Mickey “Guitar” Baker was a guitarist who forged a link between rhythm and blues and early rock and whose 1956 recording of “Love Is Strange” with Sylvia Robinson became a pop classic brimming with Latin rhythms and flirtatious banter.
Baker’s grounding in jazz guitar, coupled with his bluesy, at times distorted and aggressive sound propelled him to the front rank of New York studio guitarists in the 1950s. On record he accompanied singers such as Dinah Washington, Louis Jordan and Nappy Brown, and was prolific at Atlantic, where his notable credits included Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and LaVern Baker’s two biggest hits, “Tweedle Dee” and “Jim Dandy”.
In the mid-1950s, when black rhythm-and-blues was increasingly marketed to white teenagers as rock’n’roll, Baker had an intuitive sense of what the new music required. His solo on the Coasters’ “I’m a Hog For You Baby” (1959), consists of one bleating, trebly note repeated over and over. He made Rolling Stone’s list of 100 greatest guitarists, which noted his session work and his millions-selling duet with Robinson, “Love Is Strange”, which was covered by the Everly Brothers and Wings, among others.
Baker and Robinson — then known by her maiden name, Vanderpool – started the duo Mickey and Sylvia in 1954 as an African-American counterpart to Les Paul and Mary Ford. They broke up acrimoniously several times and made one last record in 1965. In later decades, Robinson, who died last died last year, went on to produce the Sugar Hill Gang. In the 1960s, Baker moved to France, where he produced records by French pop stars and accompanied visiting American musicians like Coleman Hawkins.
MacHouston Baker was born in 1925 in Louisville. His mother, described as an alcoholic and kleptomaniac, was 13 when he was born. His childhood was turbulent; he hopped freight trains in his teens and was a pool shark, pimp and thief before he turned to music in New York. With money he’d made washing dishes, Baker went to a pawn shop intending to buy a trumpet but only had enough money for a guitar, which he taught himself to play.
A trip to California in 1950 proved a turning point. After seeing the blues guitarist Pee Wee Crayton, he decided that the money was in blues, not jazz.“I started bending strings,” he said. “I was starving to death, and the blues was just a financial thing for me.”
In 1955 he wrote The Complete Course in Jazz Guitar, known as “the Baker book”. Still in print, it was one of the first jazz guitar manuals.
Despite their chemistry on record, Baker and Robinson quarrelled on the road. During their first tour, Baker quit while the duo was on a revue that featured Ray Charles. To create the illusion of Mickey and Sylvia, another guitarist in Baker’s signature sunglasses lip-synced. Meanwhile, Charles sang Baker’s part behind the curtain.
MacHouston Baker, guitarist and songwriter: born Louisville, Kentucky 19 October 1925; married; died near Toulouse, France 27 November 2012.
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