Born Delores Williams, November 11, 1929, in Chicago, IL, (died March 10, 1997, Manhattan, NY).
LaVern Baker was one of the most successful female 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 songs recorded 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 years old, she joined 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 her death in 1997. " I sent it to her with 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 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 Ben E. 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
by Karen Gordon
LaVern Baker's Career
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&B charts with 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.
LaVern Baker's Awards
Received Rhythm & Blues Foundation's Career Achievement Award, 1990; inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1991.
- Selected discography
- 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.
- La Vern Baker Live in Hollywood '91 , Rhino, 1991.
- 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).