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Current reviews of records in the trade papers of the day were succinct by nature, but also largely self-serving.

They were often less about the actual record and more about the artist’s reputation based on past success which led them to frequently treat their subsequent releases as better than they actually were.

This is not quite as distasteful as it might seem, because remember, the reviews were only trying to let the jukebox operators know which records would have commercial appeal, not whether they had artistic merit.

LaVern Baker, under the objectionable sobriquet Miss Sharecropper, got good notices for this which had more to do with National Records being a consistent advertiser in their magazines – an unfortunate aspect of the review game.

But were you to try and judge this one solely by what you hear and not those outside forces at work, a capsulized review would look something like this: “A more modest sounding side than the flip, but one not hampered by a conflicted arrangement which confirms the singer is somebody to keep an eye on.”.

For the full length and (far too) detailed version of that summary, keep reading.


I’ll Hang On, Baby, Won’t Let You Put Me Down
In 1951 few people knew who LaVern Baker was… including LaVern Baker. The writing credits for both side of this release read Dolores Williams, her married name, even though she was no longer married to Eugene Williams, a post office worker.

Though her real name was Dolores LaVern Baker, she was still being billed on stage around Chicago as Little Miss Sharecropper, a backwards and offensive stereotype she was forced to use at the request of club owners who wanted to take advantage of the familiarity of an older singer Little Miss Cornshucks who demeaned herself by wearing overalls, a straw hat while barefoot in successful attempt to play to the image that so many white people had of black performers. Case in point, she was Ahmet Ertegun’s favorite singer.

Baker had to undergo a similarly degrading image overhaul to play this part and while the visual element was troubling enough on stage, where it made absolutely no sense to continue it was on record. National Records had no reason to use that name, which wouldn’t have been known outside of Chicago anyway, and Baker had never wanted to be called it in the first place, yet here she is billed as Miss Sharecropper on I’ve Tried… a song that under no circumstance would even fit the persona she was compelled to adapt in clubs where she dressed like an innocent (read: simple and stupid) country ragamuffin.

The LaVern Baker shown on this song is sophisticated and worldly and if that wasn’t enough to tell listeners she was far more than she was allowed to present herself as on stage, she even saw to it that she tossed in a lyric to drive the point home… “I’ve been living a lie”.

The truth is Baker never needed gimmicks to sell herself, since her voice, her looks, her intelligence and her determination were their own strongest advertisements.


A Long Time Gone
This is both a song with less potential to be a smash than the top side was and yet it’s a unquestionably a better record.

Whereas How Long had the components to be much better than it turned out (not that it was bad) if the band had simply come up with a stronger arrangement or a more focused concept behind her, I’ve Tried couldn’t be performed much better than it is, by artist or band alike, yet its built-in limitations as a song ensures that it’s probably not going to be considered a great achievement.

They get all they can out of this one in other words.

Part of the reason why it does what it should is because of the song itself, or rather the source material FOR this song. In case it wasn’t obvious (and if it isn’t it means you haven’t been reading this site from the start… shame on you!) Baker adapted this from Sonny Thompson’s 1948 smash Long Gone writing lyrics for rock’s definitive instrumental groove, something that had been intended to transfix you with its mesmerizing repetitiveness.

They manage to keep it fairly mesmerizing while the lyrics add a welcome new quality that her voice puts over beautifully.

How this transpired is easy enough to figure out if you were a subscriber to the Chicago Defender, the black newspaper in Chicago in 1950, where the accompanying picture from the fall of that year showing her on stage with Eddie Chamblee, who played sax on that earlier #1 hit as part of Thompson’s band, makes it obvious where she got the idea. (Notice how classy she’s dressed too, showing that she’d already shed that stupid outfit and image the name saddled her with). If they were on the same bill, or if she was being backed on stage by him for a time (for the record, that’s Ralph Williams, the club’s MC between them), then it’s only natural she heard it often and with such an alluring churning rhythm it made sense to adapt it.

Those things don’t always work out well however, but this seemed tailor made for a creative re-imagining of it and Baker’s lyrics match the simple progression it’s paired with, starting off with a dour thought and as it shifts upward so does her outlook. Really it’s more of a meditative song than one built on a story, meaning it requires a different type of delivery which she nails, almost as if she were thinking aloud in key. Of course her voice continues to impress no matter what type of song she has.


I’ll Make It, Someday, Somehow
It helps to remember that Long Gone was a two part record, with Parts One and Two cut on separate days with Chamblee’s sax not even present when they laid down the first half (or first version is more like it, as we detailed in that review).

The reason why we’re pointing that out is because I’ve Tried really is a vocal version of Part One, not the credited hit Part Two, because it doesn’t have a sax solo even though there are horns on this record.

Maybe that’s for the best, not just because the sax solo on How Long was such a let down, but also because if you skew too closely to something that was the single most popular rock record just three years earlier you’re bound to be given less credit for doing anything impressive yourself.

Since neither of the trade paper reviews even mentioned the connection to Thompson’s song you’d have to say that sidestepping its most familiar motif helped this to distance itself from that earlier record.

Then again since this didn’t become a hit maybe you’d rather piggyback on the huge hit more blatantly by incorporating the same identifying feature so no one missed the connection.

Truthfully though this works just fine without it, as the piano gets the instrumental break and whoever is playing does Sonny Thompson proud with their rendition of that addictive hook… simple to play, but also tempting to overplay and while his right hand is very active it’s not indulgent in doing so and keeps the song locked in.

Had there been a slightly more prominent sax, not a solo but just a few bars of something sultry after that as a segue, this might’ve come a little closer to equaling its inspiration, but as it is this one still gets the job done and since Baker herself is really the one who impresses here it’s another sign that she’s due for bigger things down the road.


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