A major R&B vocalist during the '50s, LaVern Baker saw her career decline in the early '60s before she essentially retired. Her triumphant return to recording and performing in the late '80s is one of the rare happy endings in the history of early R&B. Baker first sang gospel as a little girl but was familiar with more secular styles; her aunt Merline Baker was better known as Memphis Minnie, a blues singer and guitarist. The singer got her first professional experience working at Chicago's Club DeLisa, where she appeared in the mid-'40s as Little Miss Sharecropper. She was soon signed by Columbia, but her recordings for that label were unsuccessful, as were her efforts for King beginning in 1952. Her luck changed with the emerging Atlantic label in 1953, where she cut tunes like "Tweedle Dee," "Bop-Ting-a-Ling," and "Play It Fair."
Ahmet Ertegun and Herb Abramson, who produced most of her sessions, started getting her stronger material in 1956. Rocking items like "Jim Dandy," "Jim Dandy Got Married," and "Voodoo Voodoo" established her as a major international R&B star in the late '50s, although her sales were perpetually hampered by white acts' cover versions. (At one point, the competition was so fierce that Baker fired off a letter to her Detroit congressman. All she got back was publicity.) Her only big pop hit came in 1959 with the ballad "I Cried a Tear" (#6), which featured King Curtis on sax. The followup, "I Waited Too Long," reached only #33. Although continuing to score minor hits through the early '60s ("Tiny Tim," "Shake a Hand," "Bumble Bee," "You're the Boss," "Saved," "See See Rider"), by the time she switched to Brunswick in 1963, her career was waning.
In 1969 Baker developed a case of pneumonia during a tour entertaining troops in Vietnam, forcing her to seek treatment in the Philippines. Nearly two decades passed before she journeyed back to the States from Subic Bay, where she had run a nightclub. The occasion was Atlantic Records' 40th-anniversary celebration in New York City in 1988. Shortly thereafter, she replaced Ruth Brown on Broadway in Black and Blue, and in 1990 she was given the Rhythm & Blues Foundation's Career Achievement Award. In 1990 she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Baker, a diabetic whose health worsened as the decade progressed, continued to perform to help pay for her medical expenses. She died in 1997.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
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