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Mickey Baker, Influential Guitarist and Half of Mickey & Sylvia, Dies at 87

Mickey Baker 1975 - P 2012
Jan Persson/Redferns
Mickey Baker performing in 1975

An in-demand R&B session man who played with the likes of Ray Charles, Louis Jordan and LaVern Baker, he also co-wrote and performed the 1957 classic "Love Is Strange."

Mickey “Guitar” Baker, a versatile, influential and often unsung guitarist who helped lay the groundwork for rock ’n’ roll and half of the pop duo Mickey & Sylvia, died Tuesday in Toulouse, France. He was 87.

A prolific and hardworking session man as rock evolved from R&B during the 1950s, Baker played with such legendary acts as Ray Charles, Louis Jordan andRuth Brown. His guitar work helped drive such R&B chart-toppers as Brown’s “(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean” and Big Joe Turner’s “Shake Rattle and Roll.” The Who’s Pete Townshend studied his methods, and Rolling Stone’s David Fricke ranked Baker No. 53 on his list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time.

Born on Oct. 15, 1925, in Louisville, Ky., Baker had a troubled childhood that included living in an orphanage, hustling pool and spending time in a reform school. During World War II, he made his way to New York and began playing jazz guitar. Baker moved to California and by 1949 had his own group.

By the early 1950s, Baker had relocated back to New York and focused on playing R&B. After finding little success as a solo act, he hooked up with Atlantic Records and became an in-demand session man. He played on records by such big-name acts as The Drifters, LaVern Baker andKing Curtis and toured as a featured guitarist in Alan Freed’s rock ’n’ roll package shows.

In 1955, he formed Mickey & Sylvia with his guitar student Sylvia Vanderpool. The duo had a big crossover hit with the 1957 classic “Love Is Strange,” which they co-wrote Ethel Smith. It topped Billboard’s R&B chart for two weeks and reached No. 11 on the Hot 100. Two decades later the song was included on the Dirty Dancing soundtrack -- one of the biggest albums of 1987, which has sold more than 11 million copies -- and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2004.

Mickey & Sylvia followed up with “There Oughta Be a Law,” which hit the R&B top 10 but would be the duo’s last big hit. They split up in 1959 but would record together off and on into the mid-’60s. More than a decade later, Vanderpool -- under her married name, Sylvia Robinson -- would help introduce the world to rap music as founder Sugar Hill Records. The act she discovered, Sugarhill Gang, recorded rap’s first national hit single, “Rapper’s Delight, in 1979.

Baker spent two years writing the influential instructional book Mickey Baker’s Complete Course in Jazz Guitar, Volume 1, which was published in 1955. Along with a second volume, they are widely considered must-reads for aspiring jazz players. “If you come across a lesson which you find a little hard, don’t skip it,” Baker wrote in the foreword of the compiled books’ 1973 reissue. “Study it for two weeks. Because if you cannot understand one lesson, you surely will not understand the one that immediately follows.”

He left the U.S. music business during the early 1960s and moved to France, where he made a few solo LPs in the 1970s and worked with local musicians and fellow expats. He received a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation on 1999.