Obituary: LaVern Baker

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The Independent Online
"LaVern's delivery could rival anyone's," says the record producer Jerry Wexler of the singer LaVern Baker in his autobiography, Rhythm and the Blues. "I loved her because she stood smack dab in the middle of the great tradition of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith."

She was born Delores Williams in 1929, in Chicago. Her aunt, Marilyn Baker, recorded for the RCA record label and she wanted to be like her. At the age of 11, she made her first record, "When I'm in a Crying Mood", with the bandleader Fletcher Henderson. During her teens, she recorded for Okeh Records and she was nicknamed "Little Miss Sharecropper" during her three-year residency at the Flame Showbar in Detroit. Her passionate delivery inspired another resident there, Johnnie Ray.

Atlantic Records was building a powerful roster of black R & B artists including Big Joe Turner, Ray Charles and the Drifters, and Baker signed with the label in 1953. Her single "Soul On Fire", released that year, was the first record to be produced by Jerry Wexler.

In 1955 she recorded a light-hearted novelty, "Tweedle Dee", which was an enormous R & B hit. It was copied note for note by a white performer, Georgia Gibbs, who took the song to No 2 in the US charts. At the time, the covering of black songs by white performers was commonplace but Baker was furious and lobbied politicians to allow copyrights on song arrangements.

Her novelty hits like "Jim Dandy" (1956) and "Jim Dandy Got Married" (1957) obscured the fact that she was a great R & B vocalist; her 1958 album, LaVern Baker Sings Bessie Smith, was a confident blend of R & B and jazz. She resented being called a rock'n'roll singer - and a novelty one at that - but she also appeared in the films, Rock! Rock! Rock! (1957) and Mr Rock'n'Roll (1957) where her glamorous, sophisticated appearance was light years away from the new kids on the block. On one package tour, she was so irritated by the 15-year-old Paul Anka's adolescent high spirits that she had him tarred and feathered.

In 1959, she had a Top Ten pop hit with the ballad "I Cried a Tear", but her most memorable performance was the gospel-shouting "Saved" (1960), written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Who can forget its opening line, "I used to smoke, drink and dance the hoochie coo"? Certainly not Elvis Presley, who used the song in his 1968 comeback.

Baker managed a total of 20 records in the US Top 100 in her career, one of the later ones being a sophisticated version of Ma Rainey's "See See Rider" in 1963. She also recorded with Ben E. King ("A Help Each Other Romance", 1960) and Jackie Wilson ("Think Twice", 1965).

She entertained troops in Vietnam in the mid-Sixties, where she became ill, and then moved to the Philippines to recuperate, only returning to America for Atlantic's 40th birthday celebrations in 1988. Following this, she recorded new songs for the films Shag (1988) and Dick Tracy (1990), and appeared on Broadway in the revue Black and Blue. In 1991, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and she followed the honour with a CD, Live in Hollywood '91.

Baker had diabetes and, although she lost both her legs through the illness, she kept on performing. She cut "Jump into the Fire" for the tribute album to Harry Nilsson, For the Love of Harry (1995), and in December 1996 took part in a concert with Ben E. King, Little Eva and the Miracles to help with her medical expenses.

Sequel Records have embarked on an extensive reissue of her Atlantic catalogue, with many of the tracks appearing in the UK for the first time. Two albums have been released to date and the remaining five should appear within the next few weeks.

Spencer Leigh

Delores Williams (LaVern Baker), singer: born Chicago, Illinois 11 November 1929; married; died New York 10 March 1997.