Mickey & Sylvia
|Track||Singles / Album|
|Drive Daddy Drive||Jubilee 45-5093 (Little Sylvia)|
|No Good Lover||Groove 4G-0164|
|Love Is Strange||Groove 4G-0175|
|Love Will Make You Fail In School||Vik 4X-0280|
|Rock And Stroll Room||Vik 4X-0324|
|ThIs Is My Story||RCA Victor 47-7811|
|Baby You're So Fine||Willow 45-23000|
|He Gave Me Everything||Willow 45-23004|
|Say The Word||New Sounds|
MICKEY & SYLVIA: ANATOMY OF A ONE HIT WONDER #4
Contributor: Dave Stephens
Artists who flickered briefly then disappeared. One Hit Wonders, the media called them. Part of the fascination of fifties and sixties music.
A splendid clangorous guitar runs through the chord sequence a few times, does a neat little unaccompanied bit, then …
Love … … um um
Love is strange … … yay yay
Lot of people … … um um
Take it for a game
Love Is Strange is a remarkable record. Written by Bo Diddley but we didn’t know that at the time because his version didn’t see release until many years later. And the Mickey & Sylvia record had a polish and sweetness about it that one didn’t associate with the often fairly anarchic Diddley discs. In the final third of their performance, M and S incorporated some semi-erotic repartee which must have been quite a shock for a 1950s staid white audience (and which wasn’t present on the Diddley version).
A summary but that doesn’t tell the whole story. I’ll quote a paragraph from Wiki on the song in full:
“At a concert at (the) Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., Mickey and Sylvia heard Jody Williams play a guitar riff that Williams had played on Billy Stewart’s debut single “Billy’s Blues”. “Billy’s Blues” was released as a single in June 1956 and the instrumentation combined a regular blues styling with Afro-Cuban styling. Sylvia Robinson claims that she and Mickey Baker wrote the lyrics, while Bo Diddley claims that he wrote them.”
A listen to the single in question would seem to back up the Wiki argument:
Timing just adds to the confusion in this story. Wiki goes on to report that Diddley laid down his version of Love Is Strange with Jody Williams on guitar on the 24th of May, 1956, though that record didn’t see release until its inclusion in I’m a Man: The Chess Masters, 1955-1958 in 2007. Both that version and the one from Mickey and Sylvia have Ethel Smith as writer. This is because Diddley challenged the ownership of the song and won – Ethel was his wife. You might have thought that was it but there was more. I’ve been informed, by an intriguing source, Mickey Rat in 45cat, that Diddley himself played the lead guitar line in Billy’s Blues, and that Williams was on second guitar. He, along with Stewart, was credited with the song though. Chess plus Williams challenged Mickey Baker for usage of the melody line but lost
Enough, let’s move on.
THE BACK STORY
Both Mickey Baker and Sylvia Vanderpool, as she was then, had budding careers prior to their coming together.
Baker was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1925 but moved around a lot, ending up in New York in his teens. His mother was black but his father, who he never knew, was believed to be white. He started playing guitar with the target of being a jazz musician. After some tentative, but not financially lucrative, steps along that path, he saw a show from blues singer/guitarist Pee Wee Crayton. He met Crayton afterwards who advised him that blues was a route to hard cash. Which certainly did the trick for Mickey, for, by the time he hooked up musically with Sylvia Vanderpool in 1954 he was an in demand session guitarist, having appeared on a lot of records in a short time frame, including the Drifters’ Money Honey and Big Joe Turner’s Shake, Rattle And Roll. Later credits included Little Willie John’s Need Your Love So Bad and Big Maybelle’s original Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.
Sylvia Vanderpool was born in New York City in 1936. She was something of a child prodigy in that she signed with Columbia as a vocalist in 1950. Her first record that same year was credited to “Hot Lips Page and Sylvia Vanderpool accompanied by the Nelson Clark Orchestra”. On later records that lengthy billing got reduced to Little Sylvia. What few records I’ve been able to dig out from that time are very good, somewhere between a very young Bessie Smith and Ruth Brown, if that’s not showering her with too much praise, but more on that later.
Mickey Baker had a sideline as a guitar instructor and Sylvia Vanderpool signed up as one of his pupils. It was then that Mickey came up with his brainwave: a black Les Paul and Mary Ford, and we presume Sylvia didn’t say no. The first record from the pairing came out as “Little” Sylvia Vanderpool With Mickey Baker And His Band in April ’54 but subsequent records were credited to Mickey and Sylvia.
Fast forward five records up to November 1956, and the release of Love Is Strange, a record which topped the R&B Chart and crossed over to the Pop Chart where it reached an impressive #11 position. In classic one hit wonder style, the pair’s follow-up There Oughta Be A Law only just squeaked into the Top Fifty, and while a tiny handful of later records managed the same or something even lower, that was pretty well the end of any chart success.
For reasons that aren’t documented, the pair separated in 1959. Baker got together with a lady called Kitty Noble and released three singles as Mickey and Kitty. They did nothing in the charts and Mickey got back together with Sylvia in 1961 for further releases under the M and S name, tailing off after 1965. He also released a few solo instrumental records and moved to France in the second half of the decade where he achieved some local acclaim.
Sylvia married Joe Robinson in 1959 and restarted her solo career under the name Sylvia Robbins. Along with her husband, she started a record label, Platinum, in 1966, with the intention of specialising in soul music. The enterprise was successful and Sylvia also kick started her own vocal career with the sex-and-disco record Pillow Talk in 1972.
WHAT CAME BEFORE …
The only recorded effort I’ve been able to track down from Mickey Baker prior to his getting together with Sylvia is Guitar Mambo. Hardly rock and roll, or rhythm and blues even, but this was ˈ52 and Mickey and/or his producer was/were trying to capitalise on the mambo craze which apparently had hit New York in the first half of the fifties. (The ‘apparently’ is only because I was previously ignorant of this point.)
Bandstand Stomp released by Mickey Baker and his House Rockers in ˈ55 is a little more typical of the rock era:
Sylvia Vanderpool beat her sparring partner to the punch on being first into a recording studio in his or her own right. She released two singles from Columbia Records and we’re lucky enough to have both sides of the first one on YouTube. Here’s the A-side, Chocolate Candy Blues from Sylvia Vanderpool (or Vanterpool) and Hot Lips Page. A splendid slab of jump blues even if it does sound very dated now. Plenty of double entendre, there’s even a mention of Tutti Frutti in there, years before Mr Penniman hove into view.
The flip side is just as good and I’m unsure as to why Columbia let her go after a couple of singles. She moved labels twice in the next couple of years, first to Herman Ludinsky’s Savoy Records and then to Jerry Blaine’s Jubilee, the latter being a label which targeted the R&B market. She made several good tracks for Jubilee but only a few saw release. The rest can now be found on two Sequel compilations, Jubilee Jezebels, volumes 1 and 2. I’m partial to her Drive Daddy Drive. There’s plenty of sexual entendre again and it’s hardly sophisticated. For a young lady no more than 16 years old, it’s amazing how well Ms Vanderpool handled this stuff. And in overall production and arrangement the record sounds much more advanced (and up to date) than Chocolate Candy Blues recorded only two years earlier.
If you don’t know how to drive, don’t jive
Get out of the driver’s seat
A couple of the Jubilee tracks, I Went To Your Wedding (on Spotify) and A Million Tears showed that Sylvia could handle a ballad with just as much ease. Here’s A Million Tears:
With hindsight I do wonder why Sylvia chose to pair up musically with Mickey Baker. Her skills were such that one feels surely she would have broken through to a bigger audience at some stage. Mickey was older of course and possibly very persuasive.
It’s worth making a few general points before considering the music that Mickey and Sylvia made together.
– There’s nothing as outstanding as Love Is Strange but there are certainly tracks of interest or “worth a listen” to repeat my usual phrase. To put it more succinctly, no more nuggets but it could be interesting/entertaining or even fun, to check out some of the tracks that follow.
– They moved through six different record labels from 1954 to 1962, their most prolific period – Cat, Rainbow, Groove, Vik, RCA Victor and Willow were the labels.
– There’s no clear pattern of development over the years and across the labels other than the addition of strings at RCA and perhaps more of an orientation towards teen pop as the sixties rolled forward.
– Something that was present at times in the music from the pair was the influence of calypso. This comes as something of a surprise now but there was that brief moment round about 1957 when calypso was meant to be taking over the world. Mickey was always keen to latch onto what he thought was happening and would have been aware of latin music in general from his brief sojourn in jazzland.
– There were few serious attempts to harness Sylvia’s evident talent as a jump blues cum R&B singer. No Good Lover was an exception. A rip-snorting effort and arguably the best record the pair ever made outside of that single. Mickey affects a Chuck Berry style cool in his vocal and complements the more forceful Sylvia very well. His guitar work is also of note, propelling the song along just as much as the rhythm section.
– I was going to extend my first sentence in the last para to read “… as a jump blues cum R&B singer like the Atlantic divas, Ruth Brown and LaVern Baker” but then had a quick look at Ms Baker’s discography. What one tends to forget is that LaVern was heavily associated with somewhat lightweight material – sorry Lavern – like Bop-Ting-a-Ling, Tweedle Dee, Jim Dandy and more. So, I guess one could argue that Mickey was attempting to emulate the great Atlantic label. Many of the pair’s records could be categorised in just such a manner.
– There weren’t all that many outright ballads in the M & S oeuvre though again there were exceptions. Best of these for me were This Is My Story (produced by Hugo and Luigi at RCA) and He Gave Me Everything. Both feature Sylvia strongly, although in reality they are taken in harmony with Sylvia the stronger voice in the mix. These records were only eighteen months apart and they do (very conveniently) illustrate doo wop moving more towards a soul sound.
– Mickey’s voice was nowhere near as expressive as Sylvia’s though that didn’t seem to stop him taking a significant share of the vocal work.
– Last but not least of these comments, there were, as one would have expected, a number of attempts to follow up Love Is Strange with something along similar lines. Best of these was Dearest, a song also associated with Bo Diddley, but see my remarks in Footnotes. Slower with slight latin lilt, and more of an outright love song than the hit. A charmer and it’s very likely to be this one that Buddy was emulating on the New York Apartment Tapes. Mickey throws in a Santo & Johnny break which was a little puzzling since that pair didn’t hit with Sleepwalk until two years later.
All of which doesn’t leave me that many places to fill in terms of selections.
The pair’s first Willow single, Baby You’re So Fine, released in July 1961 has a warmer, more organic feel than many of their other records. As if they were going with the flow rather than trying too hard. As such it’s deservedly one of my selections. But, and it’s a big but, the original is even better; Gee Baby, hidden on the flipside of little known New Orleans duo Joe and Ann’s debut disc, is an absolute cracker and one that everyone should have (and play regularly). Here are both so you can make up your own mind. That lazy pianist – Dr. John or maybe Huey Smith – kills me every time.
They were to do this renaming/borrowing trick more than once. Let’s Shake Some More from ˈ65 was an only slightly disguised Let The Good Times Roll. There was also a rather neat recycling of the Money riff in 1961’s Darling (I Miss You So):
However, they certainly could be inventive when they wanted to. Love Will Make You Fail In School, a flip side from way back in ˈ57, is one of those intriguing songs which doesn’t seem to fit neatly in any one category. There are hints of calypso plus slight echoes of their solitary hit. The title is one that invites you to play the disc, just to see what it’s all about. And the melody just insinuates itself into the brain in no time. And it has dooby doobies. Oh, and Mickey doesn’t hold back on the clang.
Say The Word, which to the best of my knowledge is only available on album (see Footnotes) is one of those numbers (and performances) which seems to straddle the rock and pop boundary. Sung entirely in harmony and with lots of little things in the arrangement that keep you coming back for more.
My final selection, Rock And Stroll Room, is the flipside of one of the minute handful of singles released by the pair in the UK. It’s a slowish R&B grinder, with minimal artifice and a rasping sax solo. The only version on YouTube has the suffix “Take 1” so it was presumably not the final product. I should add that the finished article on Spotify has more presence.
As reported earlier, Mickey Baker moved to France and, judging by the amount of records released, would seem to have made a comfortable living for himself. However, his output was relatively predictable material and nothing that I felt warranted drawing the reader’s attention to.
Sylvia Vanderpool/Robinson/Robbins however became a success all over again with her disco smash, Pillow Talk. The saucy content wouldn’t have come as any surprise to anyone who had followed her from the start.
My tongue was slightly in my cheek whilst writing that heading. Love Is Strange was released in the UK (on HMV in May ’57) but I have no memory of it being played on the radio or of discussing it in the school playground with my mates. I’m pretty sure that the first time I heard the song was via the Everly Brothers very different version in ˈ65. The dialogue bit had had to be changed completely to suit two brothers.
It cropped up again a few years later on one of those albums that Coral/Decca were releasing to maximise their earnings out of Buddy Holly’s legacy. The album was Giant, and the performance was one from the so-called Apartment Tapes with overdubbing. We now have the undubbed version which is so much better:
That Buddy loved the chord sequence had been evident from shortly after his breakthrough. He’d used it for Words Of Love and Listen To Me. In its alternate incarnation as Dearest it would also appear again in the Apartment Tapes.
The song has been recorded several more times over the years. This version is from ˈ92. Everything But The Girl. It positively oozes charm.
1. Those who aren’t fans of soul man Billy Stewart might not be aware that he started off on stage as part of Bo Diddley’s backing team. Indeed, it was Diddley who got Stewart his contract with Chess Records. If you haven’t played Billy’s Blues yet, give it a go now. I deliberately included Part 2 because the vocal doesn’t appear till then, and it does show some unusual stylistic work even at this early juncture in Bill’s career.
2. Jody Williams started out in music playing rhythm guitar behind Bo Diddley while the latter was still working street corners. During the early fifties he established himself as a session guitarist. In that role he worked for a veritable who’s who of Chicago blues artists and appeared on records that we’ve all heard. He had a number of singles released, some under aliases, starring himself on vocals as well as guitar. This is one:
At the end of the sixties Jody hung up his guitar and got a job as a technical engineer. However on his retirement he picked up that axe again and made a couple of albums in the noughties. I’m grateful to Wiki for their fine entry on this little known artist.
3. Oran Thaddeus Page, or Hot Lips Page to give him his stage name, was a jazz trumpeter, vocalist and bandleader who was born in Dallas, Texas in 1908. He recorded for a number of labels and among his claims to fame is being the man who led the band behind Wynonie Harris on his hit recording of There’s Good Rockin’ Tonight. His most memorable record appearance was alongside Pearl Bailey, inviting her to a stopover in Baby, It’s Cold Outside in 1949.
4. The backing on several of the Jubilee records of Little Sylvia, including Drive Daddy Drive, came from Buddy Lucas and the Band Of Tomorrow. Assiduous readers might have spotted the Lucas name in connection with James Ray’s If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody – he was the harmonica man.
5. It’s all too easy to forget calypso now, but for a year or so, it was the thing, or so the more traditionalist DJ’s were telling us at the time. They usually went on to say, often with great delight, that it was taking over from the ‘rock and roll craze’, as they termed it. It didn’t. If you look at the charting discs from ˈ56 through to ˈ58 you’ll see minimal sign of calypso. I recall it these days for Harry Belafonte plus that Stan Freberg mickey take disc and that’s all. I might throw in Chuck’s Havana Moon but I didn’t make acquaintance with that record till years later (and whether Havana had much to do with Jamaica, I’m not sure).
6. Mickey’s guitar takes on a strong vibrato on He Gave Me Everything. One wonders whether the influence for this came from Robert Ward’s work with the Ohio Untouchables and the Falcons.
7. Dearest is almost invariably described as a Bo Diddley song and certainly E McDaniel (Bo’s real name) does appear as one of the composer credits. However I have never come across a Diddley Dearest and I’ve checked right through the 12 CD set, Bo Diddley: The Chess Years 1955-1974. There is a song called Dearest Darling but it’s nothing like Dearest in style. If any reader can help with this conundrum I’d be grateful.
8. It’s Gonna Work Out Fine was a single from Ike and Tina Turner which got to #14 in the US Pop Chart in 1961. Mickey and Sylvia provided guitar work and back up vocals for the record. What not everyone is aware of though is that Mickey also provided the ‘Ike vocal part’ in the verbal battle with Tina. M and S later covered the song though it was not released at the time. Here are the two versions:
9. I make reference to an album in the main text. There were two released while M & S were active. New Sounds and Do It Again. The former is currently available on CD/MP3 with bonus tracks which cover some of the more interesting singles.
10. I have to confess that my own favourite Love Is Strange version is the undubbed one from Buddy. But Buddy couldn’t have done that without Mickey and Sylvia. And would they have done it without Bo and Jody? Here they are:
11. I’ve been remiss in not filling the reader in properly on the “second part” of the Sylvia Robinson career. That’s in part because I felt I was getting a long way away from my main subject, but I also should own up to the fact that she was then moving further away from my own interests in music. To make amends, here’s a 10 minute video that Our Esteemed Editor discovered, telling us about Sylvia Robinson, co-founder of Sugar Hill Records and the Mother of Hip Hop.
Dave Stephens is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is available as an ebook and is described by one reviewer as ‘probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across’. “RocknRoll” contains further reflections on One Hit Wonders in its 1,000+ pages. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX.