Chicago-native LaVern Baker (born Delores Williams on 11 November 1929) was a well-built and undeniably sexy black girl who learnt to sing in church before gravitating into nightclubs, where it’s rumoured she instructed Johnnie Ray in the art of blues singing.
Under the name Little Miss Sharecropper, she signed with National Records in 1950 and made her first recordings. Her career took off after she signed with Atlantic Records in 1953.
Unlike her contemporaries, including Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington – black singers who inclined towards the jazzier side of R&B – LaVern was an out and out rocker.
After losing her battle with the song Tweedle Dee (which was covered by white singer Georgia Gibbs), LaVern eclipsed her closest rival, Etta James, to become the most consistent female rock & roller of the fifties, scoring 20 hits including Jim Dandy, Jim Dandy Got Married, See See Rider, Play It Fair and her biggest hit, I Cried A Tear.
But segregation kept her R&B songs off the radio, and like black contemporaries Little Richard and Big Joe Turner, her role in the birth of rock ‘n’ roll was largely ignored.
She went to Vietnam to entertain troops in 1969, came down with bronchial pneumonia and was told to recuperate in a warm climate.
She ended up spending more than 20 years in self-imposed exile, settling near a US military base in the Philippines, managing a club there and performing on weekends while rockers like Elvis Presley and the Grateful Dead gained fame recording her music back in the US.
She returned to the US for Atlantic Records‘ 40th birthday party in 1988 and moved to New York for good, where her career surged on Broadway.
LaVern Baker was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1991, telling the audience, “Regardless of how old you are when you get this, it’s still good, baby.”
Baker suffered from diabetes and had to have both legs amputated below the knee in 1995. She died on 10 March 1997 at St Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan, aged 67.