The great Mickey “Guitar” Baker has left this mortal coil. Those who don’t know the name have almost certainly heard him sing and play on Mickey & Sylvia’s 1956 hit “Love is Strange,” and amongst numerous other accomplishments, that song endures as the breakthrough for which he is best known. It’s a glorious combination of sophistication and sexiness, and spinning it with the volume up loud is a fine memorial to a crucial and undersung figure in the formulation of rock ‘n’ roll.
To a large extent, the lasting appeal of the 1950’s rock ‘n’ roll explosion is defined in contemporary terms by a widely celebrated handful of originators and the subsequent explosion of wildcats who reacted to the sound of sweetly broken ground with worthwhile recordings of their own. One thread finds a bunch of unkempt, well-intentioned hicks succumbing to the potency of uncut rhythm and blues and combining it with the essence of their own tradition to fuse a new music that conquered the world.
Another storyline finds scores of African-American musicians perfecting the everlasting beauty of R&B to big sales figures but little cultural fanfare; that is until a burgeoning and restless youth culture discovered it, adapted it, and in some cases diluted it for a wider marketplace, with a few savvy black musicians making the shrewd adjustments necessary to become stars themselves.
The reality of both narratives, one the tale of Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Johnny Cash, the other the story of Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Little Richard, is indeed the bulk of the original rock ‘n’ roll impulse. But it’s not the entirety of the situation, and considering it the whole of the thing is how an enormously important figure like Bill Haley gets unfairly saddled with the reputation of being perhaps rock music’s biggest square.
In the service of conciseness and clarity, history has tidied up the birth of r ‘n’ r a little too much, for it was a considerably messier conception than is generally related. Indeed, rock’s genesis encompassed hard-working dudes like Haley, weaned on Western Swing and playing countess low-paying gigs, and adapting material from the likes of Big Joe Turner in hopes of scoring a hit single and pocketing an increase in spending cash.
It was the sound of street corner vocal groups that hit big unexpectedly and were then abruptly added to package tours to sate the desires of a newfound audience, their services just as quickly kicked aside when follow-up recordings proved unsuccessful. It was also the ceaselessly suave music of Fats Domino, a man whose popularity greatly increased with the development of rock ‘n’ roll, even though he did essentially nothing to change a style that had been slaying them in and around New Orleans for the better part of a decade.
And it also encompassed the work of Mickey Baker, a troubled kid who first picked up a guitar with the hopes of a career in jazz, his path eventually landing him the fruitful role of an R&B session musician. If a list compiling his complete work for labels like Atlantic, King, RCA, Decca, OKeh, and Savoy exists, I’ve not been privy to it. Suffice it to say that he recorded a ton, and his playing graces such mammoth monsters as The Drifters’ “Money Honey,” Ruth Brown’s “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean,” Big Joe Turner’s “Shake Rattle and Roll,” and Louis Jordan’s “Caldonia.” Those four songs cover a lot of subtle territory; doo-wop brilliance, femme-voiced uptown glory, gutbucket roadhouse oomph, and large-band jump blues majesty.
So, along with faultless fingers, a big part of Baker’s bag was diversity and adaptability. But that’s not what brought him fame. The trick that did it was the forming of Mickey & Sylvia, a duo that scored an R&B smash in 1956 with “Love is Strange,” hitting #1 with authority. The song also climbed to #11 on the pop chart, and thanks to its inclusion on the soundtrack to a campy ‘80s movie, it remains beloved by millions right up to this very second.
Not that there is anything wrong with that. For “Love is Strange” is an immensely great tune, loaded with Baker’s prickly, stinging yet fleet string business, the modest smoothness of his singing voice entering into a rich dialogue with that of Sylvia Vanderpool (better known to many as Sylvia Robinson, the founder of groundbreaking hip-hop label Sugar Hill Records) the two outlining the inexhaustible ins and outs of love’s pageantry.
But it’s also very interesting in how it flips the script on a recurring theme in the saga of early rock ‘n’ roll. Said theme is that of sanitization, finding Haley cleaning up the rascally smuttiness of Joe Turner and Elvis making digestible for widespread consumption, a blues tradition that spanned back before the Mississippi Delta. It was an atmosphere where Hank Ballard and the Midnighters endured a reign of obscurity due to censorship and the walking atrocity that is Pat Boone ruined many a song for the needs of the milquetoast.
Mickey & Sylvia were something quite different however, not an instance of cleaning up in order to cash in or a case of a song being simply too huge to not cross over, but instead an attempt to expand upon the era’s well established stream of pop sophistication. Specifically, Baker was targeting the enormously successful sound of Les Paul and Mary Ford.
What he and Sylvia came up with was definitely classy, and additionally a prime example of the sort of routine studio professionalism that makes whole big hunks of the decade’s music so appealing, but it’s also a very sexy number, giving the lie to the notion that mass audiences of the time were petrified of anything with a libido and a hot beat. Many a car window was fogged up during this period (‘twas the baby boom after all) and it’s certain “Love is Strange” was playing over crackly AM radios during quite a few of those steamy instances.
If the grand execution was uniquely Baker’s with Vanderpool’s lovely contribution sealing the deal, the song was in fact based on a guitar riff by Jody Williams, another ‘50s studio vet best known as an associate of Bo Diddley. There was indeed some dispute over the authorship of both the music and lyrics, and Sir Bo’s version, recorded earlier in ’56 but unreleased until decades later, is but one swell feather in the man’s eternally swanky cap. But under Mickey & Sylvia’s direction, it was a tune with enough sass and spark to score big with the upstart rock ‘n’ roll crowd, while also being urbane enough that less-uptight grownups could dig and maybe even make out to it, a double-whammy that succeeded because it wasn’t the slightest bit contrived.
Baker didn’t explore the Paul/Ford model because he thought it a surefire path to an R&B #1, since by ’56 that duo’s chart dominance was largely over. No, he chose it because it suited his personality, thinking his own spin on the idea would prove worthwhile. Along the way it would hopefully shift a few units. And it certainly did. But in the process Baker brought some welcome erudition to the early rock landscape, helping to diversify what was already a pretty broad field.
And the flipside, “I’m Going Home” is a very nice hunk of mid-tempo R&B action, featuring strong tandem vocals and a swell if too brief flash of Baker’s grand guitar soloing that’s punctuated with some typically unfussy sax. While Mickey & Sylvia would revisit to the formula of “Love is Strange” with frequency over the next few years, “I’m Going Home” proves they had some range. The early r ‘n’ r listenership was pretty demanding of bold statements though, and the pair’s first hit was their biggest by a wide margin.
But if Baker had rock ‘n’ roll in his bloodstream, it wasn’t the only card up his sleeve. He released a pretty terrific solo LP of highly virtuosic yet scrappy instrumentals titled The Wildest Guitar in ’59 for Atlantic, tackling everything from movie themes to Cole Porter to a handful of his own bluesy originals, and shortly after Mickey & Sylvia called it quits he relocated to France, where he took on occasional session work and returned to playing jazz. He even studied composition and theory with the Greek Modern Classical master Iannis Xenakis.
While it’s tempting to pay tribute to Baker by detailing the rewards of The Wildest Guitar or by spotlighting one of the lesser known Mickey & Sylvia singles, after some thought neither of those possibilities feel right. Sometimes the best way to celebrate a great artist is by simply giving praise to the work for which they are most well known.
The enduring spirit found in the grooves of “Love is Strange” might seem nearly ubiquitous, but it’s also the reason why so many of us listen to music and collect records in the first place, and to extol its virtues and listen a few more times feels like the finest way to remember the life of Mickey “Guitar” Baker. Try it and see.
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