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KING 4583; NOVEMBER 1952


It stands to reason that not every artist who will make a name for themselves in rock ‘n’ roll is going to take the same path to stardom. There are those who seem to be a finished product on their very first release while others take time to settle on a persona. But LaVern Baker is another story altogether.

There was no question that she had the vocal talent to be a star right from the start in 1949, but here we are three years – and four record labels – later and we’re still no closer to seeing her break through.

It’s not that she seems unsure of which direction to head, but rather those around her are unable to see that she’s better than they are and doesn’t need them meddling in her business.


My Tears Still Flow
The list of guilty parties when it comes to delaying LaVern Baker’s success is a long one starting with Eddie “Sugarman” Penigar, a sax player with modest ability but no real chance to become a rock star, especially recording for RCA who naturally looked down on the entire movement even as they hoped to capitalize on its growing popularity in 1949. Though Baker sounded good, the records she made with him fell flat through no fault of her own.

Then it was onto National Records, who, thanks to their involvement with The Ravens, should’ve known enough about rock by then to give Baker the proper support, including on material she herself wrote. Instead they release her singles under the name of Miss Sharecropper, a racist moniker she detested, and they back her with a band lacking fire. So the wait continues.

Next she landed at another major, Columbia, which after one release put her on their subsidiary OKeh, now reactivated after a long rest as their new outlet for rock artists. In spite of the company actually showing some genuine affinity for the music and a basic know-how that made their efforts legitimate, they make the mistake of pairing her with Maurice King’s band, whom she knew well from The Flame Show Bar where she was ensconced in Detroit. King promptly supplied her with nothing but outdated arrangements, negating any chance she had to make a better impression.

Are you sensing a trend yet?

When she made it to King Records last spring it looked as though the tide might finally turn in her favor. Though they hadn’t been clicking as much in this decade as they had at the end of the Nineteen-Forties, they were still unquestionably the top rock label in the genre’s first five years with sound production values, a thriving distribution network and in Todd Rhodes band they had a tight group who knew how to put together an arrangement in almost any style.

Unfortunately so far they kept leaning towards all the wrong styles, ones slightly out of step with the current brand of rock, something not helped by criminally poor choices when it came to material.

That’s probably why she’s asking Must I Cry Again as she finds her latest chance for relevancy upended by a band whose leader is in his fifties and might just be showing that time has caught up to him at last.

But at least he’d HAD his time to look back on. For Baker, she had to be wondering if her time would ever come.


I Suffer So
Let’s throw you for a loop and start by saying that the arrangement is precise, proficient and plausible… for a classier brand of music than rock ‘n’ roll. Remember, no one has ever doubted Todd Rhodes’ abilities, only his judgment on occasion, at least if he wanted to remain relevant in this genre as time went on.

Let’s also say that LaVern Baker sure hasn’t forgotten how to sing, as once again she shows off a stellar voice, excellent control and good emotional investment in the lyrics.

So what’s the problem THIS time?

How about everything else.

Though not our first choice for her direction, thematically we can at least tolerate Must I Cry Again, as songs of lingering hurt can be effective in a rock setting. But to do so they need better lines than Baker is forced to deliver here, because while it’s her heart that’s broken she is made to act as if she had been an outsider to the entire breakdown of the relationship in question, undermining the believability of what she’s telling us.

Why is this, you ask? C’mon, now, why do you think? Because it was a pop song for The Hilltoppers, just a month old, and as we know all too well, in the 1950’s if you want songs that only skim the surface of the emotions they claim to be mining you look to mainstream pop music which was as shallow as a puddle.

That means there’s nothing Baker can do short of slaughtering The Hilltoppers en masse which would allow her to sing this from death row in order to get the kind of poignancy it requires to be suitable for rock ‘n’ roll.

It goes without saying that she still does far more with it than The Hilltoppers ever could, as she wrings out of the words whatever moisture they have left, but when Rhodes and company seem more intent on providing music as if they were backing the pop act the song originated with, rather than the rock chanteuse that was actually standing in front of the microphone, what’s a girl to do… other than use the mic stand to bash their skulls in, I mean.

So we get more of what we’ve already gotten far too much of when it comes to LaVern Baker. A great singer showing off her voice while it’s being stuffed into a constricting arrangement that doesn’t compliment her talent on a song that is so far beneath her that if she tried to spit on it in contempt the saliva would evaporate before it ever reached the sheet music!


I’m Sure You Know
Since this is technically a Todd Rhodes record we’ll lay more of the blame on him, as he might be thinking that he’s getting a little long in the tooth to be courting a younger rock audience and thus he could be trying to age gracefully.

But if that’s the case why enlist LaVern Baker to begin with and then saddle her with boring pop material and arrangements designed to accentuate that fact rather than try and transform the songs into something more suitable for her?

Furthermore, after fifty two years in a country that has been racist to its core for that entire time, why would Rhodes think that white America was suddenly going to embrace his band, even if they were playing their kind of music, especially on a label they never heard of with a singer that was far too good to be appreciated by that audience?

Why Must I Cry Again is the right question to be asking, because they all were going to be disappointed in the outcome. Rhodes was not going to get a hit, Baker’s career was going to remain stuck in neutral, King Records were going to fall further behind the likes of Atlantic, Imperial and others who were on the upswing thanks to a more progressive outlook.

That’s a lot of unnecessary tears to be shedding over such a worthless attempt as this. But of course they have no one to blame but themselves, so don’t even bother giving them a hankie.

The ones who really suffer from this however are those who had supported them all this time and were once again being let down by yet another rock act deciding that somehow WE’RE not good enough to pursue any more.

Sorry, Lavern, once again this probably isn’t your fault, but as the saying goes, you can judge a person by the friends they keep and we gotta tell ya, it’s time you got better friends.


(Visit the Artist pages of Todd Rhodes and LaVern Baker for the complete archives of their respective records reviewed to date)