Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 30, 2012

Pete La Roca Sims; Mickey Baker

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 3:13 pm

New York Times November 25, 2012

Pete La Roca Sims, Distinctive Jazz Drummer, Dies at 74


Pete La Roca Sims, a powerful and distinctive drummer who created the pulse for some of jazz’s leading figures from the late 1950s through the ’60s, died on Nov. 20 in Manhattan. He was 74.

The cause was lung cancer, said his daughter, Susan Sims.

With an effervescent time feel and an alert style that could turn an accompanying role into a running commentary, Mr. Sims was well suited to the dynamism of the postbop era.

“He was for me very, very easy to play with,” the pianist Steve Kuhn, a regular collaborator in the early 1960s, said last week. “His influences were what they were, but he synthesized them. His conception was unique.”

Working as Pete La Roca, Mr. Sims appeared on a handful of classic albums of the period, notably by the tenor saxophonists Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson. “Basra,” an album he made for Blue Note in 1965, leading a quartet with Mr. Henderson, Mr. Kuhn and the bassist Steve Swallow, is itself widely regarded as a classic.

Mr. Sims also recorded memorably with the alto saxophonist Jackie McLean, the trumpeter Art Farmer, the pianist Paul Bley and others. His second album as a leader, “Turkish Women at the Bath,” released in 1967, featured John Gilmore of the Sun Ra Arkestra on tenor saxophone and Chick Corea on piano.

Peter Sims was born on April 7, 1938, in Manhattan. He grew up in Harlem, surrounded by jazz: his stepfather was a trumpeter, and his uncle managed a suite of rehearsal studios. Mr. Sims had his first professional experience as a timbale player on the Latin dance-band circuit, where he adopted his stage surname, La Roca (“the Rock”).

He transitioned to the drum kit at 17. Two years later, on the recommendation of the pioneering bebop drummer Max Roach, he played what he would later recall as his first jazz engagement, with Mr. Rollins. Part of that performance would be immortalized on Mr. Rollins’s “Night at the Village Vanguard,” one of the bedrock live albums in jazz, though the drummer on most of the tracks is Elvin Jones.

During the spring and summer of 1960, Mr. Sims worked in an early iteration of the John Coltrane Quartet. He was similarly a short-lived founding member of Stan Getz’s acclaimed early-’60s quartet. (His replacement in the Coltrane band was Mr. Jones; in the Getz ensemble, it was Roy Haynes.)

Though he brushed up against experimentalism, free jazz held little appeal for Mr. Sims, and jazz-rock even less. This, combined with his growing impatience with sideman work, gradually resulted in dwindling opportunities. He drove a taxi for five years while studying law at New York University, and then became a contract lawyer. (When “Turkish Women at the Bath” was reissued without permission under Mr. Corea’s name, as “Bliss!,” he successfully sued.)

Mr. Sims bristled at the widely held perception that he had abandoned music to become a lawyer. The truth, he said, was that he would have continued to work as a musician if there had been more opportunities to play the kind of music he wanted to play — and that as soon as it became economically feasible to balance his music and law careers, he resumed performing.

He began playing semi-regularly again in 1979, using his real last name and mentoring younger musicians, notably the saxophonist David Liebman. And he doubled down on his stubborn adherence to swing rhythm. The name of his working band was Swingtime; that was also the title of his final album, released on Blue Note in 1997.

Mr. Sims’s marriage to the former Margo Burroughs ended in divorce. In addition to his daughter, a blues singer and drummer, Mr. Sims is survived by his son, Kenneth Harvey, and his brother, Michael Morgan.

New York Times November 29, 2012

Mickey Baker, Guitarist, Is Dead at 87


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 on Tuesday at his home in Montastruc-la-Conseillère, near Toulouse in southwestern France. He was 87.

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

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 a million copies and reached No. 1 on Billboard’s rhythm-and-blues chart and No. 11 on the pop chart.

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

He 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 the likes of 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., on Oct. 15, 1925. Little can be confirmed about his childhood other than that it was difficult. Both Ms. 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,” Ms. 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, Ms. 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 the pawnshop to buy one, he didn’t 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 the guitarist Rector Bailey. “He said, ‘I stole everything I could from him and made my honey from it,’ ” his wife said. In his early 20s he was playing in a jazz band called the Incomparables. By 1950, however, he had realized he couldn’t make a living playing jazz, and he turned to rhythm and blues and began getting studio work.

“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 R&B records for RCA, wrote in the liner notes for Mr. Baker’s 1959 album, “The Wildest Guitar.” “But sideman or leader, the musical ideas Mickey constantly contributed to these recording dates accounted for many hit records.”

Mr. Baker supplemented his studio work with teaching, and he wrote a series of instruction books for jazz guitar, recapitulating his own 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.

He studied composition and theory with the Greek composer Iannis Xenakis, among other teachers, and experimented on his own, playing and writing in a variety of forms, including classical music; he wrote a series of fugues and inventions for guitar and a concerto, “The Blues Suite,” for guitar and orchestra.

Mr. Baker was married six times. His survivors include 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; a son, McHouston Jr.; and a daughter, Bonita Lee.


  1. First heard laroca on the sonny rollins vanguard set; went on to get ‘turkish women’ mainly to hear john Gilmore out of the arkestra setting. when i had to give up my lp collection, i still kept ‘turkish’ just for the album jacket. didn’t know his personal story – rip

    Comment by jp — November 30, 2012 @ 3:34 pm

  2. […] Pete La Roca Sims; Mickey Baker […]

    Pingback by Mickey Baker obituary | Music | The Guardian « mostly music — December 3, 2012 @ 8:09 am

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