Artist: LaVern Baker
- Delores Williams
- Little Miss Sharecropper
- Bea Baker
From: Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A.
Song: ‘Bumble Bee’
While listening for years to the songs recommended to DJ Vick-oi! at Kult DIY, I’ve rarely looked into the deeper history of them or the artists until now.
In the case of LaVern Baker, a black woman trying to make it in a white male dominated music industry known for not giving any artist a good deal at the best of times and appropriating the work of those perceived unable to protest, I present Exhibits A and B: LaVern’s ‘Hey Memphis’ and Elvis Presley’s ‘Little Sister’ both 1961.
Most songs featured in this series were first heard played by DJs, whereas it was The Rapiers at The Star in Croydon circa 85/86 who first introduced me to ‘Bumble Bee’.
The Rapiers—a band I later booked more than once to play the now long gone ‘Nitespot’ on the Walworth Road (it was a Pizza Hut last time I passed in the 90s) and who are also still going (Facebook)—are specifically a British rock ‘n’ roll covers band, so when they played ‘Bumble Bee’ it was the Billy Fury version I was directed to; which made sense, though I don’t think the person pointing me there realised it was LaVern’s chorus being sung (varying versions have the bumble bee as evil, female and in the case of Fury no bee is mentioned, the chorus instead being used for lamenting misery and telling people to bog off).
Was LaVern victim of having her music ripped off on both sides of the (ironic given her label) Atlantic?
It turns out the above Exhibits are, if anything, more a case of LaVern ripping off Elvis: ‘Hey Memphis’ being a direct reply to ‘Little Sister’ after Presley mentioned ‘Jim Dandy’—perhaps Baker’s most widely known recording (1956)—in his song.
As for ‘Bumble Bee’, while Baker’s was the first version released, it wasn’t the first recorded. Instead of giving a deal to the band responsible (The Tads), Atlantic decided to have LaVern record it instead. Not only that, Baker’s name appeared on the label as a writer, meaning she claimed a fifty percent writing royalty; this blatant lie was corrected on later pressings to give Leroy Fullylove his full due (on which note, much thanks to SecondHandSongs for this information).
Baker’s recording career is extensive, including eight albums from 1956 to 1970. Songs can be found ranging in theme from the pious and devout ‘Saved’ 1961 (the album of the same name featuring ‘Bumble Bee’) to the debauched and filthy 1966 ‘Think Twice’ duet with Jackie Wilson that technically isn’t a release but a survived outtake now thankfully uploaded to YouTube as it’s one of the greatest recordings ever (warning: explicit!!!).
After her second divorce in 1969, Baker signed up with the USO for a trip to . . . Vietnam. There, she caught bronchial pneumonia. Recovering at a US naval base in the Philippines, it was suggested LaVern remain on as director of entertainment at the Marine Corps Staff NCO club.
Baker was there for 22 years, only leaving the position when the base closed in 1988.
So . . . apparently more establishment than exploited by it!
LaVern jumped right back into things in the US appearing at Madison Square Garden for Atlantic’s 40th anniversary (also 1998); from there she worked on numerous film soundtracks, including Shag , Dick Tracy and A Rage in Harlem. A Broadway debut came in 1990’s Black and Blue.
In 1992, LaVern recorded a brand new studio album Woke Up This Morning. Due to diabetes, she lost both legs to amputation in 1994. Despite this, she continued performing live, and made her final recording, a track for the Harry Nilsson tribute album, in 1995 (below).
LaVern Baker passed away March 10th 1997, at the age of 67. R.I.P.. Her final resting place was in New York, where she was buried in an unmarked plot until local history enthusiasts raised money for a headstone in 2008.
Thanks for reading 🙂
N. P. Ryan
To receive notifications of future posts of poetry—be they happy, sarcastic or sad—music history and reviews, the odd bit of this and that plus the occasional stab at promoting my books, please enter an email address below.