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RCA 22-0036 (78RPM); RCA 50-0020 (45RPM); MAY, 1949


Two months back we met LaVern Baker for the first time but there were no bells and whistles that went along with it to really mark the occasion.

Though a welcome event for adding to the roll of female artists who find themselves still lagging well behind the men in rock it still didn’t quite have much impact in evening up the acclaim for the ladies as the single came and went without much notice, even as it was one of the few rock records to date released on a major label. More significant in retrospect is the fact it was the debut of somebody who’d go on to a highly successful career, second only to Ruth Brown amongst female rock acts of the 1950’s and someone whose achievements ((first rock act to tour Europe; only rock star bold enough to petition Congress for legal redress for lame white acts ripping them off) were equally notable for her sassy demeanor and take no prisoners attitude that defined rock ‘n’ roll forever more.

Yet even the occasion of her arrival on the national stage practically came under dark of night, as listeners – assuming there were any – didn’t even know it WAS someone named LaVern Baker on the record, as she was forced to use the Little Miss Sharecropper name she’d been given at The Club DeLisa where she first entered the showbiz game.

And a “game” is just what it was for many in the industry. Not that they didn’t take the results seriously, but rather they were simply looking for an angle for which to lure in customers that week or that month, not to build a career beyond that. Who thought that far ahead anyway? Seeing as how that moniker was distinctive sounding and also had an obvious connection to the popular blues singer Little Miss Cornshucks, the club owners “insisted” upon it. Who was Baker to refuse? When she was then hired by saxophonist Penigar to sing with his band and cut a few sides on record, well… they insisted upon it too.

It’s not like anybody involved was thinking beyond the immediate future anyway, they were all just capitalizing on something which had momentary relevance at best. Down the road who would really care what some 19 year old girl singer had been called to stir a modicum of interest in the present?

Little did anyone know then that under her real name Baker would outlast them all, starring on Broadway during her “comeback” in the 1990’s when she also became just the second female inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame.

Though of course that ultimate outcome couldn’t have been foreseen with I Wonder Baby, a rather modest record despite Baker’s strong performance, if you were placing bets you’d have definitely put your money down on her future chances as opposed to Eddie “Sugarman” Penigar’s long term prospects, no matter WHAT the label credits said.

That was true last time out and that’s true this time out on Easy Baby as well. Of course if you happen to be Eddie Penigar that’s not exactly the best reaction to elicit when you finally get your big chance for stardom as a featured act on major label.

You Won’t Take A Chance Cuz Nobody Will
Over the past year and a half we’ve covered a lot of tenor sax aces, guys with impeccable pedigrees with solid jazz backgrounds and who in some cases were technical virtuosos, more than capable of doing whatever you wanted to hear. Yet the fatal flaw for many of them was specifically NOT giving us what we wanted to hear, either because they felt it beneath their talents, or because they couldn’t imagine anybody ELSE wanted to hear such gaudy displays, despite the fact the more over-the-top you were the better it seemed to sell.

So as a result too many played it safe, but by this point – and this was cut in February 1949 – there was no excuse for doing so anymore. The dye had been cast, the road to riches and glory (well not riches, but some glory anyway) in rock ‘n’ roll was to blow hot and heavy or steamy and sultry, take your pick, but it had better be one or the other and Penigar clearly hadn’t chosen either and he suffered for it.

Somehow the unassuming session musician had managed to secure a recording contract as a featured artist on RCA Records, which is kind of like a kid playing pickup basketball on a hardtop court being signed to a contract to play in the NBA. In both cases the new signee discovered it was a different game than he was used to and he simply couldn’t quite compete at the higher level when asked to do more than he was capable of, especially as he was now performing under a microscope that revealed every flaw in intimate – uncomfortable – detail.

Eddie “Sugarman” Penigar wasn’t a BAD sax player but in the increasingly competitive field of rock ‘n’ roll being merely good enough WASN’T enough any longer. He hadn’t even been the primary soloist on the sides he’d cut behind others for the most part and so to give him the task of coming up with a hot arrangement designed to showcase his own modest talents and those of his most potent weapon in LaVern Baker was too much to expect. Not surprisingly he fails in both regards with Easy Baby, even as it’s a record that aims fairly low in its goals.


Makes Me Want To Sing
The horns that open it are shrill and well… taking it easy. It’s an approach that might’ve worked well in 1946 but not 1949 and certainly not in this style of music in 1949. The formation of the horn section is again at fault. Trumpets and alto saxes simply do not have the tonal muscularity to make a record sound aggressive enough to convey the required attitude for rock to distance itself from other older forms of music and Penigar doesn’t have the demeanor to assert himself and build any excitement heading into the spotlighted performance.

That’s a pity too because when Baker comes in she has no such problems staking her claim and delivering what the others are so sorely lacking.

Though sounding slightly different than she would during her mid to late 50’s Atlantic heyday this isn’t surprising considering the circumstances. For starters of course Baker was just 19 years old. Not only had her voice not fully developed but she was probably slightly nervous about being in the studio and wondering if the results were going to radically change her fortunes. That’s a lot of pressure for someone who, in normal life circumstances at 19 are worried about sneaking in the house after a night drinking, what subject to major in at college or maybe finding a part-time job that’ll still give you enough time off that summer to hang out with your friends at the beach or something.

But the other reason she seems to adapt a different tone here is because frankly it better suits the song and the accompaniment she’s saddled with. In the mid-50’s she’s got a stellar crew of rock veterans including Sam Taylor and Mickey Baker playing under the direction of Jesse Stone, one of the most proficient rock arrangers in history. As such the tracks themselves were imbued with the type of tough rolling grooves she’d thrive on when riding atop them. Here though on Easy Baby she’s got some skilled players who are yet to be convinced what audience they’re aiming at and so she needs to hedge her bets so as not to have it blow up in her face.

Yet Baker still delivers her part fairly effectively, even with the exaggerated stiltedness she takes on at times it’s not out of line with the straitlaced backing the band provides her. There are even moments when she’s able to shade some lines in ways that would be entirely recognizable to her future self, such as on – you thrill me all winter long – how she draws out “long” to infuse it with a little more meaning than with it was written.

In other words even at this stage she’s not merely content to play it straight, she seems to know what the song calls for more than the band does and yet she’s intelligent enough and professional enough not to completely usurp their roles to try and prove this to the audience in a way that would only highlight the rift between them and result in a total mess with her headed one way and the musicians going off somewhere else entirely.

So we have to keep that in mind when listening and realize that there are going to be plenty of instances like this at all stages of rock history, whether 1949 or 1989, when one entity involved is straining to push forward stylistically while the other entity on the same record is pulling on the reins to keep it closer to the past. From a vantage point well in the future we tend to focus inordinately on the things holding it back but in the context of the times those conflicts were a little easier to take because what dates it the most now wasn’t yet THAT far out of date at the time.

But each day that goes by the further away from that old reality it was getting to be and surely there could be nobody listening in May 1949 with an awareness of the rock landscape who would’ve suggested it’d be Penigar and the tentative approach they took who’d be winning this battle in the long run.


You Want Me For Yourself
But it didn’t have to turn out that way. Not that the mild nature of the arrangement should’ve been given another chance, or rock audiences at the time should’ve been more lenient about those shortcomings, but rather Penigar clearly has it in him to move forward at the same pace as Baker if only he’d let himself go.

Though the group horns playing stale riffs in unison dominate the majority of the record with the trumpet stealing the focus for much of it, and Sax Mallard’s alto sax get his own tepid solo in the first half which similarly keeps this stuck in neutral, when Penigar himself solos in the second half of the record – though he’s hardly playing anything invigorating – he shows the simple allure of that horn’s signature sound. It’s a warm smoky feel, something that can’t help but sound just a little bit suggestive by nature, and if you let yourself have such thoughts it can even sound hypnotizing in a seductive sort of way.

Sure enough when Baker comes back in after that she seems more on edge, her tone hardening and her desires laid bare as she lays into the tentative instincts she’s confronted with (of her beau in the storyline, though one could easily replace him as her target with the band as a whole and it’d work just as well, if not better), in a stop-time delivery where each accusation stings with her added emphasis.

As a written piece of material Easy Baby is hardly too ambitious, its structure and lyrics are pretty standard fare in fact, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t work better than it does simply by infusing it with the right attitude for all concerned from the start.

The first step – as usual – is gutting the horn section, giving more weight to the bottom of the arrangement, then injecting a little more life into the solos. Have a guitar rather than Mallard’s alto deliver the first one for better contrast if you want to further shake things up, but let Penigar’s solo start the same as it does here before he takes it into another realm with more energy.

Once they’ve been injected with some testosterone the possibilities for Baker to play off that newfound attitude are endless and while you may think it requires a drastic re-writing of the song to achieve it’s really no more than encouraging more adventurism during their improvised passages to lay a better foundation for her to strut over top of them all. It’s doubtful much of that was written down and mapped out to begin with. Maybe it was but more often than not they had the basic structure, the key and how many bars the solos would go on for, making sure to end on the root and take things back to the beginning. Simple stuff in theory, the problem being they played it in as simple a way as they could conceive rather than try and stretch the envelope.


Found Somebody Else
I’m sure their thinking was that stretching the envelope was something more appropriate for jazz, where flighty solos were looked upon fondly, and that rock was something akin to the more organized approach of pop. That’s where they were wrong and as a result the failures of this record are found entirely in the timid mindset of Penigar and his fellow musicians.

While it’s reasonably true that rock wasn’t out to impress anybody with the technical skill and degree of difficulty of their playing, it was a music that instead was emphasizing the shedding of emotional constraints in what they delivered. Vocally LaVern Baker, whatever name she was singing under, was more than capable of delivering that if called upon and although it’d be two full years before she got another record she would excel throughout her career when given free rein to do so.

Musically the band probably had that ability too if only they realized that the rules for success were changing and that giving in to your more base urges in what you played wasn’t considered inappropriate or in bad taste. In rock music the rejection of so-called GOOD taste as rigidly decreed by society was part of, if not most of, the allure. It gave audiences the freedom, indeed even the right, the set their own standards that allowed their more natural feelings to be expressed rather than restrained for appearance sake.

Those who instinctively understood this and weren’t afraid to cross that line were the ones who would stick around longest in this new realm. Baker, who clearly DID understand, would be proof of this.

Penigar, maybe not wanting to upset RCA, the major label who was giving him an unlikely chance to begin with, played it safe hoping his compromises would be appreciated. Maybe they were on an aesthetic level by the heads of RCA, but because the rock audience didn’t appreciate it they didn’t buy the record and so whatever personal respect RCA had for him taking it easy didn’t translate to re-upping his contract.

Business is business after all.


(Visit the Artist page of LaVern Baker for the complete archive of her records reviewed to date)

(See also the Artist page of Eddie “Sugarman” Penigar for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)