later years would seem an ideal subject for cinematic treatment. In 1969, while on tour in Vietnam, she fell seriously ill with pneumonia. She survived, but faced a lengthy period of recuperation in the Philippines. After her recovery she decided to stay there, and landed a job as entertainment director at the U.S. military base at Subic Bay. She raised a family in the Philippines, and did not return to the U.S. mainland for nearly 20 years. The stay might have been permanent had not the American popular music industry finally begun to honor its legends—in particular its underappreciated African American legends.
In 1989, Baker came back to the United States to attend the 40th-anniversary celebration at Atlantic Records. Baker performed at the star-studded event, which was held at New York’s Madison Square Garden. After that, new opportunities began to flow Baker’s way. She made extended appearances on Broadway as a replacement for vocalist Ruth Brown in the rhythm-and-blues-themed musical Black and Blue, recorded two new albums and a song for the soundtrack of the film Dick Tracy, and performed club dates in New York. Baker was honored in 1990 with induction into into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and with a Career Achievement Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation.
Tragically, illness cast a dark shadow upon Baker’s life. Afflicted with diabetes for many years, she was finally forced to undergo a double amputation of her legs. As was typical of the determination she had shown throughout her career, Baker returned to performing.Down Beat magazine lauded the “heart-wrenching set” she performed in Newport, Rhode Island at the Rock-port Rhythm & Blues Festival during the last year of her life. Baker died in New York City on March 10, 1997.
LaVern Baker, Atlantic, 1953.
LaVern, Atlantic, 1956.
Sings Bessie Smith, Atlantic, 1958.
Blues Ballads, Atlantic, 1959.
Saved, Atlantic, 1959.
See See Rider, Atlantic, 1959.
Soul on Fire: The Best of LaVern Baker, Rhino, 1991.
Woke Up This Morni’, DRG, 1992.
Blues Side of Rock ’n’ Roll, Star Club, 1993.
Contemporary Musicians, volume 25, Gale, 1999.
Larkin, Colin, ed., The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze UK, 1998.
Romanowski, Patricia, and Holly George-Warren, The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll, Fireside, 1995.
Down Beat, July 1997, p. 12.
New York Times, March 12, 1997.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from http://www.allmusic.com
—James M. Manheim
LaVern Baker wasone ofthemost successful female L.R&B vocalists of the 1950s. In the tradition of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, Baker’s blues-driven, gospel-tinged vocals paved the way for future female rock and rollers. However, unlike the more liberal 1990s, Baker rose to stardom in a decade where songsrecord-ed by black artists were termed “race records” and thus received little airplay on radio stations. “Whitewashing” was a common practice in which white vocalists would re-record a black artist’s single note for note and popularize them beyond the original version’s success. Despite these barriers, particularly the incessant competition from white cover artist Georgia Gibbs, Baker succeeded. With novelty rock hits “Tweedlee Dee,” “I Cried a Tear,” “Bop-Ting-a-Ling” and “Jim Dandy,” Baker secured her place in pop culture’s collective repertoire and her role as pioneer female recording artist.
Like many of the most influential R&B vocalists of the 1950s, Baker’s roots were in gospel music. Born Delores Williams in 1929 in Chicago, music was in her blood. Blues singer and guitarist Memphis Minnie was her aunt, and as early as Baker could speak she was singing on street corners with her friends from the neighborhood. In 1941, only 12 yearsold, shejoined her Baptist Church choir in Chicago. By the time Baker turned 17 she had graduated to the local clubs, working as a professional singer at Chicago’s Club De Lisa under the name “Little Miss Sharecropper.” She also recorded several fruitless blues singles for RCA in 1949 under this alias.
Although blues music was her forte, her club material was primarily pop music. At one of her regular gigs at Detroit’s Flame Show Bar, Baker met Al Green, who became her manager and was responsible for her first recordings at Columbia Records in 1951, this time under the name “Bea Baker.” A series of virtually unnoticed recordings followed, including an unaccredited release with Maurice King in 1951 on Okeh Records, a recording for National Records, also in 1951, under the familiar nickname “Little Miss Sharecropper” and an unaccredited duet with Todd Rhodes on King Records the same year. Although she later toured Europe with Rhodes as the band’s lead vocalist, success would not reach Baker until her Atlantic Records debut.
When Baker recorded her 1953 debut hit for Atlantic, “Soul on Fire,” she was already a seasoned performer. She changed her name again, finally settling on LaVern Baker. Her second single, “Tweedlee Dee,” was even more impressive, achieving Atlantic’s first Top 20 pop hit and making her one of the first Atlantic artists to succeed on both the R&B and pop charts. But with Baker’s first hint of success came the reality of current race relations, made painfully obvious by pop singer Georgia Gibbs’ copycat version of “Tweedlee Dee” for Mercury Records, which reached number two on the pop charts. Baker filed suit, enraged by the injustice, but lost. Still, she persevered, and her winning streak continued with playful novelty songs “Bop Ting-a-Ling,” “Fee Fi Fo Fum,” and “Play it Fair,” which reached number 2 on the R&B charts.
Baker had not only become a novelty rock icon, but she was making a comfortable living performing, too. In January of 1957, before leaving on an Australian tour, Baker sent her rival Gibbs a letter. “When I went to Australia with Bill Haley, Big Joe Turner, the Platters, and Freddy Bell and the Bellboys, I left her [Gibbs] my [flight] insurance policy,” Baker was quoted in a USA Today article upon herdeath in 1997.” Isent itto herwith a letter, ‘Since I’ll be away and you won’t have anything new to copy, you might as well take this.’”
Baker’s looks and charm made her a perfect candidate for crossover into television and movies in 1955. She was spotlighted on the R&B segment of Ed Sullivan’s TV show and she performed in Alan Freed’s Rock, Rock, Rock and Mr. Rock & Roll. In 1956, producer and founder of Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegun, found stronger material for Baker to record, resulting in the popular “Jim Dandy,” topped the R&B charts in 1957 and reached number 17 on the pop charts. Baker has
Born Delores Williams, November 11, 1929, in Chicago, IL, (died March 10, 1997, Manhattan, NY).
Began singing gospel music in her Baptist Church choir in Chicago, 1941; recorded debut single as “Little Miss Sharecropper” for RCA Victor with Eddie “Sugarman” Penigar’s band, 1949; recorded as “Bea Baker” for Columbia Records, recorded unaccredited with Maurice King for Okeh Records, recorded as “Little Miss Sharecropper” for National Records, 1951; joined Todd Rhodes’ band as lead vocalist, changed name to LaVern Baker, 1952; signed with Atlantic Records as solo artist, 1953; achieved success on R&Bchartswith single “Tweedlee Dee” and became Atlantic’s first Pop Top-20 hit, appeared in Alan Freed’s movies Rock, Rock, Rock and Mr. Rock & Roll, 1955; reached number one on R&B charts with “Jim Dandy;” released biggest pop hit “I Cried a Tear,” 1958; left Atlantic Records for Brunswick Records, 1964; became Entertainment Director at the Subic Bay Military Base, 1969; returned to the U.S. to perform at Atlantic Records’ 40th anniversary party at Madison Square Garden, 1988; recorded “Slow Rolling Mama” for Dick Tracy movie soundtrack, replaced Ruth Brown for nine months in Broadway musical Black and Blue, 1990; died on March 3 in New York City, 1997.
Awards: Received Rhythm & Blues Foundation’s Career Achievement Award, 1990; inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1991.
impacted contemporary artists like Bonnie Raitt, who consider her career vital in the crossover between R&B and rock and roll. Raitt told Steve Jones of USA Today that, “’Jim Dandy’ was one of the greatest records I heard as a kid. Even when I was a kid in Southern California, I knew the real deal when I heard it.”
Follow ups to “Jim Dandy,” “Jim Dandy Got Married” and “Humpty Dumpty Heart,” were also successful, but Baker’s 1959 ballad “I Cried a Tear,” featuring King Curtis on saxophone, became her biggest pop hit, reaching number six on the pop charts and number two on the R&B charts. During the next two years Baker recorded several duets, with BenE. King of the Drifters on “Help-Each-Other-Romance,” and Jimmy Ricks of the Ravens on “You’re the Boss.” Baker continued to reap chart success in the early part of the 1960’s with the singles “Saved,” written by the famed songwriting team Leiber and Stoller, “See See Rider,” “Bumble Bee,” and “Shake a Hand.” Before leaving Atlantic for Brunswick Records in 1965, Baker released a Bessie Smith tribute album, which became one of her most popular recordings. At Brunswick, her most notable recording was a duet with Jackie Wilson, “Think Twice,” but by that time, her career was in decline.
Toward the end of the 1960s Baker went overseas to entertain U.S. servicemen in Vietnam, but in 1969 she developed pneumonia and moved to the Philippines to seek treatment. Her intended short stay became two decades, during which time she raised several children and worked as a performer for the Marines and then as Entertainment Director of a nightclub at the Subic Bay Military Base. In 1989 Baker returned to the U.S. to perform at Atlantic Records’ 40th anniversary celebration. Her career was revitalized when she took over for fellow ex-Atlantic singer Ruth Brown in the Broadway play Black and Blue and recorded the song “Slow Rolling Mama” for the Dick Tracy movie soundtrack. She was honored in 1990 with the Rhythm & Blues Foundation’s Career Achievement Award and inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the same year.
Baker had struggled with diabetes for many years, but as the disease progressed, she was forced to have both her legs amputated. After two years of healing both physically and emotionally, she began to play the club circuit again, singing from her wheelchair. Her determination had been the principal factor in her initial success, but it was now clearer than ever. After enjoying renewed success for the greater portion of the 1990s, Baker died on March 10, 1997 in New York City
Lavern Baker, Atlantic, 1953.
Her Greatest Hits, Atlantic, 1953.
Lavern, Atlantic, 1956.
Sings Bessie Smith, Atlantic, 1958.
Blues Ballads, Atlantic, 1959.
Precious Memories, Atlantic, 1959.
Saved, Atlantic, 1959.
See See Rider, Atlantic, 1963.
The Best of Lavern Baker, JCI, 1963.
Let Me Belong to You, Brunswick, 1970.
Real Gone Gal, Charly, 1984.
Soul on Fire: The Best of Lavern Baker, Rhino, 1991
Woke Up This Mornin’, DRG, 1992.
Blues Side of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Star Club, 1993.
Lavern/Lavern Baker, Collectables, 1998.
See See Rider/Blues Ballads, Collectables, 1998.
Gaar, Gillian G., She’s a Rebel, Seal Press, 1990.
Romanowski, Patricia, editor, The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press, 1995.
Warner, Jay, Billboard’s American Rock ‘n’ Roll in Review, Schirmer Books, 1997.
“LaVern Baker,” All-Music Guide www.allmusic.com (January 29, 1999).
“LaVern Baker,” The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, www.rockhall.com (January 29, 1999).
“Remembering LaVern Baker, a strong-willed R&B original,” USA Today, www.usatoday.com (March 12, 1997).