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