Entertainment Magazine: Music: Margie Baker

Margie Baker's Live at Bach

It's said that good things come to those who wait, and after more than thirty years the world has waited long enough for a national recording by jazz and blues singer Margie Baker.

Sassy-but-classy, soulful, spiritual, swingin', bluesy and hugely entertaining, this lady drags her audience so deep into her sound that they can't help but feel the emotion.

Now both longtime fans from her performances around the world and newcomers to her sound can finally enjoy hearing this 68-year-old on her first nationally-released album. Margie Baker and Friends' LIVE AT BACH DANCING AND DYNAMITE SOCIETY is a doublealbum (two sets) recorded at the well-regarded jazz club by that name located at Half Moon Bay, just south of San Francisco.

Born dirt-poor in a country shack in East Texas, Margie 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 has the time to start recording.

The LIVE AT BACH CD shows her with a top-notch band working their way through one of Margie's set-lists which means she tips her hat in tribute to many of the singers, musicians and songwriters she grew up listening to including Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Duke Ellington, Louis Jordan, Lionel Hampton, Jimmy Reed, Charlie Parker, Joe Williams and Count Basie, as well as later favorites such as Antonio Jobim, Willie Nelson and The Edwin Hawkins Singers. Soft'n'smooth one moment, sultry blues belting the next, followed by passionate drama, that's Margie Baker:

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 in Tokyo. In fact, when Dizzy wanted to work with a vocalist, his top choices were Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan and Margie Baker. She first saw Dizzy perform in 1947, met him three years later and became friends in 1959 while attending the Monterey Jazz Festival (where she would become a regular performer herself throughout the Eighties).

Margie performed at Hilton Hotels for 20 years. One night at the prestigious Henri's Room located 47 floors up at the top of the San Francisco Hilton, her friend, guitarist George Hanepin, coaxed her out of the audience and onto the stage to sing one song. She immediately got a job offer from Conrad and Baron Hilton, who were there that night. During the school year she sang two nights a week at Henri's Room .as well as occasionally at Hiltons in Oakland, at the San Francisco airport or in Las Vegas.

Over the years top Bay Area guitarists such as Jackie King and Bruce Forman would sit in with Margie and her band. She was regularly introduced to the many stars attending her shows including Bill Cosby, Elvis Presley, Tony Bennett (who sketched her portrait while she was onstage) and Elizabeth Taylor. During the summer she performed five nights a week at the San Francisco Hilton, but also made appearances at their hotels all over the world.

In addition, Mark Naflin, pianist for the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, often asked Margie to sing with his band at blues festivals. Her longtime friend Jimmy Lyons, producer of the Monterey Jazz Festival, not only booked her for his festival, but also at summer jazz festivals in Australia, New Zealand, Russia, Japan and France. Her backing musicians have included top jazzsters such as Red Holloway, Ritchie Cole, Buddy DeFranco, Bobby Shew, John Heard, Bill Barry, George Bohanon, Tee Carson, Keeter Betts and Scott Steed.

On LIVE AT BACH, Baker covers both standards along with lesser-known classic material she has always enjoyed. She takes over two Louis Jordan tunes, "Let The Good Times Roll" and "Is You Is or Is You Ain't My Baby."

"Louis Jordan was one of my favorite R&B performers. I met him at the end of his career and we sat and talked. I chose 'Midnight Sun' because when I was a kid we would go to the Golden Gate Theater, which was a vaudeville house, and one time after they showed a movie, Lionel Hampton performed and he really got to me. He did that song instrumentally and later I heard Anita O'Day sing it. 'Gimme a Pigfoot' reminds me of Billie Holiday and Harlem during the Depression. What I learned from Ella Fitzgerald on 'Miss Otis Regrets' is that you have to make a dramatic presentation of those violent lyrics.

The Carpenters did 'Close To You' as a pop song, but I changed the harmonies to fit my rhythm-and-blues soul." Margie wraps herself in two Duke Ellington numbers, "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore." She honors Charlie Parker with "Parker's Mood." Baker also does a medley of "Baby Won't You please Come Home/I'm Drinkin' Again."

"Dinah Washington, my alltime favorite jazz vocalist, did both of those so I put them together as a tribute to her." Baker says she chose the Joe Williams/Count Basie "Alright, Ok, You Win" because she wanted a jazzy uptown audience-pleasing blues. Another blues tune is Jimmy Reed's "Baby Whatcha Want Me To Do." More obscure is "Real Gone Guy" which she learned in the Forties from a record by R&B vocalist Nellie Lutcher. More recent material includes Willie Nelson's "Ain't It Funny How Time Slips away" and The Edwin Hawkins Singers' modern-gospel "Oh, Happy Day."

Baker's top-notch band on this live recording is comprised of guitarist Rodney Jones (Dizzy Gillespie, Lena Horne, Chico Hamilton, Ruth Brown), bassist Harley White (Pharoah Sanders, Earl Hines, Faith Evans), drummer Omar Clay (Elvin Jones, Marlena Shaw, Jimmy Witherspoon, Sarah Vaughan), piano and synth-players Shota Osabe (Richard Olsen & His Big Band, Patti O'Hara) and Alan Steger (Dave Bernstein Quartet), saxophonist Michael O'Neill (a recording artist in his own right), and trumpeter Fred Berry (Ray Charles, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Louis Bellson).

Margie was born near Center, Texas, but her mother moved to San Francisco during World War II to be riveter building Navy ships. Both of Margie's grandfathers were Methodist ministers so she first heard music in church, but as a little girl she remembers falling in love with the sounds of Count Basie and Artie Shaw on the jukebox at the local cafe. Growing up she listened to Bull Moose Jackson, Roy Milton, Johnny Otis, Earl Fatha Hines, Big Jimmy Rushin and Dizzy Gillespie. She was president of her high school student body and graduated when she was 15.

A scholarship took her to the University of California at Berkeley for two years, but then she transferred to the closer San Francisco State University where she got her Bachelor's Degree in Education and teaching credential. She started as an elementary school teacher, but took night classes to get her Master's Degree. She then worked in school district administration for the next two-dozen years, getting her PhD and becoming the Directory of Compensatory Education (administering federal funds to help students at-risk of being left behind). Baker's sister-in-law is jazz singer Mary Stallings who started singing professionally as a teenager. Margie, who is five years older, often chaperoned Mary to nightclubs on nights and weekends.

"That was the Fifties and we got to know Dizzy and James Moody. I was listening to Cannonball Adderly and Miles Davis and all the great female singers like Dinah, Ella, Sarah, Carmen and Nancy Wilson."

Although Margie had enjoyed singing along to records and at intimate gatherings all her life, she didn't begin singing professionally until 1973. One year she received both the "Outstanding Jazz/Blues Vocalist Award" and the "Entertainer of the Year Award" from the San Francisco Council of Entertainment. In 2003 Margie performed a show in the Jazz Preservation District of San Francisco to call attention to and help revive the music scene there. The concert was recorded and released as LIVE AT RASSALAS, a CD of traditional, historic rhythym'n'blues only sold locally.

"I chose to start my national recording career with a live album because I really wanted to document what I do regularly in concert," Margie explains. "For the past 32 years, my live show is what I have been offering musically. It's me. I can't get any closer to the musical truth than when I am standing in front of an audience entertaining them."

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