Mickey “Guitar” Baker, a guitarist who forged a link between rhythm-and-blues and early rock music and whose 1956 recording of “Love Is Strange” with singer Sylvia Robinson became a pop classic brimming with Latin rhythms and flirtatious banter, died Nov. 27 at his home near Toulouse, France. He was 87.
The death, of undisclosed causes, was reported by the French publication L’Express.
Baker’s grounding in jazz guitar, coupled with his bluesy, at times distorted and aggressive sound propelled him to the front rank of New York studio guitarists in the 1950s.
On records, he accompanied singers Dinah Washington, Louis Jordan and Nappy Brown. Mr. Baker was particularly prolific at Atlantic Records, where his notable credits included The Robins’ “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” (1955), Ruth Brown’s “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean” (1954), Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll” (1954), and LaVern Baker’s two biggest hits, “Tweedle Dee” (1954) and “Jim Dandy” (1956).
In the mid-1950s, when black rhythm-and-blues was increasingly marketed to white teenagers as rock-and-roll, Baker proved to have an intuitive sense of what the new music required. His solo on the Coasters’ “I’m a Hog For You Baby,”from 1959, consists of one bleating, trebly note repeated over and over again.
Baker made Rolling Stone magazine’s list of 100 greatest guitarists, which noted his ample recording-session work and highlighted his millions-selling duet with Sylvia Robinson, “Love Is Strange.”
“Those keening licks and hectic chords sound as unearthly today as they did five decades ago,” the magazine reported.
At one point in the record, the two singers engage in a spoken flirtation. Mr. Baker says, “Sylvia . . . How you call your lover boy?” and Robinson responds, “C’mere, Lover Boy!” Three decades later, Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey lip-synced the same flirtation during a seduction scene in the movie “Dirty Dancing” (1987).
The song was also covered by Paul McCartney, Buck Owens, Peaches & Herb and the Everly Brothers, among others. The memorable guitar hook from Mr. Baker’s “Love Is Strange” was first recorded on “Billy’s Blues” earlier in 1956 by guitarists Bo Diddley and Jody Williams. (”Billy’s Blues” also features singer Billy Stewart, who grew up in Washington.)
Baker and Robinson — who then went by her maiden name, Vanderpool — started the duo Mickey and Sylvia in 1954 as an African American counterpart to Les Paul and Mary Ford.
The duo broke up several times and made one last record in 1965. In later decades, Sylvia Robinson produced the Sugar Hill Gang, one of the first successful rap acts. She died last year at age 75.
In the 1960s, Baker moved to France, where he produced records by French pop stars and accompanied visiting American blues and jazz musicians, such as saxophonist Coleman Hawkins.
MacHouston Baker — his first name is sometimes spelled McHouston — was born Oct. 19, 1925, in Louisville, Ky. His mother, widely described as an alcoholic and kleptomaniac, was 13 when he was born.
His childhood was turbulent. He turned to hopping freight trains in his teens and variously tried to earn a living as a pool shark, pimp and petty thief before he turned to music in New York.
With earnings from a job washing dishes, Baker went to a pawnshop at 19 intending to buy a trumpet to emulate one of his jazz heroes. But he had enough money only for a guitar, which he taught himself to play.
A trip to California in 1950 proved a turning point in his career. After attending a show by blues guitarist Pee Wee Crayton, he concluded that the money was in blues, not jazz.
“I asked Pee Wee, ‘You mean you can make money playing that stuff on guitar?’ “ Baker once told an interviewer. “Here he was driving a big white Eldorado and had a huge bus for his band.”
“So I started bending strings,” he said. “I was starving to death, and the blues was just a financial thing for me then.”
In 1955, Baker wrote “The Complete Course in Jazz Guitar,” sometimes called “the Baker book.” It remains in print five decades later and was one of the first published jazz guitar instruction manuals.
Baker was married at least twice. Survivors could not be determined.
Despite their smoldering chemistry on record, Baker and Robinson were known for their backstage quarrels while touring. In their first tour, Baker quit while the duo was on a revue that also featured a young Ray Charles.
According to author Michael Lydon’s biography of Charles, to create the illusion of Mickey and Sylvia, another guitarist in Baker’s signature sunglasses — who couldn’t sing — lip synced.
Meanwhile, Charles sang Baker’s part behind the curtain.