As much as Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker ("Jim Dandy," "I Cried a Tear") has the right to be considered the Mother of Rock & Roll. Her death on March 10, from heart disease and the complications of diabetes that had cost her both her legs, marks the passing of a truly legendary force.
Baker's death came less than two weeks after the Rhythm and Blues Foundation engaged in its annual self-congratulatory spectacle the evening after the Grammys. This year's honorees, all worthy, were given $20,000--$25,000 to split for groups--in "grants," out of a fund established by an endowment from Time-Warner as a means of heading off major litigation over the way the company, and its Atlantic Records division in particular, cheated its R&B artists out of royalties since the 50s. Ruth Brown spearheaded that mid-80s effort, but her great friend LaVern Baker was one of her most important allies.
Today, the Foundation created by the work of Brown, Baker, and their peers refuses to address the real needs of this great but rapidly aging group of artists. The Foundation not only wont "get involved" in royalty reform issues, it effectively blocks such efforts by creating the appearance that the problem is solved and that all that remains is to adequately "honor" performers.
Indeed, at this year's awards ceremony, current Motown godfather Clarence Avant, whose label has adamantly refused to upgrade its royalty schedules, proclaimed that what R&B really needed was its own Hall of Fame--which would be a massive waste of money given the human needs. Such sentiments brought Bonnie Raitt, long an advocate of royalty reparations as well as the Foundation, to her feet in opposition. Raitt also directly excoriated Fantasy/Stax Records, the company with perhaps the worst royalty track record of any current label.
"We don't need another building," Raitt declared, "we need to get these people paid. Show them the money!" For her pains, Raitt was ignored at the ceremony and afterwards attacked, notably by Billy Vera. (Vera frequently writes liner notes for Fantasy/Stax and its business partner, Atlantic/Rhino).
In the wake of Atlantic's heralded announcement that it is upgrading "all" of its artists to a full 10% royalty on all future sales, others may believe Vera has a point.
In the past, Atlantic has instituted other royalty "reforms" for a group of thirty artists (a group which did not include, for instance, a major seller like Wilson Pickett but did include several blues singers who made only minor contributions to the label.). These have been pretty much meaningless. For instance, Sam Moore of Sam and Dave recently returned from a trip to England with more than $1000 worth of European Sam and Dave reissues that do not show up on his royalty statements. Brown has reported similar problems.
What is the real meaning of the way R&B giants are treated? Atlantic founder Ahmet Ertegun showed up at the R&B Foundation ceremonies in a regal limousine, wearing handmade shoes. Even when she was dying, LaVern Baker continued to perform from a wheelchair, because she needed to pay for her artificial legs, not to mention the rent.
Among the no-shows at LaVern Baker's funeral was the R&B Foundation's executive director Suzanne Jenkins, whose annual take from the endowment money people like LaVern Baker earned with the sweat of their brows is $75,000 plus benefits, i.e., four or five times per year as much as any R&B artist will receive from the Foundation lifetime.
[From Rock & Rap Confidential/1997]
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