Mickey Baker - musician - Toulouse, France
© Jim Herrington
The voice on the other end of the line repeats my name: “Mr. Herrrrrington… that’s English, isn’t it?” I’m hunched over a pay phone in the Barcelona train station talking to Mickey Baker, guitarist extraordinaire, and I’m plugging Euros into the slot as fast as possible to keep the connection going - a connection that with three years of effort has been rather difficult to make.
Mickey Baker lives in southern France, in a small village outside of Toulouse, and advance word was that “he doesn’t talk to anybody” and “he won’t talk to you” and “he’ll want money up front if he decides he’ll talk to you… but he won’t talk to you.” I had heard these words in the States, via friends in London, before I left for a month-long trip to Europe, and I’d already been in Spain for two weeks before finally getting the gumption to call the alleged recluse. Initially, I was hesitant to call; I wanted to get the wording just right to sell him my idea of photographing and interviewing him before he slammed the phone down in my ear.
Yet here I was, amongst the din of ten thousand heat-seeking tourists, coinage poised to slot, and having a dandy conversation with the man, right off the bat. “C’mon up,” he says, with nary a reference to any palm greasing.
But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. Who, you may ask, is Mickey Baker? You may not know the name, but you’ve undoubtedly been wowed by his guitar skills. In fact, if you play guitar at all, you’ve most likely been greatly influenced by his playing, either directly from hearing his own recordings or from hearing the records of someone else who had. A look at the short list of his session work—Ray Charles’ “Mess Around” and “It Should Have Been Me,” Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” Amos Milburn’s “One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer” and Ruth Brown’s “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean,” in addition to songs by Ivory Joe Hunter, the Clovers, the Coasters, Louis Jordan, Joe Clay, LaVern Baker, the Drifters, the Moonglows, Champion Jack Dupree, Nappy Brown and Big Maybelle—suggests that his guitar was heard nonstop on the radio from 1949 until the late ‘50s.
And that was just his session work. The 1957 hit “Love Is Strange,” recorded during his Mickey & Sylvia era, got him closest to becoming a household name. In addition, his late-‘50s solo instrumental records are masterpieces of reverb-soaked, double-tracked and occasionally jazzy, mambo-influenced guitar frenzy.
The man behind the sunglasses, standing in the crowded Toulouse train station, bears little resemblance to the gent on those Mickey & Sylvia album covers—he’s 82 now, heavier and walking with a cane—but you’d have to be blind not to pick him out of the crowd as the only American guitar legend present. His wife Mary is with him, and they whisk me out of the station and toward their home, with Mary behind the wheel of their Peugeot.
The Mickey Baker story begins in 1925 in Louisville, Kentucky. His grandmother operated a brothel there and she employed her 12-year-old daughter as one of the available girls. One day in early 1925, as Baker tells it, a Scots-Irish piano player stopped in, played some piano in the parlor and, taking a fancy to the 12-year-old, took her upstairs. Nine months later, Mickey Baker popped out.
When Baker was 11 his mother apparently killed someone, he got passed around a lot, changing homes and staying with “uncles.” There was always plenty of turmoil for young Mickey. He ran away often—heading east every time—but was always caught and taken back to Louisville. Finally, when he was 16, he made it to his destiny. He had done his homework this time; he’d been reading the Hobo News and understood the trains. This time, he was going and not coming back.
Hiding in a filthy coal car, he arrived in Union City, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from Manhattan, in late afternoon. Seeing the immense metropolis from his perch of coal, he thought, “What am I ever going to do with this?” He jumped train and after washing the black coal dust off in the river, he got a lift into Manhattan on a truck delivering oranges. He promptly broke into a store that night, stole a carton of cigarettes and sold them for spending money. It was a start.
He spent four years bumming around Harlem, doing a little hustling and some pimping, and he made a few bucks as a pool shark. None of it fit well. When he was 20, Baker walked into a pawnshop, intent on buying a trumpet. Most of the black guys in New York wanted to be Louis Armstrong, basically, and play jazz. The Southern style of gutbucket blues was too barnyard, too rural. The blues reminded Baker of Louisville, and, what’s more, there didn’t seem to be any money in it in New York. He preferred Armstrong, Benny Goodman and Woody Herman. He pointed to a trumpet on the wall of the pawnshop.
“$30,” came the reply.
“Uh, how much for this other one?”
After Baker looked at all of the trumpets in stock—and wasn’t able to afford any of them—the pawnshop owner said, “I think I have just the instrument for you.” He went down to the basement and came back up with a scrappy, disheveled guitar with a hole in the back and said, “I’ll let you have this for $14.”
Baker took that guitar, and within a few years—without any formal training—he not only had began his incredible string of session work, but also wrote the first of his Complete Course for Jazz Guitar books. “I wrote those before I really even knew how to play,” he confesses, even though every major guitar player in the ‘50s and ‘60s (and countless thousands of others) has at least taken a passing glance at them, if not studied them religiously. A man to the instrument born.
There was a time early in his New York days when the band he was with, attempting a Charlie Parker vibe, wasn’t quite making it, and Baker split for California, more out of frustration than anything. One night a girl took him to see Pee Wee Crayton’s band, and Baker’s predilection for jazz was tested. Seeing the crowd go crazy for Crayton’s brand of R&B-tinged jump blues made Baker, the ex-street hustler, think, “I can do this.” He got a job at Del Monte packing tomatoes and, as soon as he could buy a bus ticket, headed back to New York - this time with slightly different musical ideas.
After a 20-minute drive, Mary guides the car up the driveway of their modest but comfortable home at the end of a cul-de-sac. If the French did suburban ranch homes, this would be one of them. The small cement statue of Bathsheba, with her legs cut off, buried in the front yard, lets you know that you aren’t in Kentucky anymore.
At this point, Mickey Baker has lived in France longer than he lived in the States. He moved to Paris in the early ‘60s, like many other black jazz and blues players who were soured by the racial situation in America. He speaks of the Mickey & Sylvia days more with disdain than anything; he had a top hit on the radio, played sold-out shows all over the country and appeared on TV, yet he would still have to watch what he said and where he went, eat only at certain restaurants and stay only at certain black-friendly hotels. He’d “made it” in the music business, but only as far as a black man was allowed to make it in those days. Bullshit, he thought, I’m out of here…
No doubt, those final years of the ‘50s were the culmination of his American achievements. He’d met a young Sylvia Robinson a few years earlier, in 1954, when he’d backed her up on an early Cat Records release (she was known as Little Sylvia then). She also became his guitar student, and that’s how they performed together onstage, both up front at the mic with guitars, Mickey playing those devastating licks, Sylvia playing rhythm, and the two of them singing infectious, flirty harmonies. The idea was to try a Les Paul/Mary Ford thing, but Mickey & Sylvia found their own original sound soon enough. Later, they got signed by Rainbow Records and then to an RCA spin-off label called Groove, where they had their biggest success with “Love Is Strange.”
During most of the ‘50s, Baker had also been recording some of the coolest instrumental guitar records of all time. “Guitar Mambo” and “Riverboat” were recorded a mere seven years after he first touched a guitar. Using loads of reverb, echo and double-tracked guitar techniques, these records pushed the boundaries of the studio guitar sound, much like his hero, Les Paul, had been doing. The songs run the gamut from early R&B and jump blues to, as time went on, more jazz-inflected and mambo-flavored tunes, but always with an edge, an incredible tone and his unmistakable style.
Baker takes me into his house, and Mary brings me tea in the living room. I look over to discover his classical guitar and reams of sheet music. He’s been interested in classical music for some time: Bach fugues and, lately, “Mickey fugues”. His playing has recently deteriorated (in his words), so he’s taken in a young player who originally wanted to learn the blues from Baker, but has been realigned into a classical-guitar prodigy who plays and records Baker’s compositions. (“He would’ve never been able to play the blues,” Baker says. “Just didn’t have it.”)
More than anything these days, Mickey loves to read, and it shows… his bookshelves are stacked with volumes about ancient Roman history, psychology, art and architecture. He’s a forward-looking man, but I guess he’s always been. He’s happy enough that the music he made has excited people, but he seems more interested in talking about other kinds of history, hanging out with his wife and generally relaxing and enjoying life.
Mickey Baker never asked me to pay him, and after a day spent at his house I departed back to the train station. When I arrived back in Barcelona late at night I had to punch a gypsy in the face to avoid losing my Leica camera… the one that still had the Mickey film in it, but that’s another story…
Text and photo © Jim Herrington
Originally written for Fretboard Journal Magazine