This a good time for the national music industry, what with South By Southwest just wrapping up in Austin, Texas, and Miami's annual booze-and-schmooze expo taking place from March 22-26 in the form of the Winter Music Conference. I'm not real happy with the music industry right now, though, and not just because I detest the Austin affair (in which unsigned bands perform like trained seals for indifferent label reps) or because industry dog-and-pony shows induce me only to extended periods of yawning.
Nope, it has more to do with the death last week of rhythm-and-blues artist LaVern Baker, one of the greatest singers of the early rock-and-roll era and the first artist to express outrage at the racism and dirty underhandedness of the music industry. Baker, a diabetic who lost both legs from the disease in 1996, died of heart failure. She was 67.
Although Baker recorded for the always-powerful Atlantic label, she never found much of an audience in the nascent days of rock and roll. Not because she wasn't a gifted vocalist (her debut single for the label, "Soul on Fire," is one of the most heated and erotic ballads ever committed to wax), but because her hits were always covered by white singers -- and therefore embraced more readily by white radio programmers. That's why Baker's 1955 single "Tweedlee Dee" stalled at number fourteen on the Billboard pop chart, while the dull-as-dust cover version by big-band hack Georgia Gibbs made it to the number-two slot. And in case you're curious, Gibbs's second single was equally felonious: She swiped Etta James's lascivious "The Wallflower" (a.k.a. "Roll with Me Henry"), changed the title to "Dance with Me Henry," and landed her first and only number one pop hit. James's version -- raw, rocking, and full of desire and lust -- was deemed too suggestive for white ears and never made it to the pop charts. Over on the R&B charts, though, it spent four weeks in 1955 in the top slot.
Of course, Baker wasn't the only black artist to have a hit stolen by a paleface milquetoast; Pat Boone built a career on robbing the songs of the Jewels, Fats Domino, Little Richard, the El Dorados, and Ivory Joe Hunter. And who hasn't tried to forget the Crew Cuts' vomitous rendering of the Chords' doo-wop masterpiece "Sh-Boom?" But Baker was the first artist to do something about it: Incensed about the loathsome practice, Baker wrote a letter to her Detroit congressman, who actually managed to convene a federal hearing. It didn't do much, though, and Baker's last big pop hit arrived a couple of years later with 1959's "I Cried a Tear." There's no telling the money she lost -- from the cover versions, as well as from her own record label. Since the Fifties, Atlantic has cheated its R&B artists out of countless royalties, a practice shared by nearly every label at the time but more egregious in the case of Atlantic, if only because of the label's reputation as the premiere R&B label of the Fifties and Sixties.
Only recently has Atlantic taken any steps toward restitution, mostly through cash grants to the Rhythm and Blues Foundation via an endowment from Time-Warner, Atlantic's parent company. But the foundation does nothing to rectify the decades of royalty injustice to the label's former artists (a staggeringly great roster that includes Sam Moore, Wilson Pickett, Ben E. King, and Ruth Brown, among many others), meaning that now, as then, no one's getting paid. And for Baker that meant that, despite her poor health, she had to perform in order to cover the cost of her artificial legs.
So while Atlantic and its brethren companies celebrate themselves and hold their seminars, workshops, and panels, and showcase their latest signings, and spend God knows how much money on booze, food, and promotional goodies, think of the ways that money could be better spent. Think of LaVern Baker.
The Big Payback. Go figure: The same week I take a cheap shot at Miami Herald critic Howard Cohen -- in this column a few weeks back, for his less-than-stellar Grammy predictions -- XS arts and entertainment editor/milk-shake authority Michael Koretzky fired one at me. On the Fort Lauderdale rag's Web page, the cleverly named XSOnline, Koretzky took umbrage at recent comments made by me in this column about the, ahem, "largely pathetic live-music network in South Florida" (a column in which I was actually applauding some recent national bookings, by the way).
Anyway, Koretzky's suggestion to me went something like this: "Gosh, John, if you hate it so much here in South Florida, get the hell out." He then suggested to readers that if they agreed with his comment they should e-mail me with words to that affect. And since no one loves a giveaway more than Koretzky, he sweetened the pot: "The first 10 XS readers who do so and send me a copy of the message will receive a free XS CD."
For the record, since it appeared on the XS site in early March, I've received all of two e-mail messages from the legion of Koretzky's faithful. Which tells me one of two things: Either most XS readers don't check in to the mag's Website, or Koretzky's influence over his readers is rivaled only by his talents as a writer and a critic.
-- By John Floyd
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