The famed rock critic Dave Marsh once called Mickey Baker “the first great rock and roll guitarist.” While that might offend fans of such better-known stars as Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, there’s a certain amount of truth to the hype. In the 1950s, Baker was a sought-after studio musician, playing on R&B records such as the Drifters’ “Money Honey,” Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” and Big Maybelle’s “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On,” and his aggressive, riveting solos influenced generations of rock bands.
But for Baker, who died on Nov. 27 at age 87 at his home near Toulouse in Southern France, is known mostly for 1956′s “Love Is Strange.” The jangly, hypnotic single, which he recorded with Sylvia Vanderpool Robinson under the moniker Mickey & Sylvia, became a million-seller and reached number one on Billboard’s R&B chart. But Baker’s lone big hit went on to have an extended afterlife, in which it was covered by artists ranging from the Everly Brothers and Paul McCartney to Kenny Rogers. It appears on the soundtrack of the 1987 movie Dirty Dancing, and most recently, the guitar and chorus was sampled by Pitbull for his song “Back in Time,” from the 2012 movie Men in Black 3.
Here are some facts about one of the most influential singles of all time, and the man behind it.
- Baker, who grew up in an orphanage, originally wanted to be a trumpet player, but a beat-up pawnshop guitar was all he could afford, so he stuck with that instrument instead, according to his Rolling Stone obituary. He originally aimed to be a jazz musician, but switched to being a studio musician for R&B groups at age 25 because it he found it too difficult to make a living playing jazz.
- Robinson, who died in 2011, started out taking guitar lessons from Baker, but eventually persuaded him that they should team up as a duo in 1955. They recorded “Love Is Strange” at just their second studio session together, after signing with Groove Records, RCA’s R&B label.
- The song’s origins are murky. The BMI website credits Baker, Robinson and Ellas McDaniel — a nom de plume for Bo Diddley — as the songwriters. But according to Marsh’s book The Heart of Rock & Roll” — The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, it actually was written by Diddley, who reportedly was feuding with his music publisher and passed off the song through Smith out of spite. Famed blues guitarist Jody Williams, who played with Diddley, later sued for a share of the songwriting credit, but lost in federal court in 1961, according to this 2012 Chicago Sun-Times article. As he told interviewer Steve Cushing in the book Blues Before Sunrise: The Radio Interviews: “You know, I can be sitting up looking at TV, some movie or something, and I hear ‘Love Is Strange’ on the soundtrack. That just infuriates me.”
- Initially, Baker and Robinson wanted a children’s chorus to sing the song’s refrain, but producer Bob Rolontz nixed that idea and convinced them to sing it themselves.
- Instead of simply laying down Baker’s guitar track, Rolontz elaborately built it up through multitracking and repeated re-recordings — a then-unorthodox approach that RCA’s veteran engineers thought was crazy, according to Marsh.
Photo: Roland Godefroy