When Mickey Baker was a down-and-out teenager in New York, he couldn’t afford a trumpet—his preferred instrument—so he bought a cheap guitar instead. Generations of music lovers will thank him for doing so, as he went on to forge a rhythm-and-blues guitar tradition that encompasses Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and Eric Clapton. “He was the first great rock ’n’ roll guitarist,” said rock historian Dave Marsh.
Little is known about Baker’s childhood in Louisville, said The New York Times, “other than it was difficult.” He fled home when he was 15, riding the rails to New York, where the first thing he did was take a bath in the Hudson River. “I remember him saying he wanted to start there clean,” said his widow, Marie Baker, “and the train was dirty.” He worked a variety of odd jobs while teaching himself the guitar, eventually becoming a jazz guitar virtuoso. Then, after hearing a gig by legendary bluesman Pee Wee Crayton, he changed course. “I asked Pee Wee, ‘You mean you can make money playing that stuff?’” Baker recalled saying. “So I started bending strings.”
Baker soon became “New York’s top rhythm-and-blues sessions guitarist,” said the Los Angeles Times, playing on such classics as Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and Big Maybelle’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” But he scored a big hit of his own in 1957, teaming up with his guitar student Sylvia Vanderpool to record “Love Is Strange.” Originally written by Bo Diddley but “passed along to them because he was angry with his music publishers,” the single, released under the names Mickey & Sylvia, sold a million copies. Critic Jim Dawson hailed it as “the most hypnotic record of the 1950s.” Baker’s “sassy” guitar licks heavily influenced a generation of early rock ’n’ roll musicians, including Buddy Holly, the Yardbirds, and the Beatles.
Once he had tasted success, Baker grew tired of “playing forgettable music for teenagers,” said The Guardian (U.K.), and became increasingly disillusioned with a music industry that he considered racist. In the 1960s, he moved to France, where, between tours with visiting musicians like Coleman Hawkins and Memphis Slim, he wrote an influential guide to playing jazz guitar that was cited by Frank Zappa as an inspiration. In the 1970s he studied with composer Iannis Xenakis, and began writing string arrangements to provide “conventional orchestral color” to blues records. But “Love Is Strange” remains his most notable achievement, “regularly recharged by being heard in movies” like Dirty Dancing and Casino.