A versatile vocalist, LaVern Baker 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 to 1962), 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.”
LaVern Baker was born Delores LaVern Baker on November 11, 1929 in Chicago. She began singing gospel as a child, but she was familiar with more secular styles, as well. Her aunt, Merline Baker, was better known as Memphis Minnie, a blues singer and guitarist. LaVern 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 wore a straw hat and a dress made of patches. In the late 1940s, her family moved to Detroit, and Baker started singing at the Flame Show Bar. She cut her first recordings for RCA with the Eddie Penigar Band in 1949. She then recorded “Sharecropper’s Boogie” with Hot Lips Page and Red Saunders for Columbia in 1950.
In 1951, Okeh Records released three recordings pairing “Bea Baker” with Maurice King and His Wolverines. Later that year she appeared on National Records as “Little Miss Sharecropper.” She also began touring the U.S., playing a different city virtually every night. She gradually eliminated her “Little Miss” persona and teamed with the Todd Rhodes Orchestra to cut four songs for King Records in 1953.
Baker’s recording career swung into high gear later that year when she signed with Atlantic Records. She experimented with several styles, including Bessie Smith’s. “Ahmet Ertegun [the president of Atlantic] said, ‘Here’s a lady you sound like.’ When you are scuffling, you’ll try anything,” Baker recalled. “Then he played Bessie for me, and I said, ‘Wow!’”
On October 20, 1954, Baker was prodded into recording the playful song “Tweedle Dee.” The song tore up the R&B chart and spent 11 weeks on the pop chart, peaking at Number 14. Continuing to record for Atlantic, Baker turned out the rough-and-tumble “Jim Dandy” and “Jim Dandy Got Married.” She scored her biggest pop hit with “I Cried a Tear,” which reached Number Six in 1959.
Baker recorded a Bessie Smith tribute album and continued to score hits into the Sixties, including “Shake a Hand,” “See See Rider” and “Saved.” After leaving Atlantic, Baker kept on recording and touring 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 she 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.
“As we say in church, I look back at a job well done,” Baker said when she received the R&B award. “It’s like when God takes you away. You deserve your pedestal, and I’ve earned this reward.”
LaVern Baker died from cardiovascular disease on March 10, 1997.
Delores LaVern Baker (vocals; November 11, 1929 – March 10, 1997)