Born in Chicago in 1929, singer LaVern Baker helped pioneer the R&B sound in the 1950s and released multiple hits with Atlantic Records including the famous "Tweedle Dee." After a USO tour left her alone in Asia in 1966, she spent 21 years in the Philippines managing a nightclub, returning to America later in life.
Singer. LaVern Baker was born Delores Baker on November 11, 1929 in Chicago, Illinois. A descendant of former slaves whose family had migrated to Chicago from Mississippi in search of greater opportunity, Baker was raised primarily by her aunt, the jazz singer Merline Johnson who was best known as "The Yas Yas Girl." Memphis Minnie, the legendary blues singer and guitarist, was also one of Baker's aunts. Like many great African-American singers of her generation, Baker grew up singing in the choir of her Baptist church. Although small in stature, by the age of 12 she had developed a shockingly powerful voice and regularly served as her choir's leading soloist.
From almost the day she was legal (age 17 at that time), Baker set out to make a living as a performer in the cabarets of Chicago's South Side. Billing herself as "Little Miss Sharecropper," she performed in a tattered cotton sack dress and embraced the role of the rustic comedienne. Her persona, a reference to her Southern slave ancestry, proved wildly popular among Chicago's vast population of recent Southern migrants. Baker became a regular performer at the hip Club DeLisa, where she acquired a devoted following that included both upscale urbanites and newcomers from the rural South.
Encouraged by her early success, Baker left Chicago and moved to Detroit—the hub of an emerging musical genre known as rhythm and blues, or simply R&B, that drew its sound from both gospel and blues. She managed to land a gig singing at the Flame Show Bar, whose owner, Al Green, became her personal manager. At this point in her career, Baker chose to keep her Little Miss Sharecropper persona. Like Chicago, Detroit had a large population of recent African American migrants who had come from the South in search of jobs in the booming auto industry; many were especially fond of Little Miss Sharecropper's charm and humor.
In 1949, the Eddie "Sugarman" Penigar Band hired Baker to front their act as Little Miss Sharecropper. That year they recorded two singles, "I Wonder Baby" and "Easy Baby," for the RCA Victor label and performed on both the Detroit and Chicago club circuits to considerable success. However, by the early 1950s, the big-band music Baker performed with Penigar was being eclipsed in popularity by up-tempo R&B. Baker made the switch into this new genre in 1952 when she was recruited to sing for the popular Detroit R&B band The Todd Rhodes Orchestra. Ditching her Little Miss Sharecropper persona and adopting the stage name "LaVern," Baker joined Rhodes' band to record the heartfelt R&B ballad "Trying" and toured ceaselessly, gaining valuable exposure and credibility via her association with the established Rhodes.
R&B Hits and Misses
By 1953, Baker felt ready to strike out on her own as a solo artist. Rather than making her solo debut in the United States, Baker embarked on a several month European tour, primarily in Italy, where she was quite popular. Upon her return to America later that year, Baker signed a recording deal with Atlantic Records, the label of the R&B pioneer Ruth Brown. Her impassioned first single, "Soul on Fire"—which foreshadowed the sultry, passionate vocals for which she later became famous—failed to attract much attention at the time but has since been celebrated as a classic of the early R&B sound. In October 1954, Baker recorded her breakthrough hit "Tweedle Dee," a coy, simple and upbeat song that was a smash hit for the duration of 1955.
However, Baker was robbed of much of the song's potential success by a practice often referred to as "whitewashing," in which white singers covered the songs of black artists without permission and made huge profits because racist radio stations and record stores would only promote the cover versions. Only a few weeks after Baker released "Tweedle Dee," the white singer Georgia Gibbs, who made a career out of uncredited covers of black artists' songs, recorded a version that won wide radio airplay and went on to sell over 1 million copies. Gibbs would later also cover Baker's hit songs "Tra La La" and "Jim Dandy." At one point, Baker got so frustrated with Gibbs that she sent her a life insurance policy with a note that read, "If anything happens to me, you're out of business."
Baker followed "Tweedle Dee" with a string of popular hits such as "Play It Fair," "Bop-Ting-A-Ling," and "Tra-La-La," which was featured in the low budget 1956 film Rock, Rock, Rock. She raised her national profile in 1955 when she appeared as part of a 15-minute R&B segment on The Ed Sullivan Show.
During the latter half of the 1950s, as rock and roll emerged as pop music's dominant genre, Baker released another string of hit songs that featured a distinctive rock and roll backbeat and established her as one of the first great divas of the style. These rock hits included "Jim Dandy," "Jim Dandy Got Married" and "Humpty Dumpty Heart." In September 1958, Baker released "I Cried a Tear," her most serious single in years. It would become her most commercially successful and critically acclaimed song.
Throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, Baker continued to churn out hits. Her most notable songs from this period include "So High, So Low" (1959), "Saved" (1961) and "See See Rider" (1962). However, the early 1960s witnessed a complete overhaul of the popular music scene as artists such as The Supremes, The Temptations and The Beatles suddenly supplanted "oldies" R&B artists like Ruth Brown and LaVern Baker. In 1965, Baker left Atlantic for Brunswick Records but went on to record only a few minor hits such as "Think Twice" (1966) and "Wrapped, Tied and Tangled" (1967).
In 1966, LaVern Baker traveled to Vietnam for a USO tour to entertain American troops. 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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