LaVern Baker

TrackSingle / Album
Jim DandyAtlantic 45-1116
Baby DollLaVern Baker Sings Bessie Smith
I Cried A TearAtlantic 45-2007
Just A Closer Walk With TheePrecious Memories...
Bumble BeeAtlantic 45-2077
SavedAtlantic 45-2099
Hey MemphisAtlantic 45-2119
Voodoo VoodooAtlantic 45-2119
Born To LoseBrunswick 55341
Play It FairLet Me Belong To You

LaVern Baker photo 2

 

 

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LaVern Baker playlist

 

LaVern Baker poster 1

 

Contributor: Dave Stephens

Ruth Brown wasn’t the only bluesy songstress at Atlantic Records in the 1950s and early 60s. In 1953, the company signed LaVern Baker. Having already hit the top of the R&B Chart on three occasions with Ruth, the Atlantic execs – and Jerry Wexler joined round about that time – must have been almost beside themselves with glee about the possibility of LaVern achieving something similar.

There were similarities and differences between the two ladies and, in both cases, misconceptions.

Both had strong, robust voices and both wanted to sing from an early age. In LaVern’s case she was actually related to blues royalty; distantly to Memphis Minnie but more closely to a lady called Merline Johnson, known as “The Yas Yas Girl”, who was her father’s sister, though details on both Ms Johnson and LaVern’s father are well nigh impossible to find or so Marv Goldberg in his R&B Notebooks states (and provides evidence for). In the book “Blue Rhythms: Six Lives In Rhythm And Blues”, author Chip Deffaa has a chapter on LaVern and says:

“Although Baker greatly admired Ella Fitzgerald and some other popular performers of the day, she says that Merline Johnson was her “Biggest influence. I just wanted to be like her. I would sit there in the studio and watch her record. I guess this is why I wanted to do it, as a kid. It was nice. I think I was about eight or nine when I told my mom, “I want to sing like my auntie Merline”, My daddy didn’t like it so hot. Well he didn’t want me to pattern too much after her, but he didn’t mind me being a singer.””

Ruth’s name was real but LaVern Baker was concocted for stage and recording use. That may partially explain the variations one sees in its spelling, particularly in the early days. It wasn’t her first stage name. To quote Marv Goldberg again:

“When she was 17, Delores began singing in Chicago (her home city, DS). On 28th September 1946, she appeared at the Timber Tap Lounge as “Little Miss Sharecropper” (to emulate the popular singer Mildred Cummings, who performed as “Little Miss Cornshucks”). She was asked to perform that way; it wasn’t her choice. They dressed her as a hayseed, with a straw hat and a basket. While she became popular with the Chicago crowds, LaVern was never happy with the “Sharecropper” name, seeing it as a stepping stone that she’d have to tread on in order to achieve stardom.”

The ladies recorded for Atlantic for similar periods with a large overlap: Ruth from 1949 to 1961 and LaVern, 1953 to 1965. While the output of both could broadly be termed rhythm and blues, Ruth’s main sales were logged in the R&B Chart but LaVern made an impact on the Hot 100 relatively early in her career and the Atlantic team attempted with some degree of success to tailor her output to the teenage white audience from then on. Hence many of her records more closely resemble pop cum rock and roll.

While Ruth hadn’t had any records released before she joined Atlantic, LaVern was already a seasoned performer in the medium having cut 10 singles spread across four/five labels – RCA-Victor, National, Columbia, OKeh (OKeh was a subsidiary of Columbia) and King. In all of these cases the main credit on the disc is given to the band, so the usually reliable 45cat/worlds doesn’t have a clear picture of this phase of LaVern’s record career. However, Soulful Kinda Music does log all of these records. What this did mean, of course, is that in HR terms, LaVern had a much more substantial résumé (than Ruth) when she joined the label.

Both ladies ‘disappeared’ for chunks of their career post Atlantic. In Ruth’s case this lack of visibility was largely due to fashions in music changing plus the fact that Atlantic had cheated on royalties and were continuing to do so causing her to have to get a day job to support her family – and for details see the Ruth Brown Toppermost – but LaVern’s situation differed in a somewhat unusual manner – see detail later.

The first recording session for Little Miss Sharecropper backed by the Eddie “Sugarman” Penigar Orchestra – they were prolific with the usage of the term “orchestra” in those days – was held on 25th February 1949 in the RCA-Victor studio. Two tracks were cut: I Wonder Baby (a slowish blues) and Easy Baby (a faster one). They were issued as the A-sides of two singles in that order. Sax player and occasional vocalist Eddie is listed as the composer for both and was the singer on the two flips; hence maximising any royalties I guess. For first records – though see comment in Footnote #2 – these sound pretty good to me; LaVern is confident and evidently at home with this type of material. The first has plenty of rippling piano and the break is entrusted to the trumpeter. The second focuses more on ensemble work from a well drilled band.

 

A few more tracks are worth a visit to show the range of “Little Miss Sharecropper”. 1952’s Pig Latin Blues (on which she has the billing of “Lavern Baker” with lower case ‘v’) shows her at home with a form of vocalese and evidently not without a sense of humour, plus, in the same year, the seriously slow Must I Cry Again which has her fully at home in torch ballad territory. The band for both sessions was the Todd Rhodes Orchestra. Mind you, my favourite from all these sessions has to come from 1951: Maurice King & His Wolverines with vocal from Bea Baker (sic): I Want A Lavender Cadillac which immediately conjures up a visual image which pleasingly this clip respects:

LaVern’s opening shot for Atlantic in ’53 consisted of a blues ballad, Soul On Fire coupled with a horns-driven single chord jumper, How Can You Leave A Man Like This. She had a hand in writing both: with Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler (the pairing semi-disguised as Jermet) on the A-side and Wexler alone on the flip. Both sides are more than decent offerings and I was tempted towards selection for Soul On Fire but for the fact that I find the stop time section, approx 50 seconds in, a tad over dramatic and jarring with the mood already created.

She didn’t find the hit parade until record #3, but when she hit, she hit big: #4 in the R&B Chart and #14 in the Hot 100. Once again, the record coupled a good slowie (Tomorrow Night) and a jumper, but this time, the jumper was on the plug side. The song was Tweedlee Dee and it was a novelty rock item written by Winfield Scott, a member of the Cues vocal group who accompanied LaVern under the name of “The Gliders”. In fact, you could almost break down that genre heading into a sub-genre, nursery rhyme novelty rock, due to Scott’s usage of words that came from such ditties. But based on this record and several that followed, the genre wasn’t one I could get wildly enthusiastic about; in toning back the performance of both LaVern and her backing team, the production had lost much of the rock content making that novelty rock categorisation something of a misnomer. That said, the live clip below from an Ed Sullivan Show broadcast in November 1955 is distinctly better, benefitting from a punchy mini brass section replacing the Cues and a slight but significant increase in tempo. Ms Baker herself also appears to be very much looking forward to some Tweedlee Dee (which I’d always assumed, possibly incorrectly was a touch of double entendre – if not, how else do you interpret lines like “Mercy, mercy, pudding pie / Hubba hubba honey do / I’m gonna keep my eyes on you”).

Within a month of LaVern’s release of Tweedlee Dee, Mercury Records had white singer Georgia Gibbs cut the song with largely the same arrangement and the Cues/Gliders repeating their support performance and it leap-frogged the original and claimed the number one hit parade spot. To say LaVern was devastated is probably an understatement; she’d never been subjected to anything like this before but would learn over the coming years that it was just part of the facts of life for black performers. She attempted to sue Ms Gibbs and Mercury but had no joy from the lawyers. According to Wiki she also tried to petition the US Congress but to no avail.

Almost inevitably further nursery rhyme novelty rock records followed from LaVern and Atlantic – Bop Ting-A-Ling, Fee Fee Fi Fo Fum, Tra La La, Humpty Dumpty Heart – often with Winfield Scott’s name against them. None ‘crossed over’ like Tweedlee Dee but most kept the cash tills ringing via R&B Chart sales. Mingled in with these tracks were more varied efforts like her take on the oldie Lucky Old Sun and its A-side, the rockaballad, Play It Fair. It’s a good record and I would have given it my vote but for the fact that she rerecorded the song, a whopping fifteen years later for Brunswick – it’s on the album Let Me Belong To You – and this time the producer told her not to hold anything back (producer Bert DeCoteaux, was later responsible for the arrangement on Ben E. King’s 1975 hit, Supernatural Thing).

I’ve come across quite few makeovers from artists of songs that did well for them first time around but can’t think of all that many cases where I’ve preferred the later interpretation. Below you’ll find clips of both (and I’d warn that you’ll probably need to at least let the first verse of the ‘second take’ of Play It Fair sink in before you start forming a judgement).

 

If at this point the reader is starting to think that (a) I’m not fond of LaVern’s Atlantic records and (b) I have a thing against novelty records, then I’d answer with (a) not at all, but the better ones are yet to come IMHO (and I only have ten selections) and (b) no I don’t, indeed there are plenty of novelty records that I’m very partial to including some from Ms Baker. All of which allows me to segue reasonably neatly to:

Jim Dandy to the rescue
Jim Dandy to the rescue
Jim Dandy to the rescue
Go, Jim Dandy! Go, Jim Dandy!

That’s the chorus and there’s a chord change and return on the third line with LaVern offering plenty of encouragement to Jimmy on the fourth. JD is a kind of comic hero and the verses zero in on him rescuing damsels in distress though the level of wit isn’t up to, say, the kind of song that the Leiber & Stoller duo were just starting to create for the Coasters.

But it’s not really about any of that. It’s the performance.

Just listen:

Regardless of the quality of the material, LaVern meant it on Jim Dandy. So did the Cues. So did the pianist. So did Sam “The Man” Taylor with a scintillating break and fade – he was virtually somnolent on Tweedlee Dee. And in terms of results, it got her back to roughly the same level as Tweedlee Dee, a very pleasing #1 in the R&B Chart – the first and only time she’d manage that so label mate Ruth Brown still had bragging rights in respect of R&B Chart number ones – and #17 in the Hot 100.

 

That all happened towards the end of 1956 and she’d still have to wait a couple of years or so before her biggest hit. In between was a relatively dry period though it was by no means without interest, containing as it did, a couple of good versions of oldies; St Louis Blues which she took at breakneck speed and clearly enjoyed (and, with its fast ska type sound, it very nearly made my Ten), and a haunting Harbor Lights (US spelling of course) which she released before the Platters picked up the song and made it a top tenner.

But come November 1958, come the ballad I Cried A Tear. It might not have been entirely original – the sax riff and mood had appeared in LaVern’s own Play It Fair and the actual song had quite a resemblance to the Chuck Willis (performed but not composed) What Am I Living For which also had the same riff and probably the same sax player, since the Willis record was on Atlantic, and the same backing outfit, the Reggie Obrecht Orchestra was used on both records – but in defence of the writer, producer and Atlantic, the chord structure was one that had seen and continues to see, masses of usage (particularly in gospel) and even the melody line must have been deployed on many occasions before cropping up on What Am I Living For. But strangely, in spite of all that, it’s the Baker voice and what Dave Marsh (in “The Heart Of Rock And Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made”) refers to as “the stately arrangement” that win you over. In his review, Marsh deplores the fact that it’s the novelty records for which LaVern will be remembered in spite of the fact that it’s this number, “one of the great R&B torch tunes” which was:

“… her biggest hit, and the only one to make the pop Top Ten, which even as late as 1958 represented an unusually potent (and therefore, unignorable) black to white crossover.”

#2 in the R&B Chart, #6 in the Hot 100:

The comedown for LaVern – from her high point in late 1958 to her departure from Atlantic in 1965 – was relatively gentle with plenty of records hitting low end Hot 100 and some of them breaking into the top 50. Highlights for me were:

Shake A Hand (1960) – a fine version of the Faye Adams number which Ruth also cut but only after she’d joined Mercury – I’ve given Ruth higher billing on it but there’s not a lot to choose between the versions.

Bumble Bee (1960) – a semi-novelty in that there’s a serious theme behind the title, he’s cheating on her and hurting her “like a bee / a bumble bee, a evil bumble bee” and it’s those final words that always get me, followed by a positively evil graunch of guitar, possibly from Mickey Baker though Carl Lynch was also on the session – the song wasn’t an original; that came from The Tads and their lead singer Leroy Fullylove is co-credited (with LaVern) on her version.

You’re The Boss (1960) – a finger-snapping duet with Jimmy Ricks, one of the founder members (and bass man) of The Ravens – “But in the middle of the night / When the moon is shining bright / You’re the boss” – written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

Saved (1961) – follow-up to You’re The Boss and also written by Leiber & Stoller – it’s a cod gospel number which LaVern attacks with just as much fervour as if it were the real thing – it inspired cover versions from Billy Fury, Brenda Lee, Elvis and the Band – and though you probably won’t hear him, Jerry and Mike’s apprentice Phil Spector is in there on guitar.

Hey Memphis (1961) –answer record to Presley’s Little Sister and in the eyes of several, including self, better than that record – written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, and, according to 45cat, “Supervision: Phil Spector” but that’s not him on guitar, apparently there were three gents assigned to this task (which rather confirms the Spector supervision claim).

Voodoo Voodoo (1961 and flip to Hey Memphis) – LaVern’s hardest rocker and why oh why, didn’t the boys from Canvey Island ever cover this one – King Curtis on sax.

See See Rider (1962) – if it hadn’t been for that irritating clickety click percussion, this one might have found its way into the Ten.

Atlantic were considerably more lavish with LaVern than Ruth when it came to LPs. At first I thought that this might be down to dates since Ruth left the label earlier but I was wrong; the two particular albums I have in mind which were both outside the usual “hits, flips-and-anything else that didn’t get released for any reason” approach were cut in 1958 and 1959, well before the Brown exit. Those albums are LaVern Baker Sings Bessie Smith (1958) and Precious Memories: LaVern Baker Sings Gospel (1959) and both are excellent.

The AllMusic scribe (Scott Yanow) starts off his review of LaVern Baker Sings Bessie Smith by saying: “This is an album that should not have worked” but eventually comes round to: “Despite the potentially conflicting styles, this project is quite successful and often exciting” and gives the set four and a half stars. I can only imagine that Scott had zero awareness of LaVern’s pre-Atlantic existence. I can’t believe it’s because of the “all-stars from mainstream jazz” (his words) who accompany her, because most jazzers who’d been around the block a few times would have given their eye-teeth to be on such a session, and LaVern’s abilities would have been obvious as soon as she opened her mouth.

I wanted one track to represent the LP in the Ten and was initially tempted by Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle as possible comment of LaVern’s view of her position vis-à-vis Ruth, but I put that to one side and went for Baby Doll as more typical of the album. It’s something of a torch song but with some delicious work from Buck Clayton on trumpet and a whacking great back beat..

Lord, I went to the gypsy to get my fortune told
She said, “You in hard luck, Bessie
Doggone your bad luck soul”

LaVern’s gospel album is so consistently good that I could have reused the words that I used about Ruth Brown’s equivalent set: “I really could have picked a good one blindfold”, but for one thing, there’s one track that manages to stand up just that bit higher than any of the others. Here’s LaVern with the Alex Bradford Singers and a small instrumental group.

Wiki lists 70 plus versions of Just A Closer Walk With Thee though I suspect a full list would run into the hundreds. I can’t have heard more than a small portion of those records but I doubt whether there are many that would better this interpretation.

 

LaVern moved from Atlantic to Brunswick in 1965. None of the accounts I’ve seen give any reason but Atlantic hits for her were but a fading memory by the middle of the decade. Put that into a backdrop of all US established artists being threatened or worse by the Brit Invasion from ’63 onwards, and you’d come to the conclusion that Atlantic wouldn’t have been that unhappy to let her go. Their final shot, record-wise was a version of Fly Me To The Moon and not just any old Fly Me To The Moon but a Fly Me To The Moon produced by Bert Berns; you could guess that this was the case from the fact that a Spanish guitar took pride of place (probably played by Bert) though the end result was more early Eurovision than flamenco, or Tony Bennett with a touch of Cuba. LaVern of course wasn’t phased at all and just sailed through.

Her first Brunswick single consisted of back to back ballads with varying degrees of soul marinade. The A-side, Let Me Belong To You was a new song, well performed, with LaVern matching her restrained vocal to the elegant arrangement. Which was okay but maybe a bit too polite. The flip was Pledging My Love, yes, that Pledging My Love, another song which has been covered umpteen times if not quite as many as Just A Closer Walk With Thee (and for more on the covers, see footnotes).

It’s the arrangement and LaVern’s role in it that makes the record. Initially, she simmers along very nicely like lit blue touchpaper before it ignites while the various parts of the orchestra – and yes it’s definitely an orchestra this time; drums, piano, strings, brass with plenty of trombone plus vocal group – dance around her with suites of interlocking riffs which vary per verse, until the middle eight is reached and LaVern releases her full pyrotechnic repertoire over chunky descending chords from the complete ensemble. An echo of her work on Precious Memories and why not.

Five releases further down the line, something even better was released: Born To Lose, a number which had been appropriated by Ray Charles for his conquer the world with country campaign in 1962. The Charles version had played down the drama, taking a rueful but resigned approach against pretty strings but the Brunswick/Baker arrangement took the gradual build of emotions route favoured by many soul balladeers. Small group only at the start anchored by organ, with the brass and femme chorale coming in on the second verse and by mid-way through, LaVern would seem to have reached her high point in terms of letting it all hang out, but she reaches for more, and more, and more and keeps getting there. I do wonder whether the release of Aretha’s first Atlantic record, I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You) / Do Right Woman, Do Right Man approximately six months earlier, had spurred LaVern into this stronger and more sustained outpouring. Who knows, but if it gave us this record let’s just be thankful.

While she was at Brunswick, LaVern worked with the cream of the production and arrangement talent. For Pledging My Love the orchestra direction was entrusted to Teacho Wiltshire and for Born To Lose, Bert “Super Charts” DeCoteaux. For her final single for the label, I’m The One To Do It, production was in the hands of Carl Davis and the end result was more along Motown lines.

There are two more things that should be said about LaVern’s Brunswick stint. First, that she cut a duet with Jackie Wilson entitled Think Twice which was lively and had one heck of a backbeat. It was released during a spell when Jackie’s Brunswick career was somewhat becalmed (though it did see a not insignificant revival in the years that followed with records like Whispers and Higher And Higher). The second thing is to remind the reader of the LP that I mentioned many paragraphs back, Let Me Belong To You. Although not released until 1970, that is several months if not a year after Ms Baker had released her last single, it didn’t follow the more recent trends for tracks being cut specifically for album release, instead it conformed more to earlier practices, that is to say it contained a grab bag of singles plus some tracks – in this case three – which hadn’t seen singles release; the reincarnated Play It Fair was one of those ‘extra’ tracks. That said, the LP still served as a good but incomplete view of the Baker Brunswick era. Don’t start looking out for it though since, according to Discogs, the only CD release has been to Japan. If you want the material and I should emphasise that the quality is good to excellent – hence giving us another similarity to Ruth who also made a fine album of contemporary soul material on the label she joined after Atlantic – then you could fork out for LaVern Baker Brunswick Essentials which was released this year (2021). It contains all the material released plus one alternate take (see footnotes).

After LaVern’s return to the US (from the ‘disappearance’, see footnotes) she was happy to get back into performing again and wasn’t going to turn down invitations to make albums. 1991 saw her captured on stage on Live In Hollywood ’91, an album every self-respecting LaVern Baker fan shouldn’t be without (and it’s still available). Tracks number one and two, Tweedlee Dee and Tomorrow Night are fine lead-ins to a set that was well over half Atlantic makeovers with the rest being standards etc. I have to say that if the 1954 original had displayed the joie de vivre contained in this version of Tweedlee Dee, it would have been in the Ten. Elsewhere, the Baker take on What A Difference A Day Made allows us to make comparisons to the great Dinah and one or two others.

There was to be one more album, Woke Up This Mornin’ (in 1992) named after the B.B. King number which is present in the set. It contained a mix of tracks running from some soul standards through blues to more lounge style standards – a couple of which were numbers present on the preceding live set – to an unexpected You’ve Got A Friend (James Taylor). Unfortunately, the album is now out of print and the only tracks which have been uploaded to YT are Trouble In Mind, Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out and Rock Me Baby, all via the same uploader who’s obviously a blues fan.

She also worked on several film soundtracks. Her last recording was Jump Into The Fire which appeared on the Harry Nilsson tribute album For The Love Of Harry: Everybody Sings Nilsson in 1995.

On Let Me Belong To You, the sleeve notes are (we are led to believe) written by LaVern herself and can be found in 45Worlds. They read as if she’s applying for a job (presumably to belong to him). Under the heading ‘Experience’ she writes:

“Have worked in night clubs, concert halls and have been recording for some fifteen years. Have had gratifying success during that time. In particular, there were three that meant so much to me: Tweedlee Dee, Jim Dandy and I Cried A Tear, the last one selling a million copies for which I was awarded a gold record.”

After that I felt that I had to give you a relatively recent live cut of Tweedlee Dee since I’ve given the record short shrift so far. Below is a clip from the Montreux Jazz Festival in July 1991.

LaVern’s ‘comeback’ if I can call it that was cut short by ill health and a relatively early death. It’s probably for this reason that she’s not looked upon as such a major artist as her friend Ruth whose return to public consciousness encompassed multiple musical show appearances, TV and radio, a memorable role in a film that became a cult success, as well as concerts and records. And it’s for the same reason I’m not able to call upon a bank of quotes about her from other performers. However, a contemporary white singer in the fifties, Johnnie Ray, is on record as saying:

“I was moved no end by the work of LaVern Baker.”

 

 

FOOTNOTES

1. For this essay I have deliberately stuck pretty closely to my approach on the Ruth Brown Topper so that there’s consistency between the two. My thinking was that anyone reading one of the pair would very likely be wanting to read the other, or if not, maybe I could stimulate him or her to do so.

2. LaVern Baker was born in Chicago on 11th November 1929 and no, she wasn’t born with that name, she went through a number of stage names, initially not chosen by herself until settling on this one, and, for anyone in doubt, that’s her spelling. But in terms of her real name, confusion enters the scene immediately: Wiki has her birth name as Delores Evans (with the “Evans” coming from her mother’s maiden name while Marv Goldberg has it as Deloris Baker which he says comes from her Social Security Record. Marv goes on to tell a fascinating story within which the young Delores/Deloris uses the surname McMurley and her father, Peter Baker, leaves no trace anywhere as to his background.

The young Delores sang in the local church choir and had dreams of following her Auntie Merline on stage. Marv reports that when she was 11 she entered a jitterbug contest at Pep’s Ballroom. He goes on to quote from an interview with LaVern in the “Baltimore Afro-American” on 11th September 1956:

“She won first prize and when brought to the microphone, was asked whether she intended to make dancing her career. She confessed a desire to be a singer, and was allowed to sing a song for the audience. An instantaneous hit, she was hired as a singer on the spot. Too young to sing in nightclubs and cabarets, she could only sing in ballrooms and at dances where no liquor was sold.”

It was a start, and the story then picks up in the main text but without a false recording start which I don’t cover there. In 1947 or ‘48 band leader Fletcher Henderson arranged for LaVern to record some titles at Columbia including one he’d apparently written for her entitled I’m In A Crying Mood. These tracks were never officially released but their existence is documented in more than one place.

3. The ‘Disappearance’:

In July 1970 LaVern set off on a tour of military bases in South East Asia including Thailand, Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Guam. When she was appearing in Manila she was given the news that her manager had dropped her and her then husband, Slappy White had divorced her. On top of all that she came down with bronchial pneumonia (which she’d picked up in Vietnam acc. to Wiki). Whilst recovering at the US Naval base at Subic Bay in the Philippines, she was recommended for and accepted a job as entertainments director at the Marine Corps Staff NCO Club there. She stayed for the best part of 20 years, not returning full-time to the US until the club closed in 1988.

She returned to the US in time for the Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary show though whether the Philippines club closure was related to her decision to return isn’t clear from the information available. She had actually flown back on at least one occasion in the early eighties to appear in a Jackie Wilson tribute show.

The highlight of LaVern’s return to New York may well have been replacing Ruth Brown in the Broadway hit musical Black And Blue in 1990; this was at the instigation of Ruth who wanted to move on. Tragically though LaVern’s health worsened as the nineties progressed. She had been a diabetic for years and, in 1994, had to have both legs amputated due to complications with the condition though this didn’t stop her continuing performing and making records.

LaVern died of cardiovascular disease on 10th March 1997. She was 67. Wiki tells us that she was buried in an unmarked grave but local historians raised money for a headstone which was erected in 2008.

4. Pig Latin is: “a secret language used by children in which any consonants at the beginning of a word are placed at the end, followed by -ay; for example cathedral becomes athedralcay.” (Collins Dictionary)

5. Jim Dandy was immediately followed up with a sequel, Jim Dandy Got Married though whether the buyers wanted another dose of essentially the same thing might have been debatable (even if the musical support was funkier and the lyrics more interesting since the Dandy does marry the damsel but the marriage doesn’t end up on an entirely happy note). Intriguingly one of the Commentators on 45cat logs the following comment (bearing in mind that the writer of Jim Dandy was one Lincoln Chase):

“Berry Gordy claims in his autobiography “To Be Loved” to have co-written “Jim Dandy Got Married” with Tyran Carlo, Alonzo Tucker, Albert Green and Lincoln Chase?”

The tune and theme were used for a third time for a single release while LaVern was with Brunswick. On this one Jim Dandy had been replaced by a more familiar superhero as in Batman To The Rescue with Lincoln Chase appearing in the composer credits but on his own this time.

6. Jim Dandy was ranked number #343 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Number 342 was Dion’s Runaround Sue, number 344 was Janis Joplin’s Piece Of My Heart.

7. Chuck Willis was a major influence on other black artists in the mid to late fifties – he died in 1958 at the age of 32 – but is less well known to the general public. He gets a number of name checks in the Ruth Brown Toppermost. For further information see my Toppermost on Chuck.

8. There’s a lengthy and fascinating Comment against LaVern’s Bumble Bee single in 45cat. The Commentator (“djgger”) opens with “I think some people would be very surprised at some “standards” in popular music that are constantly played but did never chart in the UK. Rock And Roll Music by Chuck Berry for one. Johnny B Goode by Chuck Berry when issued in 1958 (London Label) did not chart. There are dozens more.” He goes on to say:

“Bumble Bee by LaVern Baker is another too. Bumble Bee was in the repertoire of the Searchers and other Liverpool groups and other groups up and down the UK. Naturally when the Searchers wanted material for an album they recorded one of their crowd-pleasers, namely, Bumble Bee.”

I’m pleased to say that I still have my Bumble Bee (and Jim Dandy) 45s.

9. I comment on the influence of R&B/pre-soul on country music and vice versa in the Ruth Brown Toppermost. It’s interesting to note that Ernest Tubb covered both What Am I Living For and I Cried A Tear and was one of the earlier artists to do so.

10. In terms of covers of Pledging My Love, the Wiki entry wasn’t very forthcoming so I went to Secondhandsongs which gave me just over 30 covers up to LaVern’s single release date and double that number up to 2016. While several black soul singers were included in the list, less expected was the grand dame of country music, Kitty Wells who included it in an album with that name in 1971.

11. An outtake of Think Twice, the duet with Jackie Wilson, emerged many years later within which the participants use rather less formal language – it’s sometimes known as Version X or even XXX. One of the YT clips has received over 20 times the viewing figure as the highest viewed ‘official’ version. This is Version X.

12. In December 1955, LaVern appeared on the Alan Freed show at the Academy of Music in Manhattan. It was to be the first of several appearances on the Freed show alongside rock’n’roll and pop performers of the day. In turn this led to appearances in Freed’s celebrated (but low-budget) music films. Rock, Rock, Rock hit the US movie theatres in December 1956 with LaVern singing Tra La La alongside Chuck Berry, Johnny Burnette, the Flamingos, the Moonglows, Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers and Teddy Randazzo. She followed this with an appearance in Mister Rock And Roll, a film about Freed himself. In addition to a few names from Rock, Rock, Rock, Little Richard and country star Ferlin Husky popped up in this one.

13. I’m grateful to Our Esteemed Editor for digging up a fascinating snippet from Norm N. Nite’s “Rock On: The Illustrated Encyclopedia Of Rock N’ Roll”. To quote Norm: “LaVern was responsible for teaching Johnnie Ray to sing the blues at The Flame Show Bar in Detroit in the early fifties”. And to add a little flesh to that venue name, another internet source tells us that “Until its close in 1963, the legendary Flame Show Bar was the outlet for upscale black entertainment in Detroit, hosting giants like Billie Holiday, Della Reese, Etta James, Dinah Washington, B.B. King, and Joe Turner.” LaVern had a three year residency at the Flame Show Bar.

All of which puts the quote from Johnnie Ray in perspective. I can also tell the reader that Ray used to be seen as “a major precursor to what became rock and roll” (Wiki) or more specifically, the forerunner of Elvis.

14. Merric also found another very relevant quote about LaVern. It appears in the Independent obituary but was originally from Jerry Wexler’s autobiography, “Rhythm And The Blues”. It’s from Jerry himself, the man who was most responsible for guiding her career at Atlantic:

“LaVern’s delivery could rival anyone’s. I loved her because she stood smack dab in the middle of the great tradition of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.”

15. In keeping with the format of the Ruth Brown essay, not to mention a few others, I’m closing with a live clip. It’s taken, once again from the 1991 Montreux Jazz Festival and is a bravura performance of Summertime:

 

 

LaVern Baker poster 2

 

 

LaVern Baker poster 3

 

 

LaVern Baker poster 4

 

 

 

LaVern Baker photo 1

LaVern Baker (1929–1997)

 

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: LaVern Baker (1991)

LaVern Baker at 45cat

LaVern Baker at Discogs

Marv Goldberg’s R&B Notebooks: LaVern Baker

A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs podcast
Episode 27: “Tweedlee Dee” by LaVern Baker

LaVern Baker biography (AllMusic)

Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Johnny Ace, Chuck Berry, Ruth Brown, Ray Charles, Coasters, Ella Fitzgerald, B.B. King, Nilsson, Elvis Presley, Dinah Washington, Chuck Willis, Jackie Wilson

TopperPost #997

4 Comments

  1. Cal Taylor
    Nov 27, 2021

    A very informative Toppermost on an artist who I thought I knew a fair bit about but Dave has surprised me with the details in his in-depth study. There was a lot more to LaVern than the poppy ‘nursery rhyme’ hits for which she is best known. She was at Atlantic for twelve years and together with Ruth Brown, who was also there about the same amount of time, brought that label much success in its formative years. LaVern was a big victim of a white artist making an inferior copy of her song and getting a gold disc for it – without that unwanted attention who knows what wider popularity Ms. Baker might have achieved? I very much liked some of her records that I had not heard before reading this article.
    Thanks, Dave.

    • Dave Stephens
      Nov 27, 2021

      Many thanks Cal and can I say that I too, found further songs to enjoy from LaVern than I’d come across before. I am aware that I don’t always give maximum attention to rather blatantly themed albums like the Bessie Smith era blues or Gospel ones in the case of LaVern, and only very rarely select songs from such albums. But in this instance I found myself listening closely to both the albums, ending up with selections. I’m also conscious, that, as with Ruth, Atlantic didn’t develop LaVern as much as they could, which is why I give so much attention to the Brunswick material.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Nov 27, 2021

    Like a lot of people I know LaVern and Ruth primarily through the great Atlantic R&B compilations. These superb pieces flesh out the detail. Great stuff as always.

    • Dave Stephens
      Nov 27, 2021

      Many thanks Andrew. You’ll see from my responses to Cal’s Comments that Atlantic have slipped a little in the admiration I’ve held for them for donkey’s years. However one (or two) thing(s) can’t be denied, they gave both Ruth and LaVern a chance, and that probably mattered more than anything.

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