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RCA 22-0016; MARCH, 1949

 
 

 

Sixty-nine years is a long time.

Though an obvious statement it’s something that continually has to be kept in mind when writing these reviews.

Aside from trying to put each record into the context they came out in and using that in part to judge their merits, there’s also the growing realization that the familiarity of the names to most casual visitors by this point in time will probably be somewhat low.

Simple math tells us that the core audience for rock ‘n’ roll in 1949 would’ve been born sometime between 1923 and 1935 (give or take a few days) and as such those first-hand witnesses to its appeal would now be – in 2018 – a minimum of 83 years old.

While that can still be a vibrant age – heck, even those at the upper end of that age span at 95 can still be full of vigor – it’s not a very robust demographic as only around 2% of the total American population are over 83 years old. When you narrow it down even further to focus solely on the primary audience of 1940’s rock, which was almost exclusively black, we’re probably talking less than one tenth of one percent of all Americans alive today who fit that profile.

So the truth is the overwhelming majority of those showing up here to read about this music will have come of age in the years since and it’s doubtful the search engine queries that brought them here will have been made up of the complete obscurities that fill these pages during this stretch of rock ‘n’ roll’s story.

Therefore when an artist whose name is still at least somewhat recognizable in the Twenty-First century comes along for the first time, as LaVern Baker does today, it should be cause for at least some mild celebration on our part. It theoretically gives us a rare opportunity to expand the potential audience with the addition of a more well known and highly regarded figure in rock history.

But as we’ll see in Baker’s case that probably isn’t going to amount to much considering the way in which she’s introduced.
 

 
Lumps In The Sugar Bowl
The first thing you probably noticed is LaVern Baker isn’t the credited artist, merely the credited vocalist.

This was a fairly common thing back in the 1940’s for popular music in general, as many were still adhering to the big band practice of publicizing the bandleader while treating the singer as simply another member of the larger group. In fact the majority of the big band rooted pop songs from a few years earlier only featured a singer for a brief interlude while the majority of the record was taken up with the instrumental presentation which ostensibly was the drawing card.

We’ve touched upon the gradual shift in crediting the singers that took place over the 1940’s as the result of the first (1942-1944) recording ban which prevented musicians from cutting songs, but that same edict didn’t apply to vocalists who were obviously not members of a musician’s union and so they stepped into the breach as the focal point of the newly cut records and the long-held power structure that had long kept them under wraps in favor of the star bandleaders began to crumble. By the time 1950 rolled around a few months from now there were only a few well-established bandleaders who still had the power and prestige to keep their vocalists under wraps.

Eddie Penigar should not have been one of the ones who did.

You may remember we met him already, indirectly, as he played some saxophone on sides cut on Aristocrat for Jump Jackson and possibly on a Tom Archia side with Buster Bennett on vocals. He wasn’t the featured horn in any event though, superseded by both Archia and Sax Mallard which gives you some idea of his status. He was good, serviceable on sax (and piano for that matter) but not great.

Which is why it’s odd that he finds himself signed to a major label to cut sides as a leader. If he wasn’t deemed headlining material by a start-up company like Aristocrat then what genius at RCA thought he – of all people – would be the one to break them into the expanding rock market?

Obviously it didn’t work out that way.

But if RCA had paid more attention at the session they might’ve realized the one in the studio that day who they should’ve put their clout behind was LaVern Baker… only she wasn’t known as LaVern Baker just yet.
 

 

Little Miss Sharecropper
She was born Dolores LaVern Baker in 1929 but over the course of her first decade as a professional singer, starting in 1946 at the age of 17, she’d be billed under a variety of other names before finally breaking through using one found on her birth certificate.

The name she debuted on wax under – Little Miss Sharecropper – was by far her least favorite, one forced upon her by the owners of Chicago’s Club De Lisa and designed to take advantage of the popularity of a blues singer named Little Miss Cornshucks who we mentioned in passing way back in September 1947 when all this rock hubbub began.

Already Baker was drawing notice for her voice though, regardless of the name she was being billed under, as renowned bandleader Fletcher Henderson enticed her into cutting tracks with him for Columbia that went unreleased. It’s just as well, for Henderson, as good as he was, represented yesterday’s music and Baker, still just a teen herself, represented tomorrow. Only she didn’t know it yet.

She wound up in Detroit where she married a non-show biz regular joe named Eugene Williams and she began using the name Dolores Williams, that being her legally married name. They didn’t stick together long but while there she made a name for herself – what name, I’m not sure at this point – at the legendary Flame Show Bar which would play a large role in her future prospects.

Apparently she had been hired by Penigar in Chicago when he was looking for vocal talent and it was he who took her to Detroit in the first place. Then when he got his shot at the brass ring by signing with RCA he must’ve known he wasn’t quite good enough of a singer – though he sang on the A-sides of the releases – to risk placing all of his chips on that spin of the wheel so he brought in LaVern Baker for the B-sides, (though she was forced back into using the detested Little Miss Sharecropper moniker to do so), with Penigar surely hoping that the different approaches – and vocalists – used on each side might get him a longer look from the public and the label itself.

It didn’t. If not for Baker it probably wouldn’t have been noticed in the seven decades since that time either and so, for that reason alone, I Wonder Baby makes for an intriguing debut for a future singing star, but ultimately a fleeting one due to the aforementioned convoluted circumstances.

It also doesn’t help that Penigar’s ill-suited arrangement hampers her ability to state her intentions as a rising prospect in the rock leagues, even while it goes a long way in confirming why he himself never broke through.
 


 
 

What Have You Done To Me
The first ten seconds of this record harkens back to the mindset of the previous generation. A brassy droning group horn intro that offers no hint at this being anything but an utter waste of time for anything purporting to be aiming at the most cutting edge style of music currently making waves.

It’s not just old-fashioned, it’s also impairing any attempt on the part of Baker to rescue the atmosphere of the song when she comes in. Yet in spite of the huge hole dug for her Baker enters the picture with aplomb, ready to take command and wrest the song away from the desultory accompaniment, which gets no better as it goes along.

Her voice is slightly strident, both in terms of its forcefulness and being just a little shrill at times, but no less pleasing because of that affectation. She’s not lacking for confidence, nor even at this young an age (still just 19) the ability to put her own stamp on this with a surprising array of vocal savvy, knowing just how and when to hold notes for added impact, when to cut them short for emphasis and even when to twist others for a change in the mood.

For an absolute novice she’s already in top form, even sounding far different in tone and texture than she would down the road when she became the top female rock singer of the latter half of the 1950’s with Atlantic, there’s no doubting her natural abilities here. She coaxes every hint of suggestiveness out of the lyrics, her impatience and determination to convince her skeptical boyfriend that her love is true in spite of his doubts drips with anguish and while the lyrics themselves are fairly standard for this type of song, they’re entirely effective in stating her case. She handles every emotional turn with an expert hand and if it grades were handed out for just the vocals she’d be in the catbird’s seat.

Unfortunately on records that’s only half the battle and the other half of the equation on I Wonder Baby is Penigar’s responsibility and he lets her down completely. Though he’s joined by his Aristocrat cohort Sax Mallard on sax here, neither one of them thinks to take a much needed gritty solo, instead leaving that chore to the trumpet. Nobody reading this blog over the past year needs me to state how unfortunate that turn of events is when it comes to putting over a song in the rock realm. The ensuing horn solo sucks the air out of the performance and all but stuffs Baker in a gunny sack and tosses her in the corner.

It’s not as if the band was doing fine leading up to that either, as the piano is too frothy, the drums are but an unsubstantiated rumor and the rest of the horns are content to throw in the towel rather than do anything to salvage what is as poorly judged an arrangement as you’ll find. They’re not playing badly, but what they’re playing is bad by design. The one moment of mild inspiration comes late, after you’re all but ready to give up on them, when the bassist pulls out a deft little solo that catches your ear. But acoustic basses being slowly plucked are hardly what it takes to create any excitement in rock at this point… or at any point for that matter.

Baker never gives up though, carrying the band on her shoulders down the stretch, which for a teenage girl just five feet tall was quite a feat, closing this out as best as could be expected considering the circumstances.
 

 

All I Have To See
Listening to I Wonder Baby in 1949 amidst a month of far above average releases from all corners of the rock kingdom would you have picked out Baker… err, Little Miss Sharecropper… as someone worth keeping an eye on?

I’d like to think so, provided you were paying attention, which was this record’s other insurmountable drawback.

Because it was credited to Penigar, not Baker… because even HER credit was for an absurdly dated and offensive name ill-fitting the music landscape of 1949, particularly in forward thinking rock circles… and because this was just the B-side and on a major label with no credibility in the rock world to boot, you probably wouldn’t have been aware enough of its existence to take notice and give it a fair shake to discover the promise of its singer.

As such it’s more of an historical curiosity than a noteworthy debut. In spite of its bright spots, which are all courtesy of Baker’s performance, the fact is she wouldn’t break through commercially OR in terms of acclaim for another five years even though her talents were enough to allow her to cut a fair number of records along the way even without the sales usually required to warrant such output.

But all of that is for another day. On THIS day with THIS record while Baker deserves all the praise we can muster, the record itself, through no fault of her own, can’t even be called average in the context of its time.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(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)