Mickey "Guitar" Baker

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.

Ron Asheton 2

As details emerge over the tragic death of the Stooges’ Ron Asheton I thought I’d post these pictures, taken by my wife Gillian McCain around 1994 at Ron’s house in Ann Arbor. That’s probably the chair he died in. Notice the hand grenade on the table behind him. I’m not sure what type of gun that is.
Since his passing his sister Kathy has had police posted outside the house (which is the house all three Ashetons grew up in, Ron, brother Scott aka Rock Action (here’s an unissued Stooges tune circa ’74 that bears his name); the Stooges drummer and sister Kathy). Evidently people have been attempting to remove his guitars, including his personal roadie (who was probably just trying to move them to a safe place, but who knows?). Anyway,I thought some of you would like these pix while I work on the next couple of blog subjects, I got a bit behind this week after being sick and then throwing my back out. Check back for something really special in a day or so.

Ron Asheton RIP

It’s Tues. Morning, ´╗┐Jan. 6th, 10 AM NYC time. I just got word from my friend Michelle in Michigan that the great Ron Asheton passed away. Age 60. I’m in total shock. I’m re posting my Oct. Stooges posting because it’s got some rare photos and rare tunes. One thing I mixed up back in Oct. In the bottom photo it’s Bill Cheetam on the far left, Zeke Zettner second from left. Give a listen to the two takes of Jr. Kimbrough’s You Better Run posted below. Pull out the Funhouse box. He changed the world with three chords and a Maltese cross. R.I.P.

I also wanted to mention Ron acted in five horror movies (his filmography can be found here) including a memorable appearance as a park ranger in the Mosquito (1995) which shows up on late night cable now and then. I’ve also added a picture disc 45 that Ron autographed for me for you handwriting freaks. Also, the Ron Asheton signature guitar can be found here.
Ron’s last TV appearance (MTV) is here: http://www.mtv.com/videos/news/329919/late-stooges-guitarist-ron-ashetons-last-interview-with-mtv.jhtml

Halloween marks the forty first anniversary of the first Stooges show. As unlikely as it would have sounded at the time of their first show, they’re still out there and despite a 29 year sabbatical, still the best rock’n’roll band on the road.

Rock’n’roll re-unions, at best are disappointing (the Velvet Underground), and usually just plain suck (the Byrds, New York Dolls), but the Stooges are always the exception to the rule, Hell, I’ve seen ’em three times since they’ve reformed and they were no less than great each time. Who would have imagined it? Hearing them on TV commercials doesn’t bother me, I don’t begrudge ’em a cent, hell Ray Charles, Bo Diddley, Little Richard and Jimmy Reed all did commercials. Good enough for Jimmy Reed, good enough for anybody. I even like the Stooges last LP The Weirdness which nobody likes, but nobody ever likes their albums until they’re twenty years old. There’s not much left to say about the Stooges, but here’s some rare sounds and pics for you. First off are two takes of Junior Kimbrough’s “You Better Run” recorded for a tribute to Junior Kimbrough LP (which I’ve never seen, was it even released?). First one is here and the second take is here. Iggy really sounds like he’s having fun, especially on the spoken part which he copies from Kimbrough’s original verbatim.
If you missed the Funhouse Sessions seven CD box you really missed something great. I bought three copies but gave two of ’em away. From the first session from that classic set here’s the very first take of “Down On The Street” and here’s the first take of” Funhouse”. There’s more than twenty takes of some tunes, even two takes of “LA Blues”. How did they decide which one was the keeper? Even the studio chatter is interesting. The box is worth killing for in my opinion. It’s nice to have the whole mess on the hard drive so the various takes show up when I leave the box on shuffle. I’m constantly getting up to check the computer screen– “Loose take 17″, gotta remember that one”, then I forget which take it was and what was different about it (some have completely different lyrics). The weird thing about the box is that since Ron overdubbed a second guitar part on the first three tunes, sp we never actually here the issued versions of “Down On The Street”, “Loose” and “TV Eye”. The issued takes are present but without the overdubs.
More Stooges tidbits– The first LP has been re-issued with the John Cale mix thrown in as bonus tracks. Iggy’s mix is better but it’s fun to hear. I’ll post some of those tunes some day. Speaking of mixes, Sundazed has re-issued the 45 version of “Search & Destroy” b/w “Penetration” which is still the best mix of any Raw Power tracks. I hated Iggy’s remix of Raw Power (Ron agreed with me), all the Ig did was remove the effects from Williamson’s guitar and make his own voice louder (and let the fades play through to the endings). I thought the one thing Bowie got right were the vocals and guitars, all Raw Power needed was for the bass and drums to be turned up. So you still need your old vinyl copy. The bass and drums are audible on the WABX tapes but the sound quality on those bootlegs are so lousy I can’t recommend ’em.
Paul Trynka’s bio Iggy: Open Up and Bleed (Broadway Books, 2007) is a hoot and well worth reading. Much better than Joe Ambrose’s awful bio (the first edition of which was pulled from the market due to plagiarism, he literally stole about 1/3rd of it from Please Kill Me, uncredited). Ambrose hates Funhouse, so why bother writing an Iggy bio? He’s practically illiterate, did none of his own research and has awful taste in music. It may be the lamest book ever published about a major musical figure, and that’s saying something. Trynka’s book however is extremely well researched and full of fun gossip, my favorite parts are Iggy’s crazy sabbatical in Haiti, and the entire story of the recording of New Values (Williamson producing at gunpoint!).
The video clip of course is from the tv show Midsummer’s Night Rock which aired in 1970. I saw it then, at age 11, and it was a galvanizing, life changing moment. It took a couple of years to track down their first two LP’s (which I eventually got for .39 cents in a department store bargin bin along with the first Mc5 album) but from that first glimpse of them on TV I knew the Stooges were what rock’n’roll was all about.
The two bottom photos show the Stooges in odd line ups. The top photo is the Stooges in ’71 with James Williamson (center) and Jimmy Recca (second from left) added to the band on guitar and bass respectively. Recca would later play with Ron Asheton in a band called New Order (not the English disco group). Williamson (who came into the Stooges from a band called the Chosen Few with a detour to reform school in between) would make a power play and force Asheton to bass when they reformed the band in ’72. The bottom photo shows the group in late 1970 with members of the road crew, the late Zeke Zetner and Bill Cheetam in the line up. I’m not sure which one played guitar and which one played bass but Zetner is on the far left, Cheetam second from left. Since my wife got the photo framed before I could make a copy I re-shot it through the frame. We have another photo from the same session that’s not framed that I may post some day. Since we seem to have the only copies of these photos that exist if you use them without permission I’ll know where you stole ’em from.
Back in the early 70’s in wasn’t so much that the Stooges were unknown so much as they were utterly hated. If you met another Stooges fan back then chances are you’d be friends for life. Most of my oldest friends were people I bonded with over the Stooges.

Johnny Otis part two: Black Comedy LP covers

These are some of my favorite album covers. They are all issued on the Laff label in the 1960’s, and all are recorded live in night clubs and feature the Johnny Otis Show as the backing band. Honestly, the covers are the best part. Pardon the crummy reproductions, the LP covers are too big for my scanner so I had to photograph them using existing light. Since I don’t have a great camera, the flash would cause a ugly glare on the reproduced image or else get kinda fuzzy. You still can see them and I assume you get the idea. Or you don’t. I hope you agree with me that as “art” they are infinitely more interesting than anything such big buck art frauds like Julien “I’m fat but I’m hairy” Schnabel, Damien Hirst or Jeff Koons have ever produced. Listening wise they don’t hold up as well as their covers, here’s the best track, Skillet & Leroy’s The Republicans 23rd Psalm/The Boss.
These LP covers were all designed by Howard Goldstein with photography by Bud Fraker.
Unfortunately, one of the best covers– Skillet & Leroy’s The Okra Eaters I no longer own as Lester Bangs borrowed it from me back in ’81 then promptly dropped dead two days later*. John Morthland who was the executor of Lester’s estate refused to give it back to me when I asked for it, along with a book he borrowed: Persecuted Prophets by Karen W. Carden and Robert W. Pelton (A.S. Barnes, 1976) about Kentucky snake-handling religious cults. The book I’ve replaced, the LP eludes me still, 27 years later (partially due to my refusal to pay more than $10 for a copy). I don’t know if Mr. Goldstein or Mr. Fraker are still alive but their work together deserve a retrospective at Moma (Museum Of Modern Art) or at least the Whitney.
Art, politics, religion, music, medicine, literature, history, let’s face it, they are all just branches of Show Biz. And American Show Biz was invented by P.T. Barnum. Need I say more?

* I think it’s funny there’s someone out there bragging about “having Lester Bangs’ copy of Metal Machine Music” and evidently paying big bucks for it. Lester owned over one hundred copies of MMM at the time of his death, including two copies I sold him when I ran into him on Astor Place where I was hawking promos a week before his death.
Evidently someone is selling them for highly inflated prices as “Lester’s personal copy”.
I’ll bet all together he went through 2-300 copies (he was also always giving them away to folks who missed it the first time around in ’75). A copy of MMM that wasn’t owned by Lester is probably rarer than one that was.

Freddie Hubbard and Ann Savage: Dead and Dead

Jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard died from a heart attack on Sunday, Dec. 29th. He spent many years with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, appeared on such free jazz milestones as Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz (Atlantic), John Coltrane’s Ascension (Impulse) and Africa Brass (Impulse), and Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch (Blue Note) as well as many discs by Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, Oliver Neslon, and dozens of fine Blue Note LP’s. Miles Davis hated him, especially in the 1970’s when he waxed many commercially successful, mainstream lite jazz albums . In the early 90’s he blew out his lips and his playing never quite recovered.
My favorite thing is this little spoken word tantrum, recorded onstage with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in Germany, 1963. And I quote….”Fuck you White Mother Fuckers, Kiss my black ass”! You can enjoy it here. Thanks to Eddie Gordetsky for providing the digital version, I only had it on cassette and none of my cassette decks work anymore.
Ann Savage will always be best remembered as the screechy voiced succubus Vera in Edgar G. Ulmer’s uber-noir Detour (1945) in which she stars along with the hapless Tom Neal (“life can point the finger at you or me….for no reason at all”) whose life would later echo his character in that classic flick. Ann Savage was born Feb. 21, 1921 in Columbia, S.C. and made numerous memorable film appearances, many playing opposite Neal. She made a brief comeback in the 1986 movie Fire With Fire, which I’ve never seen. She died on Dec. 29th after a series of strokes, and I don’t mean swimming.