Here are a few questions that Mickey Baker may have been asking himself when he was given the chance to cut two instrumentals to come out under his own name in late summer 1952… an opportunity he was not looking for, but not going to turn down either.

Should I give Savoy Records the kind of catchy rocker they want even if it’s not what I want, just to appease them and increase my chances for a hit?

If I give them that and do get a hit, is that something I’ll be happy about, or – like Hal Singer standing next to me who did that very thing for this same label five years ago – will its success haunt me and force me into playing a kind of music I’d rather avoid for the rest of my existence?

If I DON’T give them exactly what they’re hoping for, how can I still appease them without compromising my musical identity?

Finally, should I just ask to go to the restroom and climb out the window and not return their calls anymore?

We don’t have the answers to all of those questions, but as always we excel at speculation.


Here’s What’s Trending
One of the characteristics of pop music in this era was the industry’s fascination with fads, particularly those whose very nature could be passed off as exotic because they emanated from foreign cultures.

The mambo was one of the more popular and longer lasting trends to infiltrate mainstream music, yet oddly enough didn’t really influence it much outside that. In other words, mambo records, while quite popular, weren’t contributing elements to be widely taken up in non-mambo oriented music.

Because it was a reliable seller in the early fifties though, record companies were always quick to approve songs like Guitar Mambo, because the mere presence of the word itself in the title gave records a built-in selling point that would overcome a weaker composition or uninteresting performance.

I suppose this record qualifies as both of those things, certainly for rock fans who were only going to get brief glimpses of what they were after here.

However, considering that Mickey Baker’s career as a lead artist was not something he was even sure about pursuing yet and surely didn’t want to be locked into rock ‘n’ roll in the process, then a song like this – containing elements of rock, but also jazz while being able to be housed under a popular brand of music largely separated from anything else and which still had commercial potential to keep Savoy happy and his own options open in the future – was probably a smart move.

That is, if what he came up with had been a little better.

Quick Hits And Broad Misses
Let’s start off by saying that it’s not as if this is bad, it’s just… a little weird.

For rock ‘n’ roll it’s really weird, maybe even barely applicable, even though there are ideas here which might work in rock if they were emphasized better. But the unusual musical framework of the song ensures that you have to look really hard to even spot them.

The easiest to find in that regard might be the stop-start hesitation move of the opening bars which gets revived later in the song to good effect. This is not anything exclusive to rock of course, but when used IN rock it’s almost always generates a powerful response as it’s specifically designed to build anticipation, drama and intensity while being the perfect launching pad for a more explosive passage that follows.

But on Guitar Mambo there’s nothing explosive which follows it, thereby curtailing whatever momentum that little gimmick had provided. Instead what comes next is more curious than compelling, sort of a bachelor pad track that is interesting enough to hold your attention the first time through without being something you’d really want to go back to again outside of that context.

The lead lines of Mickey Baker are well played as you’d expect and some of the tonal qualities he features are going to play a prominent role in rock down the line, but when surrounded by the billowing organ notes and the choppy drumming pattern it takes on an otherworldly quality that throws off your senses as a rock fan who expect something more compact and straightforward.

We’d love him to expand on some of the ideas he shows here and see where they might lead if they were his sole aim. Bring back that hook he casually throws in at the 45 second mark where he slurs the notes and use that as punctuation for each passage, or extend the next riff where he employs a thin tone which has a desolate sound like a wire fence in the wind of a West Texas prairie. Songs built around such things would certainly have more intrigue than the total package he gives us here.

To do any of this however he’d have to radically alter the entire arrangement, shift the instrumental support to more traditional ones for rock to give it the structure it’d require to highlight those things and as a result he’d have to dumb things down considerably.

But that would defeat the purpose of a song like this and so even though we don’t approve of the goal of this exercise, we can’t find fault with his intentions.


Training Days
A lot of times instrumentals like this, wherein a sideman is given a chance to lay down a few things of their own at the end of a session, takes on these kind of characteristics, where you throw a lot of things at the wall, be it different instruments moving to the forefront along the way, or the lead instrument trying a wide array of techniques to show off their versatility without any of it really coalescing into a coherent song.

Mickey Baker is somewhat guilty of that with Guitar Mambo, though the mambo rhythm he uses means it’s less noticeable as people have a tendency to pass it off as representative of that style more than a case of not coming up with a tightly conceived song in the first place.

Still, despite not being anything to recommend to a rock fan, it IS helpful that a rock fan knows where Baker is coming from, what he’s capable of when it comes to finding different approaches and how his mind works when trying to piece them together.

Here there are too many things being thrown in the pot, all of which gets obscured by the primary goal which is the exotic mambo atmosphere they’re pushing. But even if you find the end result to be easily dismissible as a record, you’d have to be intentionally obstinate not to recognize the playing ability of the guy with the guitar in his hands who in the right environment could bring a lot to the rock ‘n’ roll table.


(Visit the Artist page of Mickey “Guitar” Baker for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)