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NATIONAL 9153; JUNE 1951



After a two year sabbatical from recording LaVern Baker has been incredibly prolific this spring, cutting tracks for two labels under two names – neither of which were her given name, but that’s another story – and continuing to show her ability to help define this genre going forward.

Unfortunately the people she’s been associated with have been determined to tie her to the past musically and so there’s a constant struggle each time out to establish a clear stylistic direction.

You’d think when seeing the title of this song maybe those questions on letting her pursue the most suitable course for her future would finally be settled, but in the record biz nothing is ever as simple as it seems.


What’s Happened To You?
Let’s start with a merciful ending… this is the final release that would come out under the degrading moniker Miss Sharecropper, a repugnant name LaVern Baker had been saddled with against her wishes a few years earlier in an attempt to link her to another singer dubbed Miss Cornshucks, both of which of course show the extent of casual racism in American music at the time as that was seen as a way to make black artists more palatable to white audiences.

Though National Records deserves all the criticism one can heap on them for perpetuating that name on two singles they issued on her, we do have to give them some credit in that they actually let Baker perform her own material – written under her married named Dolores Williams – although to be truthful at this point National Records was running on fumes with no creative personnel behind the scenes left so maybe they had little choice. This in fact will be the final release of theirs we cover as the venerable label folded up shop soon, unable to get over the loss of The Ravens last year.

Had they stuck with it a little longer maybe Baker would’ve been able to turn their fortunes around again, although the flip side, Take Out Some Time, might suggest that even Baker was unsure about which direction she should head because it’s uncomfortably ornate. But upon closer examination it’s not the composition itself that steers it towards a pop feel, but rather the timid arrangement with supper club piano and delicate horns, forcing her to adopt a more tame vocal delivery even though at times she hints at more urgent business than the band is willing to condone.

But while that congregation of woefully under-powered musicians are still present – and still something of a detriment – on I Want To Rock, this time around Baker is taking matters into her own hands and rather than demurely following their lead, she’s the one dragging them along behind her in an attempt to do this song justice.

It’s not the record that will establish Baker as one of the most potent artists in 1950’s rock, but if you were scouring the ranks for a dark horse candidate going forward, she wouldn’t be a bad bet to break through down the road with more sympathetic support.


I’m A Rockin’ Mama!
We have to start with the negatives here simply because the record itself does with a far too gimmicky intro. Though you might say the structure of it – stuttering horns, dead spaces with drums as punctuation – was a decent idea, the thinking behind it was clearly meant to be lighthearted to make the song non-threatening for novice listeners… though why non-rock fans would be listening to this in the first place is hard to say.

The horns are far too bouncy and irreverent sounding, replacing grit with levity which puts Baker in the unfortunate position of having to refute them as soon as she enters the picture.

Luckily she’s up to the task having crafted herself an almost defiant creed that forms the genesis of I Want To Rock, each line stating her intentions clearly.

Notice I didn’t say “loud and clear”, because that’s actually the one drawback to her performance, as she sings in a higher register that is probably meant to conjure up someone like Laurie Tate who was riding high over the past year with Joe Morris and while Baker is not at all shrill sounding as Tate could be, the song would be better off with a louder more powerful delivery out of her, if only to try and make up for the band soft-peddling their jobs behind her.

But Baker can handle this role even in a slightly “different” voice than usual because the message she’s imparting is strong enough to get the point across as she’s downing booze left and right while actively looking for a sexual partner to spend the night with. Other than the band who remains in the dark about her activities, there’s no ambiguity here and if the lines are fairly crude and simplistic… well, who’s complaining? LaVern Baker is on the prowl, that should be more than a good enough premise for any rock fan to get into.

The instrumental break however, which should be where the band ramps up the energy to send this over the top, is just barely holding its own. They’ve got the right horn but it’s played in the wrong way as there’s no urgency to their deep tones, instead they prance over the terrain rather than chewing it up leaving Baker to pull them back up again.

Is that going to be a problem? Of course not, for she’s so direct, so single-minded in her demands, that she wins you over no matter how much you’re cursing the band as they add horn responses that are attempting to temper her desire with whimsy as she heads down the stretch, chanting the title over and over into the extended fade, hoping that by incessantly repeating her desires it might sway any holdouts.

LaVern is obviously going to have to drop these losers if she wants to get laid tonight, but that shouldn’t be hard to do considering they’ll be up past their bedtime when the real action is set to begin.


I’m In The Groove
Weighing all of the components here equally – which is what we usually try and do – would in this case unfairly impact the performer who we all came to hear.

Though the band isn’t completely inept in their playing, Baker stands head and shoulders above them in terms of attitude and that means balancing them out in our evaluation would probably leave this as an average record for rock in mid-1951. Good enough to listen to for sure, but not enough to be put into your playlist for the year’s best sides.

So instead the way to approach this is to think of it a bit like going out to eat and having bad service but a great meal, or going to a concert in the nose bleed seats but the show itself is tremendous.

What you came for in other words lives up to your hopes and expectations and the rest, though certainly an annoyance you could do without, won’t be what you remember with I Want To Rock.

LaVern Baker gives us what we wanted out of her – a song that firmly states her stylistic intentions in “our” preferred genre and does so with a sly wickedness that has to be admired. Even with her higher pitch she’s in total command of the song, nailing every line and conveying exactly what those lyrics suggest and then some.

Ultimately that’s what matters most here, a singer coming into her own and though she unquestionably will go far beyond this in the future, when looking back this will be the moment where you knew that outcome was inevitable rather than still left to chance.


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