She began singing in Chicago clubs such as the Club DeLisa around 1946, often billed as Little Miss Sharecropper, and first recorded under that name in 1949. She changed her name briefly to Bea Baker when recording for Okeh Records in 1951, and then became LaVern Baker when singing with Todd Rhodes and his band in 1952.
In 1953 she signed for Atlantic Records as a solo artist, her first release being "Soul on Fire". Her first hit came in early 1955, with the Latin-tempo "Tweedlee Dee" reaching #4 on the R&B chart and #14 on the national US pop charts. Georgia Gibbs scored the bigger hit with her version of "Tweedle Dee", for which Baker unsuccessfully attempted to sue her. LaVern did manage to get in a jab, however. When LaVern was flying to Australia, she took out flight insurance at the airport and sent it to Gibbs with a note: "You need this more than I do because if anything happens to me, you're out of business."
Baker had a succession of hits on the R&B charts over the next couple of years with her backing group The Gliders, including "Bop-Ting-A-Ling" (#3 R&B), "Play It Fair" (#2 R&B), and "Still" (#4 R&B). At the end of 1956 she had another smash hit with "Jim Dandy" (#1 R&B, #17 pop). It sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc. Further hits followed for Atlantic, including the follow-up "Jim Dandy Got Married" (#7 R&B), "I Cried a Tear" (#2 R&B, #6 pop in 1959), "I Waited Too Long" (#5 R&B, #3 pop, written by Neil Sedaka), "Saved" (#17 R&B, written by Leiber and Stoller), and "See See Rider" (#9 R&B in 1963).
In addition to singing, Baker also did some work with Ed Sullivan and Alan Freed on TV and in films, including Rock, Rock, Rock and Mr. Rock & Roll. In 1964, she recorded a Bessie Smith tribute album, before leaving Atlantic and joining Brunswick Records, where she recorded the album "Let Me Belong to You," as well as a hit duet single, "Think Twice," with Jackie Wilson.
In the late 1960s, she became seriously ill after a trip to Vietnam to entertain American soldiers. About that same time, a friend recommended that she stay on as the entertainment director at a Marine Corps night club at the Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippines, and she remained there for 22 years.
In 1988 she returned to perform at Madison Square Garden for Atlantic Records' 40th anniversary. She then worked on the soundtracks to films such as Shag, (1989), Dick Tracy, (1990) and A Rage in Harlem (1991), which were all issued on CD.
In 1990, she made her Broadway debut replacing Ruth Brown as star of the hit musical Black and Blue. In 1991, Rhino Records released a new album Live in Hollywood recorded at the Hollywood Roosevelt Cinegrill, as well as a compilation of her greatest Atlantic hits entitled Soul on Fire. In 1992 she recorded a well-received studio album, Woke Up This Morning, for DRG Records.
She received the 1990 Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation and in 1991, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Her song "Jim Dandy" was named one of The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll and was ranked #343 on the Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Towards the end of her life, she suffered from diabetes and a series of strokes. The diabetes ended up claiming both her legs in 1994. But Lavern performed to the end, impressing crowds of fans with her exuberance, even when singing from a wheelchair.
She made her last recording, "Jump Into the Fire," for the 1995 Harry Nilsson tribute CD, For the Love of Harry on the Music Masters label. The wonderful, booming, gospel-tinged voice of Lavern Baker was silenced on March 10, 1997 due to cardiovascular disease; a tragic loss to the world of music. She was interred in the Maple Grove Cemetery in Kew Gardens, New York and was originally laid in an unmarked grave, but a fundraiser was scheduled by local historians to give LaVern a headstone, and this was accomplished on May 4, 2008. (Info mainly Wikipedia)
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