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Mickey Baker, R&B Guitar Pioneer, Dies at 87

Wrote seminal jazz guitar instruction book; also played on numerous sessions

Mickey Baker
Mickey Baker

Mickey Baker, the pioneering guitarist who was half of the R&B duo Mickey and Sylvia, died in Toulouse, France on Nov. 27. He was 87. A cause of death was not announced.

Baker, who is credited with bridging the gap between late 1940s rhythm and blues and rock and roll, was a prolific session musician beginning in the 1940s. He also authored a guitar instruction book in the late 1950s, Mickey Baker’s Complete Course in Jazz Guitar, which remains in print today.

Born MacHouston Baker in Louisville, Ky., Oct. 15, 1925, Mickey, as he was called, was placed in an orphanage at age 11 but ran away frequently. By 16 he was on his own in New York City, and at 19 he started playing guitar. Inspired by Charlie Parker, he began as a jazz musician but could not find work. Moving to California he took blues guitar Pee Wee Crayton’s advice to switch to the nascent R&B style. He returned to New York where he worked as a session guitarist for Atlantic, Savoy and other labels. His guitar is heard on recordings by Ray Charles, the Drifters, Louis Jordan, Joe Turner, Ruth brown and others.

Along with Sylvia Robinson, Baker formed the duo Mickey and Sylvia, who released “Love is Strange” on the Groove label in late 1956. The recording went to number one on the Billboard R&B chart, with Baker’s voice providing the counterpart to Robinson’s and his guitar lines snaking throughout. Mickey and Sylvia continued until 1959, after which Baker moved permanently to France. (Robinson went on to found the seminal rap label Sugarhill Records.)

His two-volume jazz guitar instruction books became staples in the field of music education.

Originally Published