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COLUMBIA 39330; MAY 1951



There have been a handful of rock stars over the years who rose to prominence largely because of their stints at a specific venue.

Todd Rhodes at the Sensation Lounge in Detroit was first, which got a record label started named after the club, and then in the early 1960’s Dick Dale created a frenzy with his surfer stomps at The Rendezvous Ballroom, while years later some punk and new wave acts draw lots of notice at CBGB’s in the seventies.

But for the most part rock ‘n’ roll was far different than jazz and pop of years gone by in that it wasn’t nightclubs that provided the exposure for most new rock acts, it was records and tours crisscrossing the country that allowed you to make a name for yourself.

The rock act who straddled those eras in this way was LaVern Baker whose long stint at The Flame Show Bar in Detroit not only boosted her appeal to record companies but actually helped pave the way for rock ‘n’ roll to infiltrate the mainstream.


The King Of Detroit Music
You’ll surely note that it’s not LaVern Baker who is the credited lead artist on this release… it’s Maurice King And His Wolverines, the house band at The Flame Show Bar, they were the ones who had just been signed to Columbia Records and taken Baker along with them to sing on this one side.

Before you start thinking it was some sort of mistake to relegate the promising vocalist to an afterthought, maybe you should learn about Maurice King, one of the most interesting and important figures on the Detroit music scene for a half century.

He was forty years old in 1951 and for much of the 1940’s had led The International Sweethearts Of Rhythm, the premier female band in the country, turning them from a novelty act (because they were girls trying to play in a man’s world) and whipped them into shape to where they didn’t take a back seat to anyone musically. But when they broke up in 1949 due to changing tastes and the death of their founder he moved back to Detroit where he was hired to oversee the music at The Flame Show Bar, soon to be the hottest spot in town at the corner of John R and Canfield, where he and his small group would back all of the big names who would be coming through town, no matter their style.

With King himself playing alto he assembled a mixture of veterans and younger up and coming musicians and drilled The Wolverines relentlessly, yet taught them to think for themselves musically so they knew WHAT he was doing and WHY, giving them the ability to do the same themselves someday.

When Berry Gordy frequented the Flame Show Bar during the 1950’s King is the one who epitomized everything he wanted himself and when he opened Motown in 1959 it didn’t take him long to convince King to join him as the head of artist development where for the next decade he taught the aspiring artists “everything”… how to sing, how to blend their voices and play off the band… he also worked on arrangements and would lead the session musicians in studios when needed and was the first one called when the music needed fixing. He later became the arranger for The Spinners throughout the 1970’s making them one of the top acts of the day. He was a true musical visionary in every way.

Though jazz, swing and big band styles were his primary interest at this stage, because rock ‘n’ roll was getting bigger and bigger in black music circles at the dawn of the Fifties he got plenty of practice with it, getting his feet wet by arranging Kitty Stevenson’s work with fellow Detroit star Todd Rhodes on It Ain’t Right last year.

Now that he was signed to Columbia Records the label wanted him to help find some middle ground between classier styles and rock ‘n’ roll to get their foot in the door and so he wrote Good Daddy for Baker, a song that gives her plenty of room to strut her stuff while still trying to keep it in line musically with the kind of hybrid style that the record company was seeking.


The Gal That Traveled
Though she’s credited on this release as Bea Baker, this still was a step up from the ignominious Miss Sharecropper moniker she’d been stuck with the last few years – and last month on National Records for that matter. As she had in Chicago, Baker impressed everyone in Detroit with her vocal talent from time she arrived this past winter and quickly got Al Green, the manger of The Flame Show Bar, to represent her personally and convinced him to let her drop the silly racist name she’d railed against from the start.

However she was billed though, you know what you’re getting from Baker, a singer who could put over anything from rough and gutsy to tender and nuanced and on Good Daddy she gets a chance to let her voice soar on a tight rhythmic song with a brash attitude that was a good persona for a budding rock queen.

She’s the real deal here from the start, her voice sharp and piercing, yet still soothing enough in its tones. It would appear to be a delicate balancing act as she continually pulls up just short of sounding shrill in her effort to penetrate your senses with laser focused notes, but as always her judgement is nonpareil, holding firm to the melody while riding the rhythm like a pro.

King’s lyrics paint a pretty good picture for her to explore too, as she’s declaring her devotion to a guy who has started to ignore her without giving up her dignity while she chases him down. You get the idea based on her bravado that he’s running from her not because he isn’t attracted to her anymore, but because he’s afraid he’ll be overshadowed by her mere presence. When she hits that stop time section and blasts away her intent for the world to hear you shield your face to avoid being hit by the shrapnel.

The music King comes up with may be a little TOO exotic at times for the fire she’s breathing. While the drummer never lets up on emphasizing the relentless beat behind her, the horns are just a little off… a touch too classy during the lead in, then creating more of an alluring striptease mood during the sax solo rather than the kind of pure carnal lust it requires following Baker’s impassioned reading.

But compromises like that on a major label were to be expected and King doesn’t let it interfere with the overall mood they’re aiming for. The band is tight as can be and if anything by the end you wonder if it might’ve made a slightly bigger impact if Baker herself toned things down a notch as she begins to sound blaring more than aggressive down the stretch.

Still it’s a good showcase for all of their individual talents even if it’s a little too polished to make a truly great rock record unto itself.


Don’t You Remember Me
Baker’s long tenure at The Flame Show Bar ironically would be more remembered for someone beneath her on the bill there, a partially deaf white singer named Johnnie Ray who became one of her best friends and who credited her – and King, with whom he stayed with for months upon arriving from Portland, Oregon – as being the ones who gave him his most crucial lessons in music.

Baker tutored him on the emotional complexities of singing which would become Ray’s trademark when he took the style to the extreme over the next year while becoming the hottest pop singer in the country by using a style that was far closer to rock ‘n’ roll than any pop act had tried before and in the process creating the kind of hysteria that Elvis Presley would later elicit showing that there was something in even white American youth at the time which was waiting to be stirred.

As for Baker, when Good Daddy didn’t become a hit she just went right on singing at the hottest club in a city that was teaming with music, backed by King’s peerless band both on stage and later on record for OKeh (a Columbia subsidiary created specifically to branch into rock ‘n’ roll where Ray also got his start, the only white act on the label) and fine-tuned her approach on a wide variety of material, building momentum for the day when it’d be her turn to take the world by storm.


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