Unquestionably rock’s best guitarist of the 1950’s, certainly its most recorded, and in the running for the most technically skilled on the instrument in the entire history of the genre, his most lasting legacy comes as part of an iconic vocal duo starting in the mid-Fifties, but his list of credits as a sideman is even more impressive.

McHouston Baker never wanted to play rock ‘n’ roll, he was an aspiring jazz musician who’d endured a rough childhood and merely turned to rock sessions as a way to earn money.

Born in 1925 he was the mixed-race son of a white john who took liberties with the pre-teen daughter of a black whorehouse madam. Not surprisingly the kid was made to suffer for this ignominious entry into the world and wound up dabbling in all sorts of street crimes before he reached his mid-teens, spending years bouncing around orphanages and living with assorted family members.

At fifteen, after playing some trumpet and trombone, he scraped up the money to buy a guitar from a pawn shop and his life turned around. Infatuated with be-bop, he studied jazz religiously but on a trip to the West Coast he saw blues guitarist Pee Wee Crayton flush with cash for playing guitar in a way that Baker deemed crude and unsophisticated. Yet for someone who’d known nothing but poverty the potential to make money by dumbing down his style was too hard to pass up and upon his return to New York City in 1952 he began playing rock sessions for local labels, primarily Savoy, contributing to hits such as Varetta Dillard’s “Easy, Easy Baby” that spring.

By late summer he got his first release as a featured artist on instrumentals cut at the end of another singer’s recording session and in the process got to display the slashing techniques that would make him famous and define rock guitar for generations.

These were the first sessions with what would become to core New York studio crews of the next decade, including Sam “The Man” Taylor on sax and Panama Francis on drums, all of whom were ex-jazz musicians slumming in rock for the money. But while the others would mostly leave their mark on rock behind the scenes, Baker – though he was prolific as a sideman over the next five years – had the advantage of having his own singles released at the same time. While none became hits, they did attract attention and give him added stature in the field.

During this time he was also giving guitar lessons – and his book on learning jazz guitar written then remains one of the foundational instructional guides to this day – and one of his students was teenaged singer Sylvia Vanderpool.

Seeing the runaway success in the pop field of Les Paul and Mary Ford, each of whom played guitar while Mary sang, gave Mickey the idea of doing the same with the attractive and very talented Vanderpool. After a few sides for Atlantic did nothing, they landed at RCA’s Groove subsidiary where their career took off with “Love Is Strange” and made Baker a household name.

As good as many of their records were into the early 60’s, they never matched that initial success, though they had some more hits. While Vanderpool was wildly ambitious and wanted to diversify her career, Baker was content to merely play and the two briefly split up during which time Mickey released a highly acclaimed instrumental album of his own before reuniting with Sylvia at the dawn of the sixties where Vanderpool produced and played guitar on Ike & Tina Turner’s “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine”, while Baker was drafted to sing the part of “Ike” on record.

By 1963 Baker was tired of the grind of rock ‘n’ roll and moved to France where he more less remained – as did old pal Hal Singer, another who abandoned rock. During these last few decades of his life, Baker played jazz and classical music, collected royalties for his songs and his instructional books, and basically treated his groundbreaking work as rock’s most prolific guitarist as merely a way to eat.

While Sylvia Vanderpool finally was inducted into The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame posthumously in 2022, in part for also being the Mother Of Hip-Hop as the owner of Sugar Hill Records and producer of countless rap classics, Baker, despite an equally diverse résumé of his own, has yet to make the grade.

He died in France in 2012, having lived a colorful life and one that changed music forever even if it wasn’t the music he wanted to play.
MICKEY “GUITAR” BAKER DISCOGRAPHY (Records Reviewed To Date On Spontaneous Lunacy):

(Savoy 847; May, 1952)
As sideman… to Varetta Dillard

(Savoy 847; May, 1952)
As sideman… to Varetta Dillard

(Savoy 851; June, 1952)
As sideman… to Varetta Dillard

(Savoy 853; July, 1952)
As sideman… to Eddie Mack

(Savoy 861; September, 1952)
As sideman… to Hal Singer

(Savoy 867; September, 1952)
An impressive first effort by Baker as lead artist on a self-penned instrumental that shows off his skills as both a guitarist and arranger, with slashing lines and an ability to shift pacing through slight of hand to produce a different effect. (6)

(Savoy 867; September, 1952)
Indicative of the circumstances – a sessionist hastily given a chance to cut instrumentals of his own – who is not yet sure of the direction he wants to take so he settles for a popular trend that allows him to play different licks rather than create a coherent song. (3)

(Savoy 874; November, 1952)
A terrible idea to have Baker cover the first “young pop” song that was sort of rock-lite, meaning his own guitar is downplayed and his vocal is played up, which combined with the sappy story means this contains nothing of interest even if he’s credible enough in the attempt. (2)

(Savoy 874; November, 1952)
Clearly Baker’s idea of a joke, sending-up the mind-numbing simplicity he still saw as rock’s defining characteristics, but because the humor is merely in mimicking the worst aspects of the genre, it simply comes off as a subpar song without any laughs. (3)