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American singer LaVern Baker helped pioneer the R&B sound in the 1950s and released multiple hits with Atlantic Records, including the famous "Tweedle Dee."
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She fell ill with pneumonia early in her trip but continued performing until her lung collapsed. Baker was immediately airlifted to a hospital in Thailand where she spent three months recuperating. By this point, in early 1967, her USO tour had returned to the United States leaving Baker alone in Thailand with no American contacts. She described the fantastical saga that ensued: "I didn't know what to do,
who to go to. 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." She was then airlifted to a hospital in the Philippines where she spent another four months recovering.
In the meantime, Baker's husband, a comedian named Slappy White whom she married in 1961, had given her up for dead. He had her death declared official, got a divorce and assumed managing rights to Baker's entire portfolio of songs. Baker described her efforts to contact her husband from the Philippines: "I tried and tried to call my husband, but never got through. I don't know to this day if it was the radio system or he just wasn't answering or what… For all I know he heard my voice and hung up. Probably did, the no-good &%@S#!!" Eventually, Baker decided to embrace her situation and make a new life for herself running a nightclub in Olongapo City in the Philippines. She lived there for 21 years until finally deciding to return to the United States in 1988.
Baker announced her return with a massive concert at Madison Square Garden to commemorate Atlantic Records' 40th anniversary in 1988. Later, she continued to enjoy considerable success during the last decade of her career. She performed in the 1990 Broadway production of Black and Blue and recorded a hit song, "Slow Rollin' Mama," for the Dick Tracy soundtrack that same year. In 1991, Baker was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and she continued touring for the next several years of her life. She passed away from heart failure on March 10, 1997, at the age of 67.
Baker was one of the first great divas of modern American popular music, a trailblazer who opened a path to commercial success for black female R&B and rock singers. Nicknamed the Empress of Rock and Roll, she dazzled audiences with her elegant beauty and wowed listeners with her powerful, sultry voice. Baker was in some ways a tragic figure who, due to a combination of bad luck and others' wrongdoing, lost millions in record sales to white artists and decades of her life to scraping by in another country. However, with her tireless spirit and unshakable optimism, she never failed to overcome the obstacles she faced in life. "I just did what I had to do," she said. "Don't we all?"
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