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OKEH 6800; JUNE 1951



The attitude of the major labels when it came to rock ‘n’ roll in these first three and a half years of the genre’s existence could best be described as condescending, disrespectful and greatly annoyed.

They did their best to ignore it for the most part and when they finally tried to move in on the style in an attempt to shore up their woeful lack of market penetration into the black community over the past decade, they gravitated towards older club acts, including a few that wound up surprising everybody with some genuine rock enthusiasm before they had their sound toned down, either by choice or by force.

But it was now obvious this music wasn’t going away anytime soon and they could either keep on dismissing it out of hand and lose ground as its popularity continued to grow without them or they could take drastic measures to meet it head on.

To everyone’s surprise they chose the latter.


If You Don’t Have That Money, Then I Don’t Have The Time
Back in the 1920’s the OKeh Record label was the prime destination for the top black artists of the day. The company released Mamie Smith’s Crazy Blues in 1920, widely acknowledged as the first blues record on the market. They also cut some of the most immortal sides of Louis Armstrong, as well as King Oliver and blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson.

In 1926 Columbia acquired the label and ran it until 1935 before going dormant – in truth it had slowed considerably since the dawn of the 1930’s as the Great Depression cut into sales – but revived it in 1940, the first time they used a capital K in the title (before that the H at the end had been capitalized instead) but they shelved the imprint again in 1946.

Now in 1951 their hand was forced when rock ‘n’ roll’s popularity – and Columbia’s lack of any credibility in the black community – convinced them to haul out the OKeh label yet again in an attempt to create an outlet where they could profit off the fasting growing music style going.

They hired Danny Kessler, a 26 year old white kid who’d gotten his start with Columbia as a shipping clerk in Philadelphia while still in his mid-teens before moving into promotion in the area.

The few black acts they had on the label managed to sell fairly well there and he was getting credit (truthfully Columbia’s one designated rock act, Chris Powell & His Five Blue Flames were a local band who naturally would have more name recognition in the region) and so Kessler was named national promotion director before being given the reins for OKeh when it launched in June of 1951.

All of Columbia’s prominent black artists – Powell, along with The Ravens and recently signed Chuck Willis – made the move over there and it was Detroit bandleader Maurice King and His Wolverines with LaVern Baker – still being billed as Bea Baker – who launched the label this time around with I Want A Lavender Cadillac, an upwardly mobile title for the company that was hoping to move up in the world itself.

But unfortunately the label and the band still had some potholes to navigate while heading down that road.


Lots Of Chrome On The Front And Back
Last month, in one of the final rock releases on Columbia, King and Baker had collaborated on Good Daddy, a record in which Baker outshone King’s band and proved to any doubters that she had stardom in her future.

Of course the fact that people hadn’t sensed this earlier, or at least her go without any constraints on record, was a shame, but then again her other efforts had been on RCA, another major label with no affinity for rock ‘n’ roll so you can see how all of her work was bound to be unnecessarily compromised by both label’s affinity for sticking with outdated arrangements.

Sadly that’s the case here as well, for while it may have been recorded at a time when the OKeh line was being prepared, their mindset was still adhering to Columbia’s conservative views, although it does raise the question as to whether that was Kessler’s doing or Maurice King himself, a very talented bandleader but one who had made his name on being able to play classy as well as down and dirty.

On I Want A Lavender Cadillac the Wolverines have been housebroken for the most part, providing a big band horn sound that is totally inappropriate here. It’s not even good jazz, more like pop-infused jazz, completely undercutting Baker, the overall story and the attitude conveyed in the lyrics which should’ve combined to make this a classic.

We’ve detailed the symbolic cultural importance of the Cadillac in the past, particularly as it related to Black America in Jimmy Liggins’ immortal Cadillac Boogie and then in a song by Eddie Williams & His Brown Buddies which showed a commendable amount of daring and flaunting of societal restrictions in Red Head N’ Cadillac, so the choice here to frame this song around not just a Caddy, but one ostentatious enough to be painted lavender is genius.

Baker refers to having one like Sugar Ray… (Robinson, for those of you living in a cave, the greatest boxer ever who was the reigning Middleweight Champion when this was cut and released and who famously drove a bright pink Caddy which he parked outside his nightclub in Harlem)… and the confidence in her delivery shows this was more than just a fantasy or a pipe dream.

But because the band is so neutered Baker has to tone down her vocals to match them and when she steps aside the full horn section almost renders this impotent. The tenor sax solo starts off with a faint hint of promise before it too is corrupted. When a trumpet of all things closes the song out you realize that nobody told them that this was a new era at the company and the old shackles could be taken off.


I Want It Today
Baker’s voice and the larger message here are all that stands out about this record and if you were the kind to make snap judgments based on a lone single you’d rightly say that the “new” company was just like the old – hopelessly out of date and completely ignorant about the modern market.

Luckily things would improve for OKeh Records but not quickly enough to boost the chances of Baker being able to break through with them. You’d have loved to have seen her revisit I Want A Lavender Cadillac in a few years time with Jesse Stone running the session for Atlantic with a top notch band behind her rather than that company forcing her to do a succession of childish novelties.

But then again I suppose that’s the overriding theme of this entire affair, isn’t it? Rock ‘n’ roll didn’t succeed because of any of these record labels, big or small, old or new, but rather it succeeded in spite of those companies seemingly doing virtually everything in their power – intentionally or just out of a total lack of understanding of why this music was so potent – to destroy rock before it took over the world.

On this record they managed to do just that, but by now there were far too many rock artists recording for far too many companies to slow down the progress enough to derail the inevitable. Soon they’d all be riding Cadillacs.


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