In an earlier post about the Bonnie Sisters, I mentioned that they’d been helped along by Mickey Baker, a talented guitarist who would later be part of the R&B duo Mickey & Sylvia. But even though he and his performing partner struck gold in 1957 with “Love Is Strange,” Mickey Baker might have been a bigger star if he hadn’t spent the last several decades of his life bouncing around Europe.
Born MacHouston Baker in Louisville, he had a troubled childhood that included an unknown father and a very young mother who was unable to care for her son and eventually gave him up to an orphanage. While still in his early teens he ran away and was on his own, eventually living on the streets in New York all through the war years while surviving on odd jobs and pool hustling.
As a young adult in the post-war years Baker was ready to try something else, so he turned to music. While continuing to pay the bills with any kind of work he could find, he managed to get himself a guitar and learned to play from a variety of sources. It was an inspired choice, because within a few years he’d turned himself into an amazingly skilled guitarist who was at home with everything from jazz to calypso.
During the 1950s Baker seemed to be everywhere, working with stars like the Drifters, Joe Turner, and others, but also making his own breakout when he matched up musically when a lady he had taught to play guitar. MacHouston Baker and Sylvia Robinson became famous as Mickey and Sylvia, but even though they made several good records then and later, “Love Is Strange” would be their only big hit.
But Baker had a lot of other irons in the fire, including working with Tina Turner and other stars, and he also made a number of outstanding guitar solo records, both before and after his move to France in the early 1960s. He never really said why he stayed in Europe for the many years he had left, but he did become a part of the the French jazz scene and played with many that country’s established stars before finally slowing down. It was there that he died at age 87 in 2012.