Black Music From the Forties, From Race Records To Jazz
Margie Baker sings jazz. Margie Baker sings blues ballads. And Margie Baker sings old-style rhythm-and-blues.
Black music in America started with the blues before elements of it evolved into jazz. Off-shoots abounded, such as jump-blues, ragtime, juke-blues, boogie-woogie, and eventually rhythm-and-blues, soon shortened to R&B. The first permutations were in the 1920s and 1930s, but the whole thing truly blossomed during the 1940s as the rhythm part of the equation came to the forefront. This early R&B is chronicled on the latest recording by singer Margie Baker, Live at Rasselas.
To give you an idea of her age, she grew up listening to these tunes, first as a little girl roller-skating down to the corner drugstore to hear them on the juke-box, and in 1950 dancing to them in college (which she entered when she was 15).
When singer Margie Baker was a young girl growing up in San Francisco’s now-historic Fillmore Jazz Preservation District during the 1940s and early-1950s, she listened and danced to black musicians playing a wide variety of styles including R&B, jazz and blues. So who better than Baker to deliver an album, Live at Rasselas, specifically to serve as a tribute to both the exciting music of that era and to the Fillmore District, one of America’s musical hot-spots at that time.
“During that era, this African-American music was sometimes called ‘race music’ and the string of nightclubs across the country that featured black entertainers was referred to as the ‘chitlin circuit’,” explains Baker. “The best black songs not only went to the top of the national R&B chart, but crossed over and did well on the pop charts because the white audience also was buying the records. The clubs and auditoriums in the Fillmore District that featured this music also drew a racially-mixed audience. Black musicians in San Francisco at that time were not allowed to play east of Van Ness Avenue, so if you wanted to hear them, you had to go over to Fillmore.”
“I chose songs from some of the best black musicians who we heard in those days on the one black radio station, on records and at the clubs when the artists came to town,” states Margie. “Some of my favorite acts from that era are Louis Jordan, Earl Fatha Hines with Billy Eckstine singing, Buddy and Ella Johnson, Roy Milton, Percy Mayfield, the King Cole Trio, Joe Liggins and His Honeydrippers, Dinah Washington, Nellie Lutcher and so many more including those who were more jazz than R&B -- Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday.”
Margie has performed on-stage over the years with many top jazz and blues musicians including Dizzy Gillespie, Mark Naflin, Red Holloway, John Handy, Ritchie Cole, Buddy DeFranco, Bobby Shew, John Heard, Bill Barry, George Bohanon, Tee Carson, Keeter Betts, Jackie King, Bruce Forman, Rodney Jones, Harley White, Alan Steger, Michael O'Neill and Scott Steed. Baker has two previous CDs -- Live at Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society and A Bit of Jazz and More... (a duet project with pianist Shota Osabe).
Baker's top-notch band on Live at Rasselas is comprised of guitarist Duncan James (Eartha Kitt, Chet Baker, Les Brown), B3 organist John Mackay (Cab Calloway, Peter Appleyard, Don Thompson), saxophonist and flutist Don Ramsey (Buddy Rich, James Moody, The Temptations), trumpet player Fred Berry (Count Basie, Ray Charles, Lena Horne) and drummer Omar Clay (Elvin Jones, Jimmy Witherspoon, Sarah Vaughan).
The city of San Francisco began a program of redevelopment in the mid-Nineties that including designating the Fillmore Jazz Preservation District which began a rebirth of music clubs such as Rasselas (now located across the street from the historic Fillmore Auditorium).
For the Live at Rasselas CD, Baker chose to cover 20 tunes that meant a lot to her when she was growing up. From 1942 to 1951 Louis Jordan was one of the biggest black stars scoring 57 R&B chart hits in that decade alone. “I enjoyed meeting him when I was about 20, remembers Margie.” There are four Jordan hits presented here -- “Let the Good Times Roll,” “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying,” “Early in the Morning” (“The first blues I ever heard with a Latin beat.”), and “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?”
There also are three tunes popularized by Buddy Johnson & His Orchestra -- one originally sung by Arthur Prysock (“I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone”) and two by Buddy’s sister Ella Johnson (“Since I Fell For You” and “Fine Brown Frame,” although Baker most fondly remembers Dinah Washington’s version of the former and Nellie Lutcher’s interpretation of the latter). Baker picked a pair by the King Cole Trio (before Nat went solo) -- “Straighten Up and Fly Right” (inspired by Cole’s father telling African folk tales) and Bobby Troupe’s “Route 66.” Two Duke Ellington compositions are included -- “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good” (“Duke is a tradition in the black community, and I have heard this music my entire life.”). Margie says, “I selected two hits by Earl Fatha Hines, both sung by the great Billy Eckstine -- the slightly risqué ‘Jelly, Jelly’, and ‘I’m Falling For You,’ which was the other side of the original 78 record.”
“I Got a Right to Cry” was a million-seller originally by Joe Liggins & His Honeydrippers, sometimes known as the “shuffle boogie king” (“It was one of those songs that I heard and I had to go right down to the record store and buy it.”). The jump-blues style is represented by Roy Milton’s appropriately-titled “R.M. Blues.”
Baker says, “Faye Adams’ first recording was ‘Shake a Hand’ and it was huge hit in the early Fifties; I remember hearing it at all the college parties. I also have included Percy Mayfield’s biggest hit, “Please Send Me Someone To Love,” which is not only a love song but a musical prayer for peace and understanding. I met Percy near the end of his career. The reason I chose Billie Holiday’s ‘God Bless The Child’ is because you heard it everywhere in The Fillmore area during the Forties. But besides blues and R&B, the community also listened to a lot of jazz so I wanted to make sure be-bop was included. What better representation of that sound than Bird so I picked ‘Parker’s Mood’ because it is one of his most-praised melodies and because King Pleasure added lyrics to it a few years after the original recording.”
Margie Baker brings her own inimitable style to all of these tunes. In her live shows, she has long been known for being sassy-but-classy, soulful, jazzy, spiritual, swingin', bluesy and hugely entertaining.
Margie was born dirt-poor in a country shack in East Texas. Both of her grandfathers were Methodist ministers so she first heard music in church. She moved to California as a child and went on to get her Doctorate Degree in education. For three decades she held down two jobs San Francisco school district administrator and professional singer while raising a family. Now a retired educator, but still very active as a singer, Dr. Baker finally started recording a few years ago.
She was mentored by jazz trumpet legend Dizzy Gillespie, who often had Margie join him onstage whether it was in San Francisco (at the Great American Music Hall), Oakland (at Yoshi's), New York City (at the Village Gate) or Tokyo. Baker has performed at the prestigious Monterey Jazz Festival as well as summer jazz festivals in Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Japan and France. She also is well-known in the Bay Area for performing regularly for many decades at the top luxury hotels in the region.
“My mother owned a cleaning shop right near the Fillmore Street entertainment area. I used to skate down the street to the soda fountains where they played race music on the juke-boxes. I would pass the nightclubs and see who was appearing that week at Jimbo’s, the California Hotel, the famous after-hours club Bop City, the below-street-level Blackshire, The Eddy Hotel, The Primelone Ballroom which was a skating rink during the day, and the Fillmore Auditorium. My friend’s mother had a record store and in those days you could listen to records in a booth before buying them so we spent many hours checking out the latest discs. I entered college when I was 15 which introduced me to even more music. There were certain music clubs that were set up specifically for college students, so I started seeing lots of live music. Around 1950 the musician’s union was integrated and black and white musicians could play together, and black musicians were allowed to perform outside of the Fillmore area. The Blackhawk club started up and I often went there to hear modern progressive jazz by Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.”
San Francisco’s Fillmore District, touted as “the heart and soul of the city,” has long been known for embracing cultural diversity and celebrating music (it now annually sponsors the largest free jazz festival on the West Coast). Margie Baker’s musical heritage tribute, Live at Rasselas, performs an important service in educating today’s listeners about the black music that was heard live, on records and on the radio from the early Forties to the early Fifties in this historical and revitalized area.