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LaVern Baker (November 11, 1929 – March 10, 1997) was an American rhythm and blues singer.

LaVerne BakerBackground

She was born Delores LaVern Baker in Chicago, Illinois. She is occasionally referred to as Delores Williams because of an early marriage to Eugene Williams; in the late 1940s he was identified in RCA Victor record company files as "D. L. McMurley." She was the niece of blues singer Merline Johnson and was also related to Memphis Minnie.

Career

She began singing in Chicago clubs such as the Club DeLisa around 1946, often billed as Little Miss Sharecropper, and first recorded under that name in 1949. She changed her name briefly to Bea Baker when recording for Okeh Records in 1951, and then became LaVern Baker when singing with Todd Rhodes and his band in 1952.

In 1953 she signed for Atlantic Records as a solo artist, her first release being "Soul on Fire". Her first hit came in early 1955, with the Latin-tempo "Tweedlee Dee" reaching #4 on the R&B chart and #14 on the national US pop charts. Georgia Gibbs scored the bigger hit with her version of "Tweedle Dee", for which Baker unsuccessfully attempted to sue her. LaVern did manage to get in a jab, however. When LaVern was flying to Australia, she took out flight insurance at the airport and sent it to Gibbs with a note: "You need this more than I do because if anything happens to me, you're out of business."

Baker had a succession of hits on the R&B charts over the next couple of years with her backing group The Gliders, including "Bop-Ting-A-Ling" (#3 R&B), "Play It Fair" (#2 R&B), and "Still" (#4 R&B). At the end of 1956 she had another smash hit with "Jim Dandy" (#1 R&B, #17 pop). It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc. Further hits followed for Atlantic, including the follow-up "Jim Dandy Got Married" (#7 R&B), "I Cried a Tear" (#2 R&B, #6 pop in 1959), "I Waited Too Long" (#5 R&B, #3 pop, written by Neil Sedaka), "Saved" (#17 R&B, written by Leiber and Stoller), and "See See Rider" (#9 R&B in 1963).

In addition to singing, Baker also did some work with Ed Sullivan and Alan Freed on TV and in films, including Rock, Rock, Rock and Mr. Rock & Roll. In 1964, she recorded a Bessie Smith tribute album, before leaving Atlantic and joining Brunswick Records, where she recorded the album "Let Me Belong to You," as well as a hit duet single, "Think Twice," with Jackie Wilson.

In the late 1960s, she became seriously ill after a trip to Vietnam to entertain American soldiers. About that same time, a friend recommended that she stay on as the entertainment director at a Marine Corps night club at the Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippines, and she remained there for 22 years.

In 1988 she returned to perform at Madison Square Garden for Atlantic Records' 40th anniversary. She then worked on the soundtracks to films such as Shag, (1989), Dick Tracy, (1990) and A Rage in Harlem (1991), which were all issued on CD.

In 1990, she made her Broadway debut replacing Ruth Brown as star of the hit musical Black and Blue. In 1991, Rhino Records released a new album Live in Hollywood recorded at the Hollywood Roosevelt Cinegrill, as well as a compilation of her greatest Atlantic hits entitled Soul on Fire. In 1992 she recorded a well-received studio album, Woke Up This Morning, for DRG Records. She continued performing after having both legs amputated from diabetes in 1994 and made her last recording, "Jump Into the Fire," for the 1995 Harry Nilsson tribute CD, For the Love of Harry on the Music Masters label.

She received the 1990 Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation and in 1991, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Her song "Jim Dandy" was named one of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll and was ranked #343 on the Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

LaVern Baker died from coronary complications in 1997, and was interred in the Maple Grove Cemetery in Kew Gardens, New York. She originally lay in an unmarked grave, but a fundraiser was scheduled by local historians to give LaVern a headstone, and this was accomplished on May 4, 2008.

A versatile vocalist, LaVern Baker (born Delores Williams) proved capable of melding blues, jazz and R&B styles in a way that made possible the emergence of a new idiom: rock and roll. During her time at Atlantic Records (1953-62), Baker cut half a dozen singles that rose to high positions on both the pop and R&B charts, including “"Tweedle Dee"” and “"Jim Dandy."” The niece of blues singer Memphis Minnie, Baker was blessed with a powerful voice, which she put to use as a teenager singing in nightclubs under the stage name Little Miss Sharecropper. She recorded under that and other pseudonyms (including Bea Baker), finally adopting the name LaVern Baker while singing for Todd Rhodes and His Orchestra. Her recording career swung into high gear with her signing to Atlantic in 1953.

Coming at a time when jazz singing was swiftly evolving into an earthier, more down-home and emotionally fervent style known as rhythm & blues, Baker proved to be one of the key vocalists who furthered that transition. As an R&B pioneer, Baker suffered from the segregationist impulses of the larger culture by having her songs “"covered"” by a white singer, Georgia Gibbs, whose sanitized versions greatly outsold Baker’s own. Because mainstream white pop stations were reluctant to play “"race records,"” artists like Baker and Little Richard lost considerable airplay, sales and income from the cover syndrome. Baker, however, continued to record for Atlantic until such barriers came down, and she enjoyed considerable success, particularly on the R&B charts, all the way through her fiery 1962 recording of “"See See Rider."”

After leaving Atlantic, Baker continued to record and tour until 1969. She thereupon embarked on nearly two decades of exile from her U.S. homeland, working as duty manager at various time of the Subic Marine NCO Club and Subic CPO Club system at Subic Bay in the Philippines (where she’d wound up receiving treatment after acquiring pneumonia while entertaining the troops in Vietnam). In 1990, she was among the first eight recipients of a Career Achievement Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation. That same year, Baker was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She died in 1997.”