LaVern Baker

Her’s was one of the voices that brought Rock & Roll to glory”

  • journalist Nick Tosches

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”

  • Bonnie Raitt

Despite claims such as those above, I’ve always contended that LaVern Baker was / is somewhat underappreciated by keen music followers and critics alike. That is, although Baker was white hot at the dawn of the Rock & Roll era – making a major contribution to both Rock & Roll and R&B, (that were virtually interchangeable at the time) – based on her accomplishments, with the passage of time, her star has dimmed considerably. To the point that when exploits of her peers are discussed, the name LaVern Baker, rarely enters the conversation.

Given Baker’s many triumphs, this perspective may seem to some to be totally unfounded. Granted, Baker has received some recognition for her efforts such as being the second female performer, (after Aretha Franklin), to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; and receiving the R&B Foundation Pioneer Award, but there were a number of achievements that have been somewhat glossed over. For instance, consider that, (among other noteworthy accomplishments):

  • Over her 12 year career at Atlantic Records, (1953-1965), Baker had 25 charting singles including the million sellers “Tweedle Dee” and “Jim Dandy”. This success rivaled label mates Ray Charles’ (1952-1959) and Ruth Brown’s (1949–1961) feats.
  • Baker was one of the first women promoted by Alan Freed as part of his Rock & Roll / R&B programming. That promotion included putting Baker in rotation on Freed’s radio playlists, as well as having her appear at his early shows at Brooklyn’s Paramount Theatre, and featuring her in two Freed produced 1956 movies: Rock Rock Rock! (1956) and Mr. Rock & Roll (1957), alongside notables such as Chuck Berry and Frankie Lymon
  • Baker was the first R&B artist to appear on the nationally televised Ed Sullivan show, (then called “Toast Of The Town”), in 1956 (singing “Tweedle Dee”)

The discounting of Baker’s efforts can be attributed to a couple of primary factors. Firstly, although enjoying the same number of hits, Baker was overshadowed by Ruth Brown. That is, while Baker was saddled with what can be justifiably characterized as novelty tunes like “Tweedle Dee”, “Jim Dandy”, and “Tra La La”, the extremely talented Brown, (“Miss Rhythm”), had the good fortune to record more hard-hitting material like “Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean”, “5-10-15 Hours”, and “Teardrops From My Eyes” among others. Although, Baker did have other more temporal entries, and to her credit, Baker injected as much sensuality as possible into the noted songs, the subject material of her most popular songs paled in comparison to Brown’s selections. And, although they were hits, they seriously undermined Baker’s talent. That is, Lavern Baker, one of the most important and successful 50’s R&B vocalists, was, in truth, a throwback to Blues singers Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. Blessed with a powerful voice; she unleashed a fiery combination of Blues, Jazz, and R&B.

The second factor that played a role was that LaVern, for all intents and purpose, was out of the public eye for more than 20 years, (from 1969 till the early 90’s). Of her choosing, Baker “retired” from the U.S. scene and took up residence in the Philippines. As such, a true case of “out of sight; out of mind”; the lack of visibility Stateside surely didn’t help her cause of maintaining popularity.

Matters being as they may, all started out promising enough for LaVern Baker, one of the first female R&B performers to cross over and reach a large segment of the white audience. Born Delores LaVern Evans in Chicago on November 11, 1929, Baker was singing in the Baptist church choir by the time she was 12 years old. But young LaVern, a music lover from the get-go, didn’t find Gospel fulfilling as she was drawn more and more to secular music. Baker was initially influenced by her aunt, Blues singer Merline Johnson. In an interview Baker recalled: ”I wanted to be just like her. I would sit in the studio and watch her record”.

It wasn’t long before Baker was following in her aunt’s footsteps. At the age of 17 Baker started playing local Chicago clubs – after getting her first big break at Club DeLisa – using the stage name “Little Miss Sharecropper”. “LMS” was a fully formed stage persona that featured Baker dressed in rags and belting out Blues numbers. (It’s not known who initiated the role of “LMS”, but it’s certain that the act was a thinly veiled attempt to capitalize on the popularity of Pop singer Mildred Jorman who had a somewhat similar act and went by the moniker “Little Miss Cornshucks”).

Baker continued to use the “LMS” stage name when she made her recording debut in 1949. Baker’s recording career started with forgettable Blues flavoured sides for both the National and RCA Victor labels. That was followed with Jazz forays for Columbia and its subsidiary Okeh (under the name Bea Baker) before trying her hand at Rock & Roll on the King label as LaVern Baker. In all, she recorded some 15 sides from 1949 to 1952. Although unremarkable in sales and notoriety, the recordings benefitted from Baker’s displays of vocal power and rhythmic energy – a foreshadowing of the LaVern Baker whose Blues driven, Gospel tinged vocals set the standard for future female Rock & Roll / R&B singers while reeling off hits at Atlantic Records.  

LaVern Baker’s time at Atlantic was indeed career defining and proved to be a building block for the fledgling independent label. Atlantic was fairly new – in its’ fifth year of existence – and aspiring to be as successful as established West Coast indies like Aladdin, Modern, and Specialty when Baker came aboard in 1953.

At the time of Baker’s signing with the label, Ray Charles had yet to have a hit and label’s most consistent hit maker was Ruth Brown. Brown had 3 charting hits to date: “Teardrops From My Eyes” (1951, Atlantic’s first million selling single) “5-10-15 Hours”, (1952, hitting # 3 on the R&B charts), “Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean” (1953, # 1 on the R&B charts).

Recognizing LaVern Baker’s obvious talent, owners Ahmet Ertegun, Nesuhi Ertegun, and Jerry Wexler sensed that she could readily duplicate Ruth Brown’s success and help springboard Atlantic to the next level. LaVern, certainly not a novice in the recording studio or in live performance, was already seasoned veteran at 24. Accordingly, she used her skills, experience, and business savvy to produce hit records with the label that consistently crossed over into the Pop charts. And, in doing so, Baker provided profile for Atlantic, as she established her identity of the one of the most unconventional and beautiful divas of her time.

Atlantic released more than 30 LaVern Baker singles, including a number of hits. The following are some of the most memorable records that established her spirited and joyful sound without sacrificing commitment to the nature of the material at hand:
“Soul On Fire” (1953) – from Baker’s first session; a hit on both the R&&B and Pop
“Tweedle Dee” (1955) – Baker’s second single; Atlantic’s first Top 20 hit (# 4 R&B, #
                                         14 Pop); a million seller
”Bop-Ting-A-Ling” (1956) – # 3 R&B
“Still” (1956) – # 2 R&B
“Play It Fair” (1956) – #2 R&B
“Jim Dandy” (1957) – topped the R&B charts, # 17 Pop; spent 18 weeks on the charts;
a million seller; included in Rolling Stone’s “Top 500 Songs Of All-
|                                  Time”; included in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame’s “Songs That
                                  Shaped Rock”
“Jim Dandy Got Married” (1957) – # 7 R&B
“I Cried A Tear” (1959) – Baker’s biggest Pop hit (# 6 Pop); # 2 R&B
“I Waited Too Long” (1959) – # 3 Pop, # 5 R&B
“See See Rider” (1964) – # 9 R&B

Although Baker enjoyed a measure of success with her various hits during her tenure at Atlantic, like a number of R&B artists, her “Race” records fell prey to inferior white covers. (For example, Pat Boone’s hilariously insipid cover of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” comes to mind). In most instances, these sanitized versions were released by white Pop singers on major labels who had access to a large white record buying public through the label’s influence on playlists and the sheer magnitude of distribution that small independent labels couldn’t match. Those same buyers would – as a general statement – not have an interest in or even be familiar with the originals. And, as a result, the covers would outsell the originals by a wide margin.

In LaVern Baker’s case, Jazz inflected Pop singer Georgia Gibbs scored hits with Baker’s “Tweedle Dee” and “Tra La La” on Mercury Records using identical arrangements to that of the originals. Gibbs’ rendition of “Tweedle Dee” had the most success hitting # 2 Pop. In response, Baker – one of the more outspoken critics of the practice of the covering of Black R&B material by white artists – filed suit and lost. As a last resort she issued an open letter to Ms. Gibbs in 1957 that bears mentioning if for no other reason than to illustrate Baker’s combative nature and feisty spirit:

“Dear Georgia,

In as much as I’ll be flying over quite a stretch of blue water on my forthcoming Australian tour, I am naturally concerned about making the round trip safely and soundly. My thoughts naturally turn to you at this time, and I’m enclosing an insurance policy on my life in the amount of $125,000. This should at least be partial compensation for you if I should I be killed or injured and thereby deprive you of the opportunity to copy my songs and arrangements in the future.”

LaVern left Atlantic and signed with Brunswick Records in 1965. But before moving on from the Atlantic chapter of her career it would be remiss not mentioning her excellent 1958 album LaVern Baker Sings Bessie Smith. One of the first concept albums, and her most popular album, LaVern Baker Sings Bessie Smith was named by DownBeat Magazine as one of the top ten Blues albums of all time. Rivalling Dinah Washington Sings Bessie Smith, released the same year, the album showcases a different LaVern Baker on her only true Jazz / Blues album. Backed by a stellar cast of musicians, LaVern delivers songs associated with Bessie like “Gimme A Pigfoot”, “Empty Bed Blues”, and “After You’ve Gone”. She does so in her own style, but includes the sass and swagger found in the originals while adding a welcome mix of drama and excitement.

Baker’s stop at Brunswick wasn’t a long one. LaVern recorded 7 sides for the label including her last R&B charting hit, “Think Twice” – a 1966 duet with label mate Jackie Wilson that landed at # 37 R&B.  It’s rather surprising that the record got any airplay whatsoever given the subject matter and the ribald lyrics. (You’ll have to Google them; I’ll leave it at that).

In the late 60’s Baker was on a USO tour in Vietnam. (The United Services Organization tour was a morale boosting entertainment tour for service men and women stationed overseas). There she fell ill with pneumonia and by the time she recovered the touring company returned to the U.S. leaving her behind. Rather than return to the States, Baker accepted an offer to work in the Philippines and serve as Entertainment Director at a nightclub at Subic Bay Military Base. Under contract to the U.S. government and primarily entertaining troops in Southeast Asia, Baker took a liking to her new situation. So much so that she remained in the Philippines till the early 90’s. Baker described her situation this way: “I got to book the musical talent, act as emcee, and sing on the weekends with a really talented band. It wasn’t the bright lights of Broadway although there is really a thriving and very professional music scene in the Philippines. But there is no doubt who was in charge. I don’t mind admitting I liked the situation”.

But LaVern Baker couldn’t stay away from home forever. Upon her return she continued with her career, touring extensively –
playing clubs and concerts as opportunities presented themselves. One such opportunity was Atlantic Records’ 40th Anniversary concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Displaying an undiminished strong robust voice, the 59 year old Baker performed “Jim Dandy” and “Saved”; drawing an enthusiastic response.

Following soon after, LaVern (ironically) replaced Ruth Brown in the Broadway play “Black And Blue”, a musical revue celebrating the Black culture of song and dance in wartime Paris. Baker made the most of her stage time singing a trio of Blues standards: “Body & Soul”, “Ain’t Nobody’s Business”, and “St. Louis Blues”.  

Baker remained active in the business throughout the 90’s. She continued to record, (including her first studio album in 20 years, Woke Up This Mornin’), worked on several movie soundtracks, and played numerous live dates. Not even having her legs amputated due to diabetes could dampen her spirit, as she forged on performing in a wheelchair.

LaVern Baker could howl the Blues or sing with sweet playfulness and sophistication. Commanding an alluring voice, she fused Blues, Jazz, and R&B with the fervour of Gospel. Added to that, Baker had a magnetic stage presence that could capture and hold an audience, (regardless of race). To sum up, LaVern Baker set the stage for R&B and Rock & Roll in the 1950’s and beyond.

LaVern Baker died March 17 1997 in Queen’s NY of cardiovascular disease. She was 67 years old.

The legend lives on.

LaVern Baker Playlist

  1. Soul On Fire
  2. Tweedle Dee
  3. Bop-Ting-A-Ling
  4. Still
  5. Play It Fair
  6. Tra La La
  7. Jim Dandy
  8. That Lucky Old Sun
  9. Jim Dandy Got Married
  10. Gimme A Pigfoot
  11. Back Water Blues
  12. Empty Bed Blues
  13. Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out
  14. After You’ve Gone
  15. St. Louis Blues
  16. Love Me Right
  17. I Cried A Tear
  18. I Waited Too Long
  19. Tiny Tim
  20. Voodoo Voodoo
  21. Saved
  22. See See Rider
  • Rico Ferrara, December 2022