01. How Can You Leave A Man Like This?
02. Jim Dandy
03. My Happiness Forever
04. Fee Fi Fo Fum
05. Jim Dandy Got Married
07. Whipper Snapper
08. Voodoo Voodoo
01. I Cried A Tear
02. He's A Real Gone Guy
03. I Waited Too Long
04. Tiny Tim
05. Shake A Hand
06. Bumble Bee
07. Hey Memphis
08. See See Rider
Born in Chicago in 1929, Dolores Baker did not have to look beyond her family for musical inspiration. Her aunt was Merline Johnson (The Yas Yas Girl) who recorded many blues sides in Chicago in the late 1930's and early '40's for labels such as Bluebird, Vocalion and the original OKeh. A more distant relative was major blues singer Memphis Minnie.
Dolores' first musical experience was singing in her Baptist church choir but as early as the age of ten she was appearing in amateur nights in Chicago clubs. Upon reaching the age of seventeen she was able to sign a professional contract at one of the major clubs, the Club DeLisa where she appeared regularly in reviews.
Back in the early 1940's one of the most popular acts to appear at the DeLisa had been Little Miss Cornshucks (real name Mildred Jorman) who would take to the stage dressed as a little bitty country gal straight off the farm, barefooted, in braids and ribbons and carrying a basket. She would then wow audiences with ballads like "So Long," "Try A Little Tenderness" and "For Old Time's Sake." When Dolores arrived at the DeLisa, Little Miss Cornshucks had already left the Chicago scene and was touring nationally. The future Lavern Baker was seen as a suitable replacement and thus she became "Little Miss Sharecropper," a Cornshucks look alike.
Dolores was saddled with the "Sharecropper" image for a number of years, not only at the DeLisa, but around other Chicago venues like the Miramont Ballroom, Ralph's Place and the Crown Propeller Lounge. Her earliest recordings were made under the name of "Little Miss Sharecropper" - a couple of sides with the Eddie Penigar Orchestra for RCA in early 1949, and a session for National in late 1950 or early 1951.
In March and April 1951 she recorded some sides with Maurice King & His Wolverines, the first of which "Good Daddy" appeared on Columbia while the next two, "I Want A Lavender Cadillac" and "Make It Good" came out on the Columbia R&B subsidiary OKeh. Dolores was billed as Bea Baker on these records. The Wolverines were the house band at the Flame Show Bar in Detroit which became Dolores' base. Another regular act at the Flame was Johnnie Ray whom she befriended.
In the spring of 1952 she joined another Detroit band, that of Todd Rhodes, as vocalist and in July and October of that year she and the Rhodes band recorded sides for King - "Trying," "Pig Latin Blues," "Lost Child" and "Must I Cry Again" which were issued between September 1952 and February 1953. Dolores was now "LaVern Baker" and was billed thus on the King discs, none of which made any noise on the national charts although there was some success on the regional charts. "Trying" was number seven in the Cash Box New Orleans chart on 18th October 1952, number six in Savannah, number seven in Dallas and number ten in San Francisco. At the end of November "Trying" was number one in San Francisco.
When LaVern started recording for Atlantic in June 1953, her career entered a new phase with not only hits on the national R&B charts, but also appearances in the national pop charts. I like to think of LaVern Baker as being part of the "Third Wave" of Atlantic artists. The first wave, if you like, would be Tiny Grimes, Joe Morris and Frank Culley, whose jazzy jump helped give the label a solid start in the late 1940's. In the first half of the 1950's a "second wave" including Ruth Brown, The Clovers, Joe Turner and The Drifters established Atlantic as the top selling R&B label in the USA. The third wave of artists including Ray Charles, The Coasters, LaVern Baker, Chuck Willis and Clyde McPhatter, not only kept Atlantic as the pre-eminent R&B label in the second half of the 1950's they also made serious inroads into the much more lucrative pop market.
As you can hear on this collection Atlantic started using more pop oriented material and arrangements on many of their records in a conscious attempt to break into the top forty. LaVern's first big pop hit was "Tweedlee Dee" which reached number 14 in early 1955 but which was outsold by a cover version by Georgia Gibbs which reached number two.
In October 1956 "I Can't Love You Enough" made it to number 22 in the Billboard pop chart. Two months later LaVern was back in the top twenty with a rock and roll / R&B classic - "Jim Dandy" which was originally the B Side of "Tra La La," a trite pop confection in the vein of "Tweedlee Dee." In December 1958 LaVern had her biggest hit with a big beat ballad (in waltz time!) - "I Cried A Tear" which reached number six. Another big production weepie "I Waited Too Long" reached number thirty-three in January 1959. LaVern had two more records which scraped into the top forty in the early sixties - "Saved" (number thirty-seven in January 1961) and "See See Rider" (number thirty-four in May 1963.)
Above: LaVern in the Alan Freed film "Rock, Rock, Rock!"
This collection is not a "greatest hits" or even "best of" collection. Missing are "Tweedlee Dee," "Bop-Ting-A-Ling," "Play It Fair" and the classic R&B torch song "Soul On Fire." As I've indicated already there are lots of pop type numbers, from the juvenile "Tweedlee Dee" type (as in "Fee Fee Fi Fo Fum") to big beat ballads such as "My Happiness Forever" and "I Cried a Tear" with a few hard rockers thrown in with the two "Jim Dandy" numbers and the raucous-in-the-extreme "Voodoo Voodoo." The revivals of "Shake A Hand" and "See See Rider" are also very listenable, so all in all this is an LP that has grown on me over the years despite my initial disappointment at the "poppiness" of many of the tracks.
Many years after these recordings were made Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler wrote to author Charlie Gillett on the subject of the use of vocal group choruses on records by Chuck Willis, Clyde McPhatter and LaVern Baker - "I could kick my ass every time I hear those tunes; attribute it to insecurity and fright, trying to survive in the land of the Hilltoppers and Pat Boone." (Making Tracks: The Story of Atlantic Records by Charlie Gillett).
Way, way back Joan K sent in some cover scans and label shots of LaVern Baker records. Here are some of the big records that aren't on this collection!
There are more of Joan's scans in the "The Story Behind The Tracks" section below.
LaVern's last Atlantic session was in April 1964. From 1965 through to 1969 she recorded for Brunswick. In 1970 LaVern toured US bases in Vietnam where she contracted a heart and lung condition which required medication for the rest of her life. The condition reached critical point while LaVern was performing in Hong Kong where she was hospitalised. Taking the advice of one of the doctors, she went to the warmer climate of the Philippines to recuperate and take up performing again. She stayed for 20 years, performing in US forces clubs and becoming entertainment director at the Marine Staff NCO Club for the Seventh Fleet. Visits to the US were rare but in 1990 she returned to take over from Ruth Brown in the hit musical "Black And Blue" in New York.
Once back in the USA she started recording again, bringing out a live album titled "Live In Hollywood" and a studio album "Woke Up This Morning." However, her health problems became worse, necessitating the amputation of both legs in 1994 (she kept on performing) and in 1997 she succumbed to the effects of her long standing cardiovascular disease, passing away on March 10th.
The story behind the tracks on "Real Gone Gal"
How Can You Leave A Man Like This? - recorded in New York on June 19th 1953. Personnel: Lavern Baker (vocal) with Freddie Mitchell (tenor sax); Ernest "Pinky" Williams (baritone sax); Hank Jones (piano); Jimmy Lewis (guitar); Lloyd Trotman (bass;) Sylvester Payne (drums); Gene Redd (arranger).
Released on Atlantic 1004, B-Side of "Soul On Fire" in August 1953.
Jim Dandy, My Happiness Forever, Fee Fee Fi Fo Fum, were recorded in New York on December 21st 1955. Personnel: LaVern Baker (vocals) with unknown band and The Gliders (vocal group).
My Happiness Forever released on Atlantic 1087, B-Side of "Get Up Get Up (You Sleepy Head)" in February 1956.
Fee Fee Fi Fo Fum released on Atlantic 1093, b/w "I'll Do The Same For You" in May 1956.
Jim Dandy released on Atlantic 1116, b/w "Tra La La" in November 1956.
Jim Dandy Got Married - recorded in Los Angeles (?) on March 15th 1957. Personnel: LaVern Baker (vocals) with Ernie Freeman's Orchestra - Harry "Sweets" Edison, John Anderson (trumpets); Billy Johnson (alto sax); Plas Johnson (tenor sax); Ernie Freeman (piano); Irving Ashby (guitar); Joe Comfort (bass); Ray Martinez (drums); unknown vocal group.
Released on Atlantic 1136, b/w "The Game Of Love (A-One and A-Two)" in April 1957.
Substitute and Whipper Snapper recorded in New York on December 18th 1957. Personnel: LaVern Baker (vocals) with Howard Biggs' Orchestra - Taft Jordan, Melvin "Red" Solomon (trumpets); Sam "The Man" Taylor (tenor sax); Harry Breuer (xylophone); Mike Stoller, Moe Wechsler (piano); Allen Hanlon (guitar); Wendell Marshall (bass); Joe Marshall (drums); The Cookies (vocal group); Howard Biggs (arranger, director).
Substitute released on Atlantic 1176, b/w "Learning To Love" in February 1958.
Whipper Snapper released on Atlantic 1189, B-Side of "Harbor Lights" in June 1958.
Voodoo Voodoo and I Cried A Tear recorded in New York on September 11th 1958. Personnel: LaVern Baker (vocals) with Reggie Obrecht's Orchestra -Urbie Green (trombone); Leon Cohen (alto sax); King Curtis (tenor sax); unknown (vibes); Ernie Hayes (piano); Everett Barksdale, Al Caiola (guitars); Milt Hinton (bass); Panama Francis (drums); Bill Marine, Marcia Neil, Jerry Parker, Mike Stewart (choir); Reggie Obrecht (arranger, director).
I Cried A Tear released on Atlantic 2007, b/w "Dix-A-Billy" in November 1958.
Voodoo Voodoo released on Atlantic 2119, B-Side of Hey Memphis in September 1961.
He's A Real Gone Guy recorded in New York on December 18th 1958. Personnel: LaVern Baker (vocals) with King Curtis (tenor sax); Ernie Hayes (piano); Everett Barksdale, Billy Mure (guitars); Wendell Marshall (bass); Belton Evans (drums); unknown (vocal group); Phil Moore (arranger, director).
Released on Atlantic LP 8071 "See See Rider" in March 1963.
I Waited Too Long recorded in New York on March 12th 1959. Personnel: LaVern Baker (vocals) with Budd Johnson (alto sax); King Curtis (tenor sax); Phil Kraus (xylophone); Howard Biggs (piano); Mickey Baker, Wally Richardson, Neil Sedaka (guitars); Wendell Marshall (bass); Sticks Evans (drums); Elise Bretton, Gene Cowell, Leon Hurst, Marylin Palmer, Maria-Neil Patterson, Gene Steck, Dick Williams (chorus); Chuck Sagle (arranger, director).
Released on Atlantic 2021, b/w "You're Teasing Me" in March 1959.
Tiny Tim recorded in New York on May 14th 1959. Personnel: LaVern Baker (vocals) with 2 unknown (trumpets); Budd Johnson (tenor, baritone sax); unknown (piano); Mickey Baker, Bill Suyker (guitars); Milt Hinton (bass); Sticks Evans (drums); unknown (vocal group); Chuck Sagle (arranger, director).
Released on Atlantic 2041, b/w "For Love Of You" in October 1959.
Shake a Hand recorded in New York, December 11th, 1959. Personnel: LaVern Baker (vocals) with Doc Severinsen (trumpet); Phil Bodner, Romeo Penque (reeds); Moe Wechsler (piano); Mundell Lowe, Bucky Pizzarelli (guitars); Abie Baker (bass); Sticks Evans (drums); Jose Martinez (congas); Stephen Berrios (percussion); Elise Bretton, Jerome Graff, Don McLeod, Gretchen Rhodes, Alan Sokoloff, David Vogel (choir); Richard Wess (arranger, director).
Released on Atlantic 2048, b/w "Manana" in January 1960.
Bumble Bee recorded in New York on August 17th 1960. Personnel: LaVern Baker (vocals) with Haywood Henry (baritone sax); Al Sears (tenor sax); Bert Keyes (piano); Ernie Hayes (organ); Mickey Baker, Carl Lynch (guitars); Abie Baker (bass); Shep Shepherd (drums); Ed Barnes, Malcolm Dodds, Winfield Scott, Nat Smith (vocal group); Jesse Stone (arranger, director).
Released on Atlantic 2077, b/w "My Time Will Come" in October 1960.
Hey Memphis recorded in New York on September 1st 1961. Personnel: LaVern Baker (vocals) with Joe Venuto (vibes); Mike Spencer (piano); Mickey Baker, Bucky Pizzarelli, Richard Ziegler (guitars); Leonard Gaskin (bass); Gary Chester (drums); unknown (vocal chorus); Fred Norman (arranger, director).
Released on Atlantic 2119, b/w Voodoo Voodoo in September 1961.
See See Rider recorded in New York on September 26th 1962. Personnel: LaVern Baker (vocals) with Buddy Lucas (tenor sax); Paul Griffin (piano); Ernie Hayes (organ); Everett Barksdale, Carl Lynch, Joe Richardson (guitars); Russ Saunders (bass); Sticks Evans (drums); unknown (washboard); unknown (vocal group); Ray Ellis (arranger, director).
Released on Atlantic 2167, b/w "The Story Of My Love (I Had A Dream)" in November 1962.
Above: Atlantic LP 8007 from July 1957
Online sources: Billboard (via Google Books) and Cash Box provide original release information, reviews and chart data. More issue information can be found on www.45worlds.com and www.discogs.com - these two websites have thousands of original label shots and LP cover scans. Session information for certain artists and labels (including Savoy and Atlantic) is available on www.jazzdisco.org.
Marv Goldberg has a short article on LaVern Baker which includes an excellent discography here:
Printed scources; session and release information is on the Bruyninckx discography.
R&B sales information can be found in "Big Al Pavlow's The R & B Book." My copy is disintegrating through repeated use.
Pop chart information is from "The Billboard Book of USA Top 40 Hits" by Joel Whitburn.
I also consulted "Making Tracks: The Story Of Atlantic Records" by Charlie Gillett (Souvenir Press 1988).
The best account I found of LaVern Baker's life was in "Blue Rhythms: Six Lives In Rhythm And Blues" by Chip Deffa (Da Capo Press, 2000).
"Blue Rhythms" has profiles of six R&B artists interviewed by Chip Deffaa in the late 1980's and 1990's - Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker, Little Jimmy Scott, Charles Brown, Floyd Dixon and Jimmy Witherspoon. At the time of publication 5 out of the 6 were still performing. Sadly all are now deceased. A highly recommended book, R&B fans.
As for recommended listening, well, there's a multiplicity of compilations of LaVern Baker's work. A quick look at a certain website named after a South American river and you're spoiled for choice. I must confess to being intrigued by the Avid R&B issue "LaVern Baker - Four Classic Albums" which contains her four 1950's Atlantic LP's on 2 CD's.: "La Vern," "Rock & Roll," "Sings Bessie Smith" and "Blues Ballads." It's available at a budget price and looks like one to watch out for. Jasmine Records have one of their usual "Complete Singles A's & B's" issues - "It's So Fine" covers 1953 - 1959, so not quite the complete Atlantic oeuvre. There are plenty of other compilations of her Atlantic tracks around, so happy hunting!