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Of all of the first or second tier rock legends of the Nineteen Fifties, it’d be hard to find anyone whose path to stardom was any more winding and uncertain than LaVern Baker.

Though we first met her back in 1949 her opportunities on record have been infrequent, her success non-existant and her future is still uncertain.

Here she is again after an absence of two full years, still forced to record under a name she loathed, but determined to make you pay attention to that voice rather than a demeaning moniker.


Never No How
Everyone who saw her sing – primarily around Chicago at this point – was impressed with LaVern Baker… whatever name she was singing under at the time. Other artists were knocked out by her voice and command, club owners were lining up to hire her to headline their shows which presumably meant audiences were impressed with her as well.

Too bad record companies didn’t seem to be.

Considering how much rock ‘n’ roll was selling, the fact that there was a young gifted singer – and songwriter as she proves here – who was free to sign with anyone and found no takers for two full years despite being fairly well known in one of the biggest cities in the country is astonishing.

National Records finally stepped into the breach in an attempt to shore up their depleted roster that left them reeling since they lost The Ravens last fall. Unfortunately they insisted on going with the Miss Sharecropper name which shows why they’ll soon be out of business… the audience these records were intended for were sure as hell not going to be inclined to support the archaic and offensive tropes tied to that name.

The prevailing question heading into this record then is How Long would it take for LaVern Baker to shake herself free of this name and image and start getting the chances her talent was clearly deserving of?


Come Back Baby To Your Mama’s Arms
This is one of those arrangements where some of the elements are well chosen but all just a little bit off, resulting in a record that – depending on which you focus on more – is somewhat intriguing or really frustrating.

Baker wrote the song and creates a character who is single-minded in her quest to get her lover back… whether because they broke up, or if he was just taken away on business or to serve out some sentence imposed on him by the courts or the military, we’re not entirely sure.

If it was the former the choice to have her display such confidence and determination in the face of a split would be rather bold, as the genius of that decision would be to show she’s not weakened by his departure but strengthened by it, almost as if she’s viewing it as a test of her devotion that she must pass in order to win back his love.

More likely though it’s the latter, they’re still a couple but are separated by circumstance, which makes the message itself a little more predictable even if her reading of it adds plenty of spice on its own.

One reason we can’t be fully sure though is because the band doesn’t seem to know either. A song like How Long with a break up as the central theme (by choice or by force), even with these exact same lyrics would seem natural to express despair in their playing, yet instead they take this in a much different direction.

All I Pray
After a really strong opening with distant echoing drumming which builds suspense, almost as if this were a Hitchcock thriller, before the piano and horns join in, the pace picks up giving the impression you’re in pursuit of something, or someone as it turns out.

Baker’s a bundle of eager anticipation when she comes in… singing faster than you’d expect her to for the subject, clearly viewing this split as just a temporary setback and is envisioning their reunion and all that will entail. But while the band races to keep up with her, they do so without sharing in the desires she’s expression which defines her character.

There’s no explosiveness in their playing, no signs of rapture or elation. Instead they sound anxious, a little nervous and unsure of themselves and it hampers Baker’s mission. The sax solo is underpowered, sounding almost so weak as to be mistaken for a clarinet, and is hardly helped by quoting “Three Blind Mice” at the beginning, unless he intended it to refer to the band’s decisions on how best support their singer.

Their focusing on speed throughout How Long is not for the best, for while it adds some vital energy it removes the emotional impact that is necessary to comment on her state of mind. They’re just passengers watching the scenery go by, not invested in the outcome as long as they arrive in one piece.

Two alternate options existed, each one vastly different, but both would’ve shored this record up considerably. The first – and simplest – of course would be just to match Baker’s fire with their own, come out roaring, drums clattering, saxes riffing, piano banging away – equaling their pace here but adding the requisite muscle behind it – and let them both burn the studio to ashes with their attack.

The other choice would’ve required more planning with Baker to carefully sketch it out and accentuate that early suspense for longer, forcing her to hold back her emotions as she sets the story up. Then when she finally explodes they’d be free to ramp it up as well, giving the track the kind of dynamics that would make it stand out.

There was plenty of room in the composition to allow for that had they wanted – something proven by the way they do slow it down and return to those drums in the fade as it is – but instead they were merely content to follow her in deed but not in spirit, making the end result a mixed bag.


Goin’ Down The Track
Though certainly not all it could be, once again LaVern Baker comes out of this looking best, showcasing a brassy set of pipes as well as contributing a pretty interesting interpretation of her own written material.

You don’t know who was backing her at Joe’s Rendezvous Lounge in The Windy City at the time she laid this down, but hopefully it was a more robust band than the musicians shown here, because if How Long proves one thing it’s that she needs a band who aren’t afraid of mixing it up, something she’s frankly been denied both on her RCA sides from two years ago as well as this one.

Considering the number of artists who’ve had talent that was clearly evident to all who heard them but were struggling to get chances to prove it, we can be grateful knowing that eventually the tide would turn for Baker and she’d go on to a long and glorious career.

But at this stage of the game she was still stuck spinning her wheels for awhile longer with no sign of how much longer that would last.


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