Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Guitarists and songwriters McHouston 'Mickey' Baker (b 15 October 1925, Louisville KY; d 27 November 2012, Toulouse, France) and Sylvia Vanderpool (b 6 March 1936, NYC; d 29 September 2011, Edison NJ). Both were talented and ambitious people who had stellar careers in the music business.

Mickey ran away from an orphanage and was finally on his own in New York City at age 16. Coming from absolute poverty, he believed that his mother was only 12 when she gave birth to him; arriving in New York he took a bath in the Hudson River, he said, because 'the train was dirty.' He wanted to play jazz and wanted to start on the trumpet, but couldn't afford the one in the pawnshop, so began on a cheap guitar, and became one of the most sought-after session players in the business. He played on 'Losing Hand' by Ray Charles and Ruth Brown's '(Mama) He Treats Your Daughter Mean' (both in 1953, and with Henry Van Walls on piano, bassist Lloyd Trotman and Connie Kay on drums he was part of Atlantic's house rhythm section, playing on hits with the Coasters and many others. He also recorded for Savoy, King, OKeh, and others, accompanying Little Willie John, Screamin' Jay Hawkins and more, often playing slide guitar; he worked with Sil Austin '56, etc; and published influential music books which are still in print. With Chuck Berry and one or two others he built a bridge between R&B and rock'n'roll.

Sylvia had replaced Little Esther at the Savoy label, billed as Little Sylvia, and recorded with trumpeter Hot Lips Page on Columbia at age 14. She became Mickey's guitar student in 1955; they married, formed a duo and their fifth record 'Love Is Strange' was a no. 2 R&B/11 pop hit '56 on RCA labels Vik and Groove: extremely well recorded, a sort of wistful calypso, with Mickey's guitar breaks and Sylvia's sexy lead vocal it was one of the best-loved records of the year. The song (by Baker with Ethel Smith) was the subject of an unsuccessful lawsuit claiming it to be similar to 'Billy Blues', unusual for such a suit in being tried with a jury. They had other R&B/pop crossovers including 'There Oughta Be A Law' '57, but split up '61 after playing on Ike and Tina Turner's 'It's Gonna Work Out Fine'. Their last hit was 'Baby You're So Fine' on their own Willow label.

Mickey duetted with Kitty Noble as Mickey and Kitty, then moved to France; his albums included Blues And Jazz Guitar and Jazz Rock Guitar on Kicking Mule, and Take A Look Inside on a UK Big Bear label. He was married six times.

Plugged into the New York City pop music scene and always with her ear to the ground, Sylvia helped the Dixie Cups get to town, where they recorded their smash hit 'Chapel of Love'. She had her own no. 3 pop hit with 'Pillow Talk' '70 on Vibration, but by then with her new husband Joe Robinson had become a label boss, one of the few women producing records, hands on the mixing board. Their All Platinum company had success with soul and vocal groups; a notable hit was 'Love Is A Two-Way Street' '70, the biggest of several chart entries by The Moments, a vocal trio, on a Stang label. Sylvia was active in disco, having hits with Shirley & Co '75 on the Vibration imprint: Shirley was Shirley Goodman, formerly of Shirley & Lee ('Let The Good Times Roll' '56). The Robinsons' label was struggling when Sylvia heard Lovebug Starski rapping over disco music in a nightclub. With her son Joey scouting the talent, young rappers Big Bank Hank, Wonder Mike and Master Gee from Englewood New Jersey became the Sugarhill Gang on Sugar Hill Records, and their 'Rapper's Delight' '79 was said to have sold eight million copies. Sylvia then signed Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and produced their 'The Message' '82, a record about ghetto life that for good or ill deserves to be called seminal.

All Platinum bought the Chess Records catalog from GRT '75 but could not sustain the necessary momentum; Chess passed to their distributors MCA ten years later.