Born: October 15, 1925 | Died: November 27, 2012 Primary Instrument: Guitar, electric
Mickey Baker has a well deserved reputation as an influential guitar player primarily through his studio session work for Atlantic in the 1950’s, and in the fusing of R&B with the then new rock and roll.
Mickey Guitar Baker entered the world in Louisville, Kentucky, on October 15, 1925. During his formative years he led a troubled life which saw him spending time in a reform school and a home for troubled children. By the time he was sixteen years old he had migrated to New York City and became part of the anonymous crowded area of Harlem. He continued to find himself in and out of compromising positions that were very close to leading him to a life as a professional thief, or worse. Somewhere around his twentieth birthday he discovered the guitar and it held his interest in a new and exciting way. He decided he would like to master this instrument and become a well thought of musician. Surprisingly enough, he found that he had a good ear for music even though he had never had a moment of formal training in the field. With constant practice he developed an interesting style of blues and jazz and also had a feel for Latin sounds that he had heard on the streets of the city. Enlarging his circle of friends and acquaintances had the effect of developing his reputation as a budding master of his instrument.
By 1949 he had become known for his musical prowess on the guitar and his diverse styles that he had mastered. He began to get session work for a number of R & B labels such as King, Savoy, and Aladdin, and even found work on Latin mambo sessions in the mid 1950s. By mid 1952 he was highly thought of enough to record under his own name. In September of that year Savoy Records released the songs Mambola and River Boat. In November Savoy rereleased River Boat but this time had a different rendition of the original tune Mambola which this time was re-named Guitar Mambo. At year's end Savoy releases Baker's version of Don Howard's country / pop hit song Oh Happy Day which was coupled with Love Me Baby.
During 1953 Mickey Baker became part of the Atlantic Records house band under the usual direction of Jesse Stone who backed up that label's growing stable of top R & B performers such as Joe Turner, Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker, Ray Charles, and vocal groups such as Clyde McPhatter & The Drifters and The Cardinals. By the spring of 1954, Atlantic Records launched a subsidiary label called Cat Records and made a move toward a more pop music sound combined with R & B. Sh-Boom by The Chords was the big seller for the label but one of the early releases for the label was the songs Speedy Life and Fine Love by a vocalist originally known as Little Sylvia and backed up by the band of Mickey Baker in what was a portent of things to come. About a month later Baker signed on with RCA Victor's new R & B label called Groove. Baker was listed as Big Red McHouston on that label, and in June released the tunes I'm Tired and Where's My Honey? both with vocals by Larry Dale.
Late in ‘54 Moondog Freed had come to New York's 50 thousand watt station WINS and truly launched the rock 'n roll era. As he readied his first stage show for early 1955 he lined up a backing orchestra and coming in highly recommended was guitarist Mickey Baker joining a band under the direction of Red Prysock.
In 1955 Baker continued his wide range of session playing for a number of labels, and in February signed on with another label as a featured artist. This time it was New York based Rainbow Records and he was now fully billed as Mickey Guitar Baker. In March Baker is also signed to Coral Records as part of a big R & B band under the name of Alan Freed. Late in that month Rainbow Records releases Shake Walking and Greasy Spoon under Baker's name and the rocking instrumental takes off thanks to heavy airplay by Freed. In April the first big mainstream Alan Freed show plays for a week at the Brooklyn Paramount Theater and breaks the box office gross record that had stood since Russ Columbo set it in 1932. Mickey Baker is on stage as part of the Red Prysock band backing up the performers. In July Rainbow Records pairs the former Cat Records duo Mickey Baker and Sylvia Vanderpool and bill them as Mickey & Sylvia for I'm So Glad and De Boom Run Dun, Also released by Rainbow records is another instrumental called Rock With A Sock which is also a good seller in the Northeast. At year's end, Mickey Baker is on stage as part of the house band at Doctor Jive's Christmas show at the Brooklyn Paramount. At this time Rainbow Records releases Mickey & Sylvia performing Forever And A Day and Rise, Sally, Rise.
In March of 1956 Baker leads the house band for a series of shows called the Rock And Roll Bandwagon presented by New Jersey dj Ramon Bruce that plays a number of dates in the garden state. In July RCA owned label Groove Records signs Mickey & Sylvia who had recorded for the now defunct Rainbow Records label. In October Baker continues his session work for Herald Records on dates with Faye Adams and Al Savage. Beginning with the monster hit Love Is Strange Mickey & Sylvia become a top R & B act for the next three years, with Baker becoming better known as a vocalist on these records rather than for his top notch guitar work. In 1957 an oddball record appeared on the MGM label by the Bill Hendricks Orchestra featuring Mickey Baker on the tunes Tricky and The Spinning Rock Boogie.
In 1959 the duo Mickey & Sylvia broke up as a performing act and Baker recorded an album for Atlantic featuring his instrumental side called The Wildest Guitar. Later in the year Atlantic Records launched a new duo called Mickey & Kitty with Ooh Sha La La and The Kid Brother, but the success could not be duplicated. In 1961 he recorded with Ike & Tina Turner for Sue Records (especially It's Gonna Work Out Fine)
In the early 1960s Baker became disgusted with the American music scene and went to France and became part of the expatriate movement among jazz and blues musicians. He made appearances in Western Europe at jazz festivals such as Montreaux and Antibes. Baker was used as a session man even there, recording with a variety of performers in both France and England. In the mid seventies he recorded a number of albums for the Black & Blue label such as The Blues In Me, Take A Look Inside and Up On The Hill. He also recorded some guitar instructional albums for Kicking Mule Records - Blues And Jazz Guitar and Blues Rock Guitar that were well received as important teaching aids.
Germany's Bear Family gave Baker's career the once over with a CD set called Rock With A Sock that covers 1952 through the late 50s including early solo sides as well as the Rainbow jump tunes, the Groove sides, and some rarities with the Mickey & Sylvia duo. It also includes some jazz cuts to round out the sound of this great performer.
Mickey Baker played on hundreds of R & B records during the fifties and he was one of the very first rock guitar gods. That's why he was given his most appropriate nickname - Guitar.
Source: JC Marion