Advertisement

Hall of Famer Returns to the Spotlight : Pop Beat: After a roller-coaster career and losing both legs to diabetes, singer LaVern Baker prepares for a Cinegrill gig and plans a life beyond concerts.

August 26, 1995|ELYSA GARDNER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEW YORK — Arriving at a friend's Manhattan apartment to conduct her first interview since having her second leg amputation because of diabetes, LaVern Baker briskly maneuvers her wheelchair as a nurse about half her age looks on with amused resignation.

"She wears me out," the nurse says, while Baker deftly positions herself next to a sofa and gets right down to business.

"I lost my legs," Baker, 65, announces. "But I didn't lose my mind. I'm tired of just sittin'. I want to do something. God gave me a talent and I can still use it. I can still go out and sing."

And that's precisely what she plans to do. Starting Sept. 14, Baker--who in 1991 became just the second woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame--will perform two Thursday-through-Sunday stints at the Cinegrill in Hollywood. She'll do a set of about 12 to 15 songs spanning her career. That runs from the hits that established her as a seminal soul artist back in the '50s--songs like "Tweedle Dee," "Jim Dandy" and "I Cried a Tear"--to numbers from the 1990 Broadway revue "Black and Blue" and from her most recent album, 1992's "Woke Up This Mornin' "--a collection of pop and blues standards.

Baker figures that she's had diabetes for about five or six years, but it wasn't diagnosed until three years ago. She received the news soon after completing the triumphant run in "Black and Blue" that marked her return to the United States after two decades living in the Philippines, where she performed on a military base.

The singer was forced by her already advanced illness to withdraw from the spotlight once again, and in 1994 her right leg was removed. When her doctors scheduled more surgery earlier this year, they initially thought that only part of her left foot would have to be removed, but a few days after that operation, it became necessary to amputate the entire leg.

Still, according to her publicist, Alan Eichler, Baker's musicians will be the only people supporting her onstage.

"We're planning for LaVern to have a motorized wheelchair," Eichler says. "So she'll make her entrance by herself, rather than being pushed on. You know, I can't think of anybody in the history of show business who has performed with two legs amputated. Some people think audiences will be squeamish, but aside from her spirit, LaVern's got great showmanship. And she's kept her sense of humor, even though her life has been such a roller coaster."

Baker's bumpy ride began in Chicago, where she was born Delores Williams in 1929. The niece of blues singer Memphis Minnie (a.k.a. Merline Baker), she sang gospel while growing up. At 17, she first appeared at the popular club DeLisa under the alias Little Miss Sharecropper. In 1952 she joined the Todd Rhodes Orchestra, adopting the name she's had since.

Shortly afterward, she became the second woman signed to Atlantic Records--right after Ruth Brown, who coincidentally originated the role in "Black and Blue" that gave Baker her comeback five years ago and who remains one of Baker's closest friends. In 1955, Baker scored her first R&B hit for Atlantic, "Tweedle Dee"--though, in a move typical of that period, it was a re-recorded version by white artist Georgia Gibbs that took it to the pop charts.

More than a dozen R&B hits followed, and--eventually--even some crossover success. Her crowning achievement came in 1958 with the ballad "I Cried a Tear," a No. 6 pop hit.

But as new divas like Gladys Knight and Atlantic's own Aretha Franklin started to emerge, Baker's star was falling. She left Atlantic in 1964. By the end of that decade, her second marriage (to comic Slappy White) had also fallen on troubled times.

It was at that point, with the Vietnam War under way, that her agent booked her on a show for American troops stationed in Manila. Baker seized the opportunity to make some money, and wound up spending the '70s and '80s in the Philippines, booking acts and singing at an officers' club on the Subic Bay base.

While there, she had two daughters, now 24 and 18, by a Filipino man. She also adopted a girl, now 18, and a boy whose biological mother showed up to reclaim him several years ago, when he was in first grade.

"I made money every day, and I supported my children," she says proudly. "I wanna go back there in December. . . . I'm dyin' to see my kids--I haven't seen them in almost two years. Then I'll come back and go to work, God willing."

Granted, Baker hasn't worked in a while. Prior to performing the Harry Nilsson song "Jump Into the Fire" for a recently released benefit tribute album called "For the Love of Harry," she didn't sing for more than two years.

"Not a note," she claims.

Not even for her own enjoyment? "Un-uh. Why should I sing for free?" she says with a chuckle. "I'm greedy."

But Baker's only concerns about returning to the stage relate to her vocal range, which has dropped considerably, more as a function of age than of illness.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|