If you asked me, and I know you didn’t, but if you did, I’d say Mickey “Guitar” Baker is the greatest guitarist in rock’n’roll history. Bob Quine agreed with me. If you listen to all the tunes that accompany this bloogage you too may agree with me. In an attempt to ward off the tendency for this blog to become a mere death watch, Mickey Baker is still alive and will stay that way for at least a few more days, and hopefully a few more decades. Let’s get the background out of the way so that we may get to the good stuff in what the guy on TV calls some sort of “context”.
Our, or at least my hero, comes into this life as McHouston Baker, born in Louisville, Kentucky on Oct. 15, 1925. He was arrested for stealing clothing at age eleven and was incarcerated in the Ridgewood Orphanage for three years where he attempted to learn to play trumpet. Upon release he worked his way north, arriving in New York City in 1945 where he took up the profession of pimping, however a beating at the hands of rival players sent him into a career detour of the equally sleazy profession of musician. Since he couldn’t afford a trumpet he bought a guitar from a local pawnshop and took lessons for a year or so eventually landing a job in a group the Incomparables led by pianist Billy Valentine. Their music has been described at various times as mambo, calypso, be-bop, and according to Baker “some weird shit”. The Incomparables worked their way west and somewhere in or near San Francisco, Baker had a revelation. He witnessed Pee Wee Crayton, a popular rhythm and blues guitarist who was driving the women wild in a packed club. The response to Crayton’s music included babes in tight dresses showering him with bank notes while he played the guitar behind his head T-Bone Walker style. The Incomparables were getting no such response, in fact the audiences barely paid attention to their music, but Baker’s revelation– if that guy could do it, so can I, sent Baker into a totally new direction musically. He would no longer attempt to play jazz, mambo, calypso, or any weird shit. The money was in primitive, raw, blues influenced sounds, the wilder the better. And so it came to be– Baker would invent a guitar style with the accent on wildness.
By the mid 1950’s Baker, a fast learner, was playing sessions all over the New York area. One of the best was for the Savoy label out in Newark where he and King Curtis (who would be another session regular) appeared on a series of instrumental sides by piano pounder Sam Price such as Bar-B-Q Sauce and Chicken Out. Sammy told me he thought Mickey was a “big mouth”. He also started cutting discs under his own name, “Guitar” (with quotes) was now his middle name. It’s hard to figure out the exact order of release but in the years 1955-6 MGM issued Spinnin’ Rock Boogie while Rainbow put out several singles including Shake Walkin’, Greasy Spoon, and Bandstand Stomp. There was also some sides released on the b-side of other discs, like Night Crawlin’ on RCA’s Groove subsidiary, the flipside of a Big John Greer record (Come Back Maybellene on which Baker gives his violent edge to the Chuck Berry riff). RCA’s R&B subsidiaryy Groove recorded him under the name of Big Red McHouston on I’m Tired
in 1956 as well as using him on many of their sessions.
Baker knew instinctively just what to add to a record, whether it was the genius one note solo on the Coasters’ I’m A Hog For You (Atco) or the crazed five thousand note fills on Louis Jordan’s 1955 remake of Caladonia (Mercury/Wing) he left his personal stamp on each disc. He can be heard blazin’ away on discs as diverse as Wilbert Harrison’s Florida Special (Savoy) former Coaster Young Jessie’s Hit Git & Split (Modern, heard here in an alternate take), Roy Gaines’ Right Now Baby (Groove), Square Walton’s Bad Hangover and Pepper Headed Woman (RCA), Eddie Riff’s My Baby’s Gone Away (Dover), even with rockabilly bus driver Joe Clay on You Look That Good To Me (Vik), doo wop greaseballs the Continentals’ Don’t Do It Baby (Jay Dee) and folk bluesman Brownie McGhee’s Anna Lee (Savoy, another “Maybellene” cop). A complete session discography for Mickey Baker could fill up a medium size phone directory.
It was around this time that Baker, who also gave guitar lessons to make ends meet, decided to team up musically with one of his students, the sultry Sylvia Vanderpool soon to be Sylvia Robinson when she married record biz gangster Joe Robinson (Joe would end up owning labels like All Platinum, Sugar Hill and buy the Chess catalog for a mere 3 million in the late 70’s, less than half of what the Chess brothers sold it for earlier in that decade) assuring that Mickey would get no pussy out of the deal.
Mickey and Sylvia hated each other, but commercially they were a winning team. After a few flops recorded for the Brooklyn based Rainbow label they were signed to RCA’s Groove imprint. Mickey & Sylvia’s first disc on Groove was a wild, upbeat, two guitar and washboard rocker– No Good Lover and their second, adapted from Bo Diddley and Billy Stewart’s Billy’s Blues (see the Bo Diddley posting below to hear it), Love Is Strange became a smash hit. Again, the version here is an alternate take, you can here the original hit on aforementioned Bo posting. Their next disc- Dearest (with Bo playing rhythm guitar, again it’s listed below) was issued on Vik as was their excellent LP– New Sounds Of Mickey & Sylvia and several EPs. That LP featured an incredible instrumental called Shake It Up. Doc Pomus was at the session when Shake It Up was recorded and told me Mickey was in a particularly foul mood that day. Eventually Mickey & Sylvia’s records grew softer and stopped selling, Mickey attempted to replace Sylvia with somebody named Kitty, recording for Atlantic a version of St. Louis Blues that failed to sell.
Atlantic also issued a Mickey Baker solo LP, titled, appropriately enough The Wildest Guitar.
On said disc Mickey shows the influence of Les Paul (try to get a stereo copy to hear the full effect), albeit, a twisted Les Paul, as he works his unique magic on standards like the Third Man Theme, Old Devil Moon and Milk Train. While not the wild rock’n’roll of his early 45’s, it’s a great album none the less, and rare too, since nobody bought it.
That mattered little as the live work with Sylvia was lucrative and he was now New York’s most in demand rock’n’roll session guitarist. Another steady source of income came with series of instructional guitar booklets he wrote and published such as the one pictured above. These became his main source of income. I have learned all nine chords in the above book and they work if you put ’em in the right order (three at a time is all you need). They’re the only guitar books I’ve ever read that make any sense at all when it comes to playing rock’n’roll.
By the early sixties it’s was over for Mickey Baker and not just in rock’n’roll but in America itself.
He moved to Paris in 1962 and has since rarely returned to the States. Since relocating he has cut records with Champion Jack Dupree and returned to what he’d always badly wanted to do— play jazz.
And he does, that is, play jazz badly. The greatest rock’n’roll guitar player in the world is one of the worst jazz guitar players in France. He released a few medicore discs before dropping from sight completely. He was last seen in New York City after the movie Dirty Dancing (1987) had made Love Is Strange a minor hit again, evidently he quietly slipped in and out of the country in a few days time. There’s a rumor that he left the States after a row over his part of the copyright of Love Is Strange (which he shared with Bo Diddley although one Ethyl Smith is credited on the label) with a mobster, whom, since he’s still alive I’ll refer to only as “the Big Guy”. It could even be true, who knows at this point? Only Mickey and the Big Guy, and neither of them are talking.
For those who still buy CD’s Rev-O-La has issued an excellent 31 song career retrospective called Mickey Baker In The 50’s: Hit, Git & Split while the German Bear Family label has a double CD representing the almost complete works of Mickey & Sylvia– Love Is Strange and a set of his early solo discs with some Mickey & Sylvia outtakes thrown in entitled Rock With A Sock. There are worse ways to blow your money than this.
Last spring I was in Paris, just wandering around and every cafe I saw I’d scan the heads looking for a light skinned black man with reddish hair, knowing that somewhere in that city, Mickey Baker, middle name “Guitar”, failed pimp, failed jazzman and the greatest rock’n’roll guitarist of them all, is living out his final years. I’ll bet he’s got some stories to tell…..
Addendum To Today’s Post
Auteur Ray Dennis Steckler passed away yesterday. He directed and produced such cinematic classics as Wild Guitar (1962), The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed Up Zombies (1964), Rat Fink and Boo Boo (1966), amongst other great films, his last was Summer Of Fun in 1997, he was also the cinematographer on Tim Carey’s The World’s Greatest Sinner (1962), possibly the greatest movie ever made.
Addendum #2: To see what James Williamson, who played guitar on the Stooges’ Raw Power and Metallic K.O. and produced Iggy’s New Values and Kill City has been up to scroll down to the third entry on this page. Thanks to former Stooges’ soundman, Nitebob for pointing this one out.