Published in The Gleaner: Sunday, March 8, 2015
For one brief moment, Mickey & Sylvia were the superstars of 1950s rock and roll music. Like Shirley and Lee from that same era, they portrayed the ‘sweethearts of the blues’ image with their mid-song romantic dialogues and Mickey’s excellent guitar solos. The two components became regular features of the duo’s recordings, providing the spice that made their songs some of the sweetest to emerge from the rhythm and blues and rock and roll scenes of the 1950s.
It was in 1954 that 29-year-old Mickey Baker, a music instructor who wrote several guitar instructions books, including a bestseller titled Jazz Guitar, met the beautiful and vivacious 18-year-old singer, Sylvia Vanderpool, and gave her piano lessons. Two years later, the partnership produced the Ethel Smith-penned, million-selling hit, Love Is Strange, an unusual slice of mid-tempo rock and roll in a soulful vein that had dance fans at the time locked in rhythmic steps on a dance floor. Unlike Shirley and Lee, who voiced separate parts, they sang together in harmony, and first showcased their unique mid-song dialogue in their first recording, Love Is Strange, which ran sequentially:
Sylvia: Yes Mickey?
Mickey: How do you call your lover boy?
Sylvia: Come here lover boy!!
Mickey: And if he doesn’t answer?
Sylvia: Ooh lover boy.
Mickey: And if he still doesn’t answer?
Sylvia: I simply say, baby, ooh baby, my sweet baby, you’re the one.
The recording, which was a number 11 on the pop chart, and number one on the R&B chart, was a highly romantic, yet sophisticated piece, the singing lines of which ran in part:
‘Love, love is strange
Lots of people take it for a game
Once you get it, you’ll never wanna quit
After you’ve had it, you’re in an awful mix’.
The Louisville, Kentucky-born Mickey Baker and the New York City-born Sylvia Vanderpool ignited the music business with that first hit, and it became a classic in the annals of pop music, remaining as popular today as it was then, on the strength of its ‘current’ musical feel. The recording was so explosive that Radio Corporation of America (RCA) pressing plants could hardly supply the demand for it. The duo’s follow-up success came in 1957, with There ought to be a Law, which climbed to number eight on the R&B charts and number 47 on the pop charts.
The extent to which the duo had impacted popular music was made evident when they played New York’s Apollo Theater in 1958: Fans lined up around the block, transforming the scene to resemble that of Radio City Music Hall at Christmas time. It was nonetheless understandable, because, apart from their hit recordings, the duo had an exciting stage act performed by two of the most exciting personalities in the business: Sylvia was the prettiest and sexiest young lady to walk out on stage in years, with a voice to match, while Mickey was tall and masculine, with a touch of mystery about him. Both could play the guitar.
When they first teamed up, Mickey was one of the top recording session men in New York, doing three sessions a day for various recording companies, while Sylvia, although having little of Mickey’s musicianship, was a quick learner. The team of Mickey and Sylvia was her idea: After convincing Mickey to teach her the guitar, and receiving a few lessons, she suggested that they form a team. Their other hits included Dearest (1957), which was successfully covered by the Jamaican duo, Dotty and Bonny; Bewildered (1958); This is my Story (1960); What Will I Do (1960); Love will make you fail in School and Mommy Out De Light, the latter being a suggestive ode which had Sylvia in the refrain of the song, singing the request of her son: ‘Mommy out de light and give me what you gave my daddy last night’. The matter was, however, clarified in the last line of the recording, as Sylvia sings: ‘And so I out de light and kissed him, like I kissed his daddy last night’.
Although reuniting briefly in 1965, the duo of Mickey and Sylvia had gone their separate ways a couple years before, Mickey via the migration route to France, where he worked with various French musicians, and Sylvia, forming a recording company – All Platinum Records, with her husband, Joe Robinson. Out of that came her big, risque, 1973 hit, Pillow Talk, which she wrote and produced. The sexy lyrics, permeated with sighs and grunts, ran in part:
‘Hey baby let me stay,
don’t care what your friends are about to say.
What your friends all say is fine,
but it can’t compete with this pillow talk of mine’.
Sylvia also produced the hits, It’s Gonna Work out Fine, for Ike and Tina Turner (on which she played guitar), and the 1970 gold single, Love on a Two-way Street, by the Moments, which she co-wrote.
In a dramatic resurgence, Sylvia wrote and produced on her All Platinum record label, for none other than her early singing mate, Shirley Goodman, of Shirley and Lee’s fame, the super-disco hit of 1974, Shame, Shame, Shame. It had music fanatics on both sides of the Atlantic. Sylvia continued to hit the R&B charts until 1978, at one point renaming her label Sugarhill Records, which signed and produced several top rap acts. Two of the smash hits that came out of that venture was the 1979 hit Rappers Delight by The Sugarhill Gang, a number four R&B hit, and The Message by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.
The Mickey & Sylvia saga could perhaps have been more productive had they stayed together for longer, but destiny had its own plans. Mickey Baker died at his home in Montastruc-la-conseillere, France, in 2012, while Sylvia Robinson passed away in 2011.