Guitarist Mickey Baker, whose signature riffs helped push rhythm & blues into rock & roll, died Tuesday at his home in France of heart and kidney failure, The New York Times reports. He was 87.
Baker most notably recorded the hit 1956 single "Love Is Strange" with Sylvia Vanderpool Robinson as Mickey & Sylvia. The track sold over a million copies, hitting Number One on the Billboard R&B chart, and reached Number 11 on the pop chart. The song found new life in 1987's Dirty Dancing, and again in 2012 as a sample on Pitbull's track "Back in Time."
Baker also spent time as a studio musician for the record companies Atlantic, Decca, RCA and Savoy, and recorded on tracks including the Drifters' "Money Honey" and "Such a Night," Big Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle & Roll," Ruth Brown's "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean" and Big Maybelle's "Whole Lot of Shakin' Goin' On." His aggressive blues chords and ear-popping solos placed him at the forefront of rock & roll, along with influential guitarists Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry.
Baker was born on October 15th, 1925, in Louisville, Kentucky, and endured a rough childhood. He spent several years in an orphanage, where he first played musical instruments and from which he frequently ran away, ending up in New York City when he was 15. Though Baker had originally wanted to play trumpet, he could only afford a beat-up pawnshop guitar. He played in a jazz band called the Incomparables in his 20s, but by 25, he decided he couldn't make a proper living playing jazz. He embraced rhythm & blues instead, and started picking up studio work.
Baker also taught, and wrote a series of instructional materials for jazz guitar. He moved to France in the early 1960s, and rarely visited the U.S. Baker later composed a classical concerto, "The Blues Suite," for guitar and orchestra.