Mickey Baker always wanted to play jazz, but will be remembered for laying down some of the fundamentals of rock and roll guitar. He fled a hard-knock upbringing in a Louisville brothel, landed in New York City, and tried to cut it playing jazz… except Baker didn’t know how to play an instrument. He learned fast—on a $14 pawn shop guitar—and was smart to spot a trend. He set jazz aside and ended playing on some of the most legendary early rock and roll tracks: Big Joe Turner’s “Shake Rattle & Roll,” Ray Charles’ “Mess Around,” Ruth Brown’s “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean,” and many more. As a session player, Baker didn’t gain notoriety like his contemporaries Chuck Berry or Bo Diddley, but in 1957, he had a hit with his own group, Mickey & Sylvia. That song was “Love Is Strange.”
Baker’s style as a blues guitarist was marked off by his tone, which burst with expression. One can make out the sensitivity and subtly of Baker’s fingers on the guitar during particularly trembling vibratos or leap-of-faith slides up the neck. He experimented with delays and double tracking early on, and some of those Mickey & Sylvia tracks sound like house-rockin’, less precious takes on Les Paul & Mary Ford’s spiffy hits. In spite of the “guitar” nickname, Baker sang, too. Unlike his wild guitar playing that got him the gigs during the ‘50s and ‘60s, his voice was clean and clear-headed. Although the two supposedly hated each other, Mickey’s harmonies with Sylvia are perhaps more stunning and beautiful than Baker’s charged solos.
Sick of the grind, Baker moved to France in the early ‘60s and has since kept a relatively low profile. He lent his American edge to a few ye-ye projects (Francoise Hardy, Chantal Goya), but Baker’s wound-up-tight sound cooled off a bit, his bluesy-tinge veering more toward the jazz sound he wanted to play in the first place. Baker died yesterday in his home near Toulouse, France. He was 87 years old. words/a spoto