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Mickey Baker: A Tough Customer Who Never Lost His Edge

Tom Reney pays tribute to the recently deceased guitar pioneer

Mickey Baker
Mickey Baker

In the radio documentary, Let the Good Times Roll, Mickey Baker told producer Lex Gillespie that “[If it wasn’t] for the blues, we’d all be sitting around sipping tea and listening to chamber music.” Baker, who died on November 27 at 87 at his home near Toulouse, France, knew from chamber music (he studied classical composition with Iannis Xenakis), but it was blues that suffused his music, whether it was the pop, R&B, or jazz that he was called upon to play as a session man, or his concerto, “The Blues Suite,” which he composed for guitar and orchestra.

Baker was born in Louisville, Ky., in 1925 to a 12-year-old girl whose mother operated a brothel; Baker understood that his father was a piano-playing john of Scots-Irish heritage. His mother went to prison when he was 11, and Mickey spent his teens riding the rails and raising a little coin as a pool shark, but he was nearly 20 before he picked up a guitar. Jazz greats Charlie Christian and Charlie Parker were his inspiration, and Rector Bailey was an early teacher, but when he saw the sleek white Cadillac, adoring fans and long green that Pee Wee Crayton was earning playing jump blues on the West Coast, he decided to begin “bending strings.”

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