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KING 4556; JULY 1952


Here’s an interesting question… do you think any of the bandleaders and record labels who have employed LaVern Baker were even vaguely aware of her immense talent?

On one hand the answer should seem to be an obvious YES! They had to realize it, that’s why so many kept hiring her despite a string of disappointing commercial returns.

Yet on the other hand none of the them have provided her with an even halfway appropriate arrangement on any of her records thereby almost ensuring she’s not going to break through to audiences when the bands sound five or ten years out of date no matter how good Baker herself comes across.

Unsurprisingly she falls prey to the same fate here but once more her own abilities almost make up for the tame outdated sound the band saddles her with in another idea gone awry.


Come Knocking At Your Door
This has to be one of the longest, most drawn out roads to mega-success in rock history and we’re not really even close to her breakout hit yet.

Now in the relatively near future the aesthetic returns will drastically improve, but as of right now – seven singles on four notable labels over four years – LaVern Baker has been the best feature on each of her releases, but so far none of the records have backed her with anything worthy of her.

Talk about needlessly sabotaging someone’s career, as if the poor arranging choices by a succession of high quality bands wasn’t enough, she hasn’t even been able to use her own name until now!

Here they at least seem to be Trying to do her right, as Baker at least gets credited properly (even though she’s still second billed to Todd Rhodes), but when Rhodes and company treat this like a session for someone from 1946 you wonder if somebody in the great beyond had it in for her.

Of course, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by this considering it was a cover of a current pop tune by The Hilltoppers. We should point out that on that record the vocals, especially by lead singer Jimmy Sacca, are virtually mapping out the entire late 1950’s “young pop” style which fused a lite-rock ‘n’ roll image to what was essentially an adult pop mentality, thereby blurring the lines between the two constituencies. Thanks to an inordinate amount of promotion and willing accomplices in the radio biz who hoped to snuff out more authentic rock ‘n’ roll in the process, that approach actually managed to become a viable commercial rival to rock at the time and it’s not a stretch to say it began with The Hilltoppers scoring a Top Ten hit with this.

That’s nothing to brag about obviously, but it does give you some idea of what Baker and company were being asked to do here, which may result in your being relieved that they don’t fully succeed, otherwise who knows how much more of this we might’ve had to endure over the next few years?


Trying To Impress You
It’s a pretty sad state of affairs when Todd Rhodes’ veteran band, the same band who released one of the earliest and best rock instrumentals and has been a fairly reliable group ever since, cuts a track for this which is somehow MORE GENTEEL than the one behind The Hilltoppers.

That’s a bit like having two movies come out in 1952 and the one starring 79 year old Ethel Barrymore is far sexier than the one starring 26 year old bombshell Marilyn Monroe.

Luckily, despite their ill-conceived lush arrangement, LaVern Baker is really Trying to pour her heart and soul into this, giving it a dramatic reading that deviates slightly from The Hilltoppers version, as theirs contained more lighthearted sincerity than Baker who seems genuinely distraught over the breakup the song describes.

It’s not quite a pop performance, though it leans in that direction at times, as she at least emphasizes the emotional qualities of her voice, squeezing every last drop of heartache out of her soul as she goes along.

It is technically impressive and emotionally compelling even if it comes across as more calculating than The Hilltoppers original in the process. Since there’s absolutely no musical merit beyond simply the quiet professionalism of the playing itself, then the record has to stand or fall on its lyrical contents – which describes hopeful longing in a determined, but hardly clever way – and on Baker’s performance itself.

Where you come down on her interpretation is therefore largely going to determine your receptiveness to this. If you find her a little too melodramatic for your tastes you’d have no reservations in saying it’s below average as a rock release for 1952, especially because the band isn’t adding anything to this at all.

Yet if you feel Baker has a good grasp on the material and the deliberate, but pleasant, melody then you’d be more inclined to sort of overlook the flaws and marvel at the sterling voice itself.

Either way though it’s not a feast or famine situation. Baker can only do so much here to elevate it and Rhodes can’t completely sink it which means that it’s bound to elicit very few strong opinions one way or another.


No Use Trying To Forget You
The ongoing commercial – and to a degree, critical – limbo that LaVern Baker finds herself in has to be a source of frustration for those who keep giving her chances, even though their piss-poor decisions as to how to present her are responsible for her being in that limbo in the first place.

On stage in Detroit’s notorious Flame Bar, which is where Motor City native Rhodes became aware of her, Baker was a dynamo and on paper seemed to be the right singer to take the mantle from their best female vocalist, Kitty Stevenson, who passed away last month.

In time Baker would become a well-respected star, but for now she was merely Trying to earn some widespread kudos for her talents if nothing else.

This doesn’t hurt her cause any, affirming what we already knew in that she has untold potential waiting to be brought out better, but while we’ll be generous and say this reaches the level of an average release for rock ‘n’ roll at this juncture, the fact it’s not as representative for rock in 1952 as The Hilltoppers’ original version is for pop.

Truthfully theirs may even beat this on merit with no genre distinction as well and while she’s not to blame that’s still hardly the kind of headline that would help LaVern Baker reach her goal any time soon.


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