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ROCK / 'Hell, I know how. Question is, when?': LaVern Baker was the Queen of rock'n'roll until she slipped from the spotlights. But some have not forgotten. Last weekend, she played her first British shows and Martin Kelner was there
THE QUEEN of rock'n'roll has to take her heart pills before we can talk. She looks lost, sitting in a huge armchair in the cavernous lounge of Liverpool's Adelphi Hotel. The setting is perfect, in fact. Faded Regency grandeur. It could almost be a metaphor for her life.
This is LaVern Baker, whose career goes back to the Forties, who was in at the very birth of rock'n'roll, whose recordings for Atlantic in the mid-Fifties helped build that label's great reputation. There are only two women in America's Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame. Aretha Franklin is one. This small bespectacled 63-year-old lady in a funny floppy hat, fumbling in her handbag for her pills, is the other. She is performing in Britain for the first time.
So why isn't she on national television? Why do record stores not bulge with re-issues of her rock'n'roll classics? Why, when I tell friends I am going to meet her, do they ask, 'LaVern who?'
These are not questions the lady herself is much interested in addressing. The heart pills come first, and they must be taken with food, so we wander across to Riley's Bar for a chicken curry. We are accompanied by Bill, the jovial keyboard player she has brought over from the States, and Larry, also from America, who performs some unspecified management function with a reticence that does not normally go with the job. He smiles beatifically but says virtually nothing. Bill and Larry help LaVern with the funny English money, but the rest of the weekend is largely looked after by fans - rock'n'roll purists who will quote you catalogue numbers as soon as look at you. It is their unpaid promotional work, the lobbying, the articles in the specialist papers that have helped keep LaVern's name alive and bring her over here.
It is not big time to be sure - an interview on Radio Merseyside, a spot on Granada TV's local arts show, and gigs at Liverpool's 051 club and a rock'n'roll weekend in Great Yarmouth - but LaVern is enjoying herself in Britain. These zealots have made her feel like a queen again.
LaVern has been chauffeured to Liverpool by Paul, one such enthusiast who, when not performing vital personal services for seminal figures from popular music's past, works for an estate agent in Crewe. Paul's main qualification for the job of collecting the Queen of rock'n'roll from Gatwick and ferrying her north appears to be his ownership of a car and an enormous record collection, not necessarily in that order.
The official promoter Roger Eagle, veteran of Manchester's famous Twisted Wheel and International clubs, clearly has a more professional interest in LaVern, but it is enthusiasm for the singer rather than any business consideration that has inspired his two-year struggle to bring her to Britain.
'She has an extraordinarily expressive voice,' says Roger. 'It is virtually undimmed by age. I cannot tell you how delighted I am to be promoting LaVern in Britain. There is almost nobody else of her quality and vintage still performing.'
Until two years ago, LaVern herself was consigned by many to the 'Missing, Presumed Dead' file. In 1968 she went into a self-imposed exile in the Philippines that lasted 22 years. LaVern is vague about the reasons for this lengthy 'disappearance', citing health and marriage problems - but then she is fairly sketchy on most personal details.
We know she was born in Chicago in 1929, and was not called LaVern Baker. Neither was she called Dolores Williams, as most biographies state. (She says maybe she'll announce her real name on primetime television, though no date is fixed for this.) While still in her teens, she got a job performing in a club, wearing ragged clothes, and billed as 'Little Miss Sharecropper'. This was something of a misnomer in that her father was actually quite well fixed. 'He never told us what he did and we never asked,' says LaVern, 'but he brought home good money. Chicago was run by the Syndicate,' she adds gnomically.
In 1954, LaVern started recording for Atlantic and became one of the most popular female R'n'B singers in the early rock era. Rock'n'roll hits included 'Tweedle Dee', 'Jim Dandy', and the glorious ballad 'I Cried A Tear', featuring a soaring tenor sax solo from King Curtis. Those were the days of the exhaustive and exhausting tours across America, the horrors of which have been well documented - the endless bus journeys, the prejudice in the segregated south, and the perfunctory under-rehearsed performance of the two songs that were meant to justify the whole exercise. The roster of artistes joining LaVern on these coast-to-coast tours included virtually every big name from the rock'n'roll years.
I was told that, during one of these odysseys, LaVern had been present when Buddy Holly lost his virginity, something she would neither confirm nor deny, but as most rock'n'roll biographies these days include some mention of Buddy Holly's whole-hearted enjoyment of the fruits of fame, the story is maybe not that remarkable. All LaVern will say of Buddy is that they used to 'fight all the time. He would say little things that weren't nice. Racial things. It wasn't his fault. It was the way he was brought up in Texas, but I wasn't going to sit by and do nothing.'
LaVern, variously described as sassy, earthy, zesty, and lusty, believed in standing her ground at all times. Like many black R'n'B artistes of the time, she suffered from the experience of having sanitised versions of her material released by white artistes - who effectively went on to steal her rightful place in the pop charts. Unlike her contemporaries, LaVern tried to do something about the practice, vainly petitioning her congressman to pass a law to protect her arrangements.
In 1964, LaVern left Atlantic, a decision she still regrets; the hits dried up. 'One Monkey Don't Stop The Show' is probably the best known of her post-Atlantic songs, and still a major floor-filler on Northern Soul nights. In the late Sixties she was visiting Vietnam regularly to entertain the troops, and on one of these trips she fell ill. Her first marriage was collapsing around the same time, so she took medical advice and went to the Philippines to recuperate.
'I got a job as a show director for the US Marine Corps, putting on floor shows, and, before I knew it, the months had turned into years and my daughter was 21 years old.'
Those two daughters (there is another, aged 14) are still in the Philippines. LaVern lives - 'regretfully' she says - in Manhattan on Tenth Avenue. She shares what she describes as a cubby hole with her cat Mouci (pronounced Mousey), and seems to lead the kind of slightly dotty solitary Manhattan existence familiar to us from films.
She tells stories of crack dealers outside her door, of 14-year-old kids driving Cadillacs, of bizarre arguments in the department store where she buys the perfume she sprays around her apartment. 'New York isn't a friendly place, I don't have many friends. I sometimes go to a show, and I see my mother from time to time. She is 80 now and still lives in Chicago. But my real passion is TV. I'm a TV fanatic, a TV addict.'
An animated discussion follows on whether Raymond Burr is still alive, and the parts played by Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels in The Lone Ranger. To prove she is as sassy, zesty, etc as ever, LaVern throws in a Lone Ranger joke ('How, Kimusabe.' 'Hell, I know how. Question is, when?'). Now we have started on television, LaVern proves difficult to shift. She wants to know what happened to the chap from Hawaii 5-O, and whether it was Merle Oberon or Vivien Leigh in Wuthering Heights. Kick-boxing movies are her favourite. There are too many repeats on HBO, she says.
At times she looks and sounds like one of those New York bag ladies. But when she makes up and changes for the photos, she is transformed. Jet-lagged and a little confused she may be, but she knows how to pose for a picture.
Should doubts remain as to LaVern's rock'n'roll credentials they are dispelled by the gig. In Barney Hoskyns' book, From a Whisper to a Scream, LaVern Baker is bracketed with Etta James, Bessie Smith and others as an Earth Mama, whose business is 'tearing up' clubs or churches. The good news is LaVern tore with a passion at Club 051, and didn't finish tearing until 2.40am in the morning.
The less good news is that there were only 100 or so paying customers there to enjoy the experience. LaVern's supporters hope the buzz generated by this short trip will make it worthwhile for her to leave her TV and cat once more to make a return visit. Should that happen, you are advised to take advantage while stocks last.
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