Happy 60th: LaVern Baker, LAVERN BAKER SINGS BESSIE SMITH
60 years ago this month, LaVern Baker recorded an album of songs popularized by Bessie Smith, and while she may not have scored any hit singles from the LP, she surprised more than a few critics by pulling it off at all.
Given that Baker had built her career on belting out bluesy numbers like “Tweedlee Dee,” “Bop-Ting-A-Ling,” “Play It Fair,” “Still,” and “Jim Dandy,” the idea that she would team up with a collective of seasoned jazz musicians to tackle a series of numbers from Smiths’ catalog was an unexpected move, to say the least. Nonetheless, it worked.
“Despite the potentially conflicting styles, this project is quite successful and often exciting,” wrote Scott Yankow on AllMusic.com. “The arrangements by Phil Moore, Nat Pierce, and Ernie Wilkins do not attempt to re-create the original recordings; Baker sings in her own style (rather than trying to emulate Bessie Smith), and the hot solos work well with her vocals.”
Not only does LAVERN BAKER SINGS BESSIE SMITH stand up as one of the strongest albums in Baker’s catalog, it also had a profound effect on Baker’s career nearly 30 years after its release: when the producers of the Broadway musical Black and Blue found themselves in need to a replacement for the show’s star, Ruth Brown, it was Baker’s BESSIE SMITH album that convinced them that she was the one for the job.
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