We’ve already met the beautiful teenage temptress Sylvia Vanderpool on a series of records where her talent far outstripped the songs and musical backing she was given, so now I suppose it’s about time we formally meet the guy who will eventually give her the kind of accompaniment she needed to excel as down the road the two will form one of rock’s most indelible duos.

That’s a few years away however, and for the record we’ve already heard the guitar work of Mickey Baker while playing sessions for a few different acts, but seeing as this is his first single under his own name we can finally delve into somebody who, even to this day, remains not all that well known, but who might just be the greatest guitarist of the 1950’s and definitely in the running for the most skilled in rock history.

If that doesn’t pique your interest, I don’t know what the hell will.


Leaving The Docks
All things considered, Mickey Baker did not want to rock ‘n’ roll, did not want to be a star, did not even want to be the credited artist on records, so I guess you could say that from this point forward, when judging him based on those goals, he was an utter failure.

In every other way however he was a terrific success.

Baker’s main love was jazz and though he got a late start at it he was really good, really quickly. Yet he found in the early 1950’s that jazz guitarists earned approximately the same amount of money as garbage collectors, movie theater ushers and short-order cooks at drive-in restaurants.

So reluctantly he turned to session work playing rock for a variety of New York based labels, one of which was Savoy (New Jersey really, but who’s keeping track?). He may not have gotten much chance to stretch out in those arrangements, but it was obvious to someone in the room that he had more ability than was ever going to be allowed to bloom on somebody else’s records, so they offered him his own release.

Whether or not he was truly conflicted by this, as it was clear they were hoping he’d aim things squarely at the rock market which had the most potential sales, or if he was just griping about it down the road to save face among his snooty jazz friends, isn’t clear, but keep in mind that Baker didn’t just play a rock song here, he was the one who wrote Riverboat to begin with.

Okay, so maybe it’s not the most blatantly rocking track you’ll ever hear, but this was someone who more or less had to be talked into this brand of music and remember that in 1952 rock guitar, outside of a handful of far-flung releases, was still largely uncharted territory. So taken that way, this effort, showing a whimsical sense of daring, was a harbinger of things to come for the genre as a whole, not to mention Baker’s soon to be formidable reputation.

Smooth Sailing
However much faith Savoy Records had in Mickey Baker’s abilities – and more pointedly, his ability to attract jukebox spins – they were not quite ready to back that up with something more substantial… like a contract filled with loopholes that Herman Lubinsky could use to avoid paying him.

Instead they “let” Baker cut two instrumentals of his own on the back of an August session for Florence Wright which had been convened with the solo purpose of rushing out a cover of I Went To Your Wedding, a current pop smash that ironically Baker’s future partner Sylvia Vanderpool was also cutting around this time.

Because they just wanted to get that one song done, they were lucky to have another tune for the B-side, but did NOT have two other songs to make for the standard four cuts in three hours session. Since they were paying the band (which includes old friend Hal Singer on sax) for that regardless of how many tracks they actually committed to wax, they called on Baker to contribute two of his own.

But whether he came in with Riverboat already worked out, or just dreamed it up on the fly, the result is pretty impressive even if it probably isn’t too commercial in this day and age.

The intro – saxes and guitar huffing in unison – creates a vibrant wall of sound before the horns recede somewhat and provide just a moody backing rhythm for Baker’s guitar which plays some mesmerizing licks, slicing through the speakers and giving off the sense it’s attacking you, yet doing so at a relatively leisurely pace which is a nice contrast.

Though the individual licks themselves aren’t all familiar, the tone and style certainly is… for those of us in the present who’ve immersed ourselves in the music that followed this. But in 1952 I wonder how it would’ve been received had it been more widely heard. The sound itself is melodic and alluring and the way in which it surges forward and then falls back shows a really good sense of dynamics.

Considering who’s playing sax we’d have liked an interlude that let Singer get some of the spotlight but we get the organ instead… an unexpected choice but one that can’t help but dim your enthusiasm just a little because it’s got no overdrive to shift into coming out of that break.

Still, it’s a good arrangement and Baker is never anything but confident in what he plays, never trying to show how “good” he is in a technical sense by throwing in jazz riffs, but nevertheless proving that skill transcends style because of how well-judged each of his choices in the rock context are.

The result is a really good instrumental that will have trouble finding traction in a market not used to these types of records. Without more of an addictive groove or a repeating riff that sticks in your mind it might be rather transitory by nature, but while it’s playing – whether at a party or alone in your room – it’s not anything someone would want to turn away from.


Send Him Up The River
Despite the lack of commercial success of this release, it still is an important record in the sense that it gets Mickey Baker’s name in the public’s eye, not to mention makes him even more recognizable to record companies seeking the best musicians to give their artists the right musical platform to try and launch their own hits.

Though Baker has been a frequent presence on records this past summer, appearing on Varetta Dillard’s big hit, as well as cuts by Eddie Mack and Hal Singer among others, Riverboat marks his arrival in rock ‘n’ roll as a major player on the scene. Ironically he’ll remain largely BEHIND the scenes in terms of receiving credit for that work, but from this point forward, at least when it comes to East Coast rock ‘n’ roll, Baker’s contributions will be more and more vital with each passing month.

We’ve talked countless times about shifts in the rock landscape, usually the result of major hits in a new style, be it Johnny Ace this past summer, The Dominoes back in the winter of 1951 or Ruth Brown a few months earlier, or The Orioles in the summer of 1948, all of which added new wrinkles to the dominant sounds of the day, inevitably leading to others trying to capitalize on them.

Here Micky Baker gives us something new that will have serious repercussions for generations to come. No, he wasn’t the first in rock to dazzle us with a guitar (that’d be George Freeman), nor was he the first to make the guitar the centerpiece of his entire sound (Goree Carter is the one who did that), but with this – and concurrent side-work for others – Baker showed how the guitar can be utilized to give so many more added textures to records if only the producers would let someone talented stretch out a bit.

Others may have stretched out a LOT more in the ensuing decades than is shown here, but these are crucial steps leading to that inevitability and even if he hadn’t contributed to tons of hits after this, Mickey Baker would deserve to be remembered for this modest single which helped to give rock yet another option going forward.


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