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Mickey Baker 

The Wildest Guitar

Wednesday, Feb 26 2003
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Mickey Baker was a major contributor to the transmutation of R&B to rock, along with his better-known contemporaries Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry. The reason Baker's name isn't more visible in rock's pantheon is because he spent most of his time as a session man, playing guitar on hundreds of recordings for such luminaries as the Drifters and Ray Charles.

Baker's one moment in the sun came in 1956, when he scored a hit with "Love Is Strange" as half of Mickey & Sylvia. (His cohort, Sylvia Robinson, later became the owner of giant rap label Sugar Hill Records.) Since then, such groundbreakers as free-jazz pioneer Sonny Sharrock and avant-punk innovator Robert Quine have cited Baker as a major influence, The Wildest Guitar LP in particular.

While far "wilder" guitar has been recorded since the album's 1959 release, Wildest still features some pretty ferocious stuff. Baker's skillful, chiming workouts are melodic merriment drenched in tremolo and echo, buoyed by peppy rhythms and twangy riffs. The CD's 13 tracks feature only four originals -- the most conventionally blues-y cuts of the bunch -- with the rest being an odd cross-section of covers and hoary standards, including a bizarre psych-surf reading of Cole Porter's "Night and Day."

Other standouts include an infectious fun-house version of "Third Man Theme," the romantic reverb rumba of "Autumn Leaves," the shimmering melodies of "Baia," the proto-surf of "Old Devil Moon," and the brisk twist of "Baker's Dozen." Sublimely swinging exotica well-suited for cocktail parties and hipster juke joints, The Wildest Guitar is a vital nugget from rock's secret history; hopefully it will help elevate Baker from footnote status.

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Mike Rowell

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