Mickey Baker, influential R&B guitarist, 87

After moving to France, Mr. Baker rarely returned to the United States.
Bear Family Records
After moving to France, Mr. Baker rarely returned to the United States.

NEW YORK — Mickey Baker — whose prickly, piercing guitar riffs were featured on dozens if not hundreds of recordings and helped propel the evolution of rhythm and blues into rock ’n’ roll — died Tuesday at his home in Montastruc-la-Conseillere, near Toulouse in southwestern France. He was 87.

The cause was heart and kidney failure, said his wife, Marie.

Mr. Baker is probably best known for a single song, ‘‘Love Is Strange,’’ a sexy pop tune that he and Sylvia Vanderpool Robinson recorded in 1956 as Mickey & Sylvia. It sold more than 1 million copies and reached number one on Billboard’s rhythm-and-blues chart and number 11 on the pop chart.


The recording was featured in the 1987 film ‘‘Dirty Dancing,’’ and rapper Pitbull sampled it — includ­ing the signature keening guitar riff, said to have influenced a young Jimi Hendrix — in the song ‘‘Back in Time,’’ featured in the 2012 film ‘‘Men in Black 3.’’

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Mr. Baker also had an important career away from the spotlight. In the 1950s, few studio musicians were more in demand than Mr. Baker, who took part in sessions for Atlantic, King, RCA, Savoy, Decca, and other labels, often as many as four a day. And few guitarists were more influential.

His well-known recordings included ‘‘Money Honey’’ and ‘‘Such a Night’’ by the Drifters, Joe ­Turner’s ‘‘Shake, Rattle and Roll,’’ Ruth Brown’s ‘‘Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean,’’ and Big ­Maybelle’s ‘‘Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On.’’ Known for his aggressively bluesy chords and attention-grabbing solos, he is often cited by connoisseurs as a signature force, along with guitarists Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, in the development of rock ’n’ roll and an antecedent of Hendrix, Keith Richards, Pete Townshend, and many others.

McHouston Baker was born in Louisville, Ky. Little can be confirmed about his childhood, other than that it was difficult. Both Marie Baker and one of his former wives, Barbara Castellano, to whom he was married from the mid-1950s until the mid-1970s, said in interviews that he believed his father, whom he never met, was a white piano player who was passing through Louisville and that his mother, Lillian, who was black, was just 12 years old when he was born.

His mother was unable to care for him and was subsequently in and out of jail. Young Mickey spent several years in an orphanage, where, his wife said, he ate regularly for the first time and played musical instruments — ‘‘the tuba, whatever was available’’ — but where, after having lived on the street, he felt constrained. He ran away often, riding the rails to St. Louis, to Chicago, and several times to New York City, where he finally landed permanently when he was 15.


‘‘He took a bath in the Hudson River,’’ Marie Baker said. ‘‘I remember him saying he wanted to start there clean, and the train was dirty.’’

New York was where he had always wanted to be, Castellano said. He worked odd jobs there, not all of them legal, before deciding to pursue music.

His first wish was to play the trumpet, but when he visited a pawnshop to buy one, he did not have enough money; a beat-up guitar was all he could afford. A quick study who was largely self-taught, he did take lessons from Rector Bailey. ‘‘He said, ‘I stole everything I could from him and made my honey from it,’ ’’ his wife said.

‘‘Sometimes Mickey would lead the band or the combo that played on the date; other times he would merely be a sideman,’’ Bob Rolontz, who produced records at RCA, wrote in the liner notes for Baker’s 1959 album, ‘‘The Wildest Guitar.’’ “Sideman or leader, the musical ideas Mickey constantly contributed to these recording dates accounted for many hit records.’’

Mr. Baker supplemented studio work with teaching, and wrote a series of instruction books for jazz guitar, recapitulating his idiosyncratic method, that are available today. In the early 1960s, he moved to France, first to Paris and later to Toulouse, and he rarely returned to the United States.


Mr. Baker was married six times. In addition to his wife, the former Marie France-Drai, a singer he met in the early 1980s with whom he toured Europe in a variety of bands, he leaves a son, McHouston Jr., and a daughter, Bonita Lee.