Home » Jazz Musicians » LaVern Baker

LaVern Baker

Her voice carried a fascinating mixture of sophistication and down-to-earth power that evoked Bessie Smith and the other vocalists of the classic era, and she did much to set in place the outlines of early rock and roll. LaVern Baker was one of the most original and significant African American vocalists of the 1950s and early 1960s.

Baker was born Delores Williams on November 11, 1929, in Chicago. Her aunt was the classic blues vocalist Memphis Minnie, and she began to sing with friends at an early age. The raw power in her voice, came from gospel; Baker joined the choir at her Baptist church at the age of 12. By her late teens, she was singing blues and pop in Chicago nightclubs. She had a separate alias for each of the two images she wanted to project; for the down-home crowds recently arrived in Chicago, she took the name of Little Miss Sharecropper, while for other club dates she used the name Bea Baker. The name might have been derived from Memphis Minnie's real name, Merline Baker.

One of the musicians who recognized Baker's talent early on was swing bandleader Fletcher Henderson, who heard her in a nightclub in 1947. Baker made some blues recordings under the Little Miss Sharecropper name in 1949, and while these vanished without a trace, her reputation in Midwestern clubs continued to rise. She toured extensively, both as a solo artist and with the Todd Rhodes Orchestra. Appearing at Detroit's legendary Flame Show Bar, she made another influential ally in future soul superstar Al Green, who managed Baker for a time and landed her a recording slot with the Columbia label. She also took vocals, not always credited, on recordings by Rhodes and bandleader Maurice King.

Baker rose to stardom when she was signed to the Atlantic label in 1953; it was there that she finally adopted the stage name of LaVern Baker. Atlantic had pioneered a distinct rhythm-and-blues sound favoring sharp, precise arrangements that nevertheless kept in touch with the emerging rhythms of the streets. The material and sound that the label sent Baker's way showcased her skills perfectly. Baker's second recording session for Atlantic yielded the hit "Tweedlee Dee" in 1954. The recording rose to Number Fourteen on the pop charts and reached the one-million sales mark.

Baker pressed on, and recorded a tribute album to Bessie Smith in 1958. The following year, she reached the pop Top Ten charts with the sultry "I Cried a Tear." The song featured saxophone work by King Curtis, who offered a close instrumental counterpart for Baker's own style. Baker had another minor hit with "Saved," a quasi-gospel number.

Read more


Radio & Podcasts

New Releases From Emily Takahashi and Bill Charlap Plus Notable Debuts By Jocelyn Barth and Lady Blackbird

Read "New Releases From Emily Takahashi and Bill Charlap Plus Notable Debuts By Jocelyn Barth and Lady Blackbird" reviewed by Mary Foster Conklin

This broadcast presents new releases from vocalists Jocelyn Barth and Lady Blackbird, pianists Emily Takahashi and Bill Charlap, with birthday shoutouts to LaVern Baker, Ernestine Anderson, Blue Lu Barker (Don't You Feel My Leg), Ellen Rowe, Cynthia Hilts, Patricia Barber, Dara Tucker, Sarah Jerrom and more. Thanks for listening and please support the artists you hear by purchasing their music during this time of pandemic so they can continue to distract, comfort and inspire. Playlist Sue Palmer “Interlude" ...

Read more articles



Recordings: As Leader | As Sideperson

Real Gone Gal

Atlantic Records


Sings Bessie Smith

Atlantic Records


LaVern Baker Sings...

Atlantic Records



Get more of a good thing!

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories, our special offers, and upcoming jazz events near you.