There is no doubt that Atlantic Records played a huge role in exposing a wider audience to the sound of Rhythm & Blues. The label, which was founded by jazz lovers Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson in 1947, boasted a roster of artists that at one time or another included Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, and Sam & Dave. But in the beginning, there were pioneers at the label. They included artists like Ray Charles, Sticks McGhee, Ruth Brown, Joe Morris, the Clovers, the Clyde McPhatter-led Drifters, and Lavern Baker.
She was born in Chicago in 1929. Her given name was Delores Baker and she was the niece of not one but two singers — jazz vocalist Merline Johnson, who was primarily responsible for raising Baker, and the legendary blues singer Memphis Minnie. By the age of 12, Baker was not only singing in her church choir but she was leading soloist. It was just five years later, having attained legal status, that Baker began performing in the South Side clubs under the stage name “The Little Sharecropper.” Her rustic schtick proved popular with the record number of black people who were migrating to Chicago from the south as well as the hip city people.
At the time, Detroit had a growing reputation as a center for R&B so Baker headed there. She landed a gig at The Flame Show Bar. The club’s owner, a guy named Al Green, became her manager. Baker’s first recordings were released by RCQ in 1949 with Baker fronting Sugarman Penigar’s band. “I Wonder Baby” and “Easy Baby” proved very popular in the clubs where Baker was performing. But the winds of change were blowing and by the early 1950s big band music was on its way out and R&B was rising. 1952 was a big year for Baker. She dumped the “Little Sharecropper” thing, joined the Todd Rhodes Orchestra, changed her stage name to Lavern Baker, released an R&B ballad called “Trying,” and toured nearly non-stop.
The momentum continued in 1953. Baker quit the band and successfully toured Europe as a solo act. That was also the year that she signed with Atlantic Records and released her first single for the label, the classic “Soul On Fire.” Her true breakthrough was still ahead and it took place with a single that Baker recorded in October 1954. “Tweedlee Dee” was a huge hit all through 1955. The Winfield Scott song, written specifically for Baker, rose to #4 on the R&B chart and #14 on the pop chart. The problem was that there was a despicable practice known as “whitewashing” going on at the time. Many radio stations and record stores would only push records by white artists. So white artists like Georgia Gibbs made whole careers out of covering black hits and getting substantial airplay and sales. The Gibbs cover or “Tweedlee Dee” sold over a million copies and she subsequently cover the Baker hits “Jim Dandy” and “Tra La La.”
But Baker didn’t let racism stop her. She continued releasing hits like “Play It Fair” and “Bop-Ting-A-Ling” and made an appearance on the Ed Sullivan show in 1955. As rock and roll began to eclipse R&B, Baker adapted again, releasing rock and roll-styled hits like “Jim Dandy,” “Jim Dandy Got Married,” and “Humpty Dumpty Heart.” Her greatest success, however, came in 1958 with an epic single “I Cried a Tear.” Baker’s string of hits continued into the 1960s with songs like “So High, So Low,” “Saved,” and “See See Rider.” But the river of time kept flowing and the rise of Motown and the appearance of the Beatles on these shores relegated artists like Baker to “oldies” status. By 1965, Baker had decamped from Atlantic and landed at Brunswick records. She had a couple of small hits for the label, “Think Twice,” and “Wrapped, Tied, and Tangled.”
While entertaining troops in Vietnam on a USO tour in 1966, Baker fell ill with pneumonia. She was airlifted to Thailand for treatment and by the time she recovered, the tour had ended and she was left alone in southeast Asia.
“I didn’t know what to do, who to go to,” Baker told biography.com. “The tour was gone and I was in a strange country where telephone service was practically nonexistent. I hitched with farmers on wagons to Bangkok. I’d had to slog through rice paddies in water up to my shoulders in some places to get to Bangkok, so by the time the Marines got me to the base I’d had a relapse.”
Baker was then airlifted to the Philippines where she spent four more months recovering. Her then-husband, comedian Slappy White, used the lack of communication (Baker insisted that she made numerous attempts to contact him) from Baker to have her declared dead and assumed ownership of her catalog.
“For all I know he heard my voice and hung up. Probably did, the no-good &%@S#!!,” Baker said.
Baker decided to make the best of a bad situation. She stayed in the Philippines, running a nightclub for 21 years, before returning to the U.S. in 1988. She got back in time to win acclaim with her performances at the Atlantic Records 40th-anniversary show at Madison Square Garden and in the Broadway production of Black and Blue. In 1991, Baker was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She continued to tour until her death from heart failure in 1997.
Pioneer. Trailblazer. These are terms that we tend to toss around but they fit Lavern Baker like a glove. She’s not called the Empress of Rock and Roll for nothing and if her life had a tragic tinge to it as a result of losing millions of dollars because of the covers of her hits by white artists and being an exile from the country of her birth for more than 20 years, she lived with dignity and unshaken optimism.
“I just did what I had to do,” she said. “Don’t we all?”