KING ERNEST: Ernest Baker was born to perform. Returning
to the live blues circuit to rave reviews in 1995 (after a 15-year
hiatus) and re-christening himself "King Ernest," the
flamboyant 59-year-old soul/blues shouter hasn't lost a bit of
his fiery spirit--or tamed down his flashy stage theatrics.
During his lengthy lay-off, Ernest worked as a supervisor in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. He continued to sing only with his local church choir. After retiring, the 6-foot-3 vocalist decided to jump back into show business, and began performing in small clubs in South Central L.A., where he was rediscovered by record producer/promoter Randy Chortkoff. (Chortkoff also produced Ernest's 1997 comeback album, King of Hearts, on the Evidence imprint.)
Ernest says he's "played everywhere" since, including extended stints touring Canada and Europe. He's expanded his secular audience beyond the juke joints, attracting a younger crowd because of his appealing mixture of blues standards with spectacular R&B and soul gems from the past.
His set list covers Rufus Thomas, Wilson Pickett, Al Green, T-Bone Walker, Hound Dog Taylor and Muddy Waters, among others. And that's in addition to drawing from his pool of original compositions.
Ernest, a deeply soulful vocalist and dynamic frontman, has always considered himself a natural-born performer. "That's what one guy told me," he confirms in a phone interview from his Los Angeles home, following a leisurely Las Vegas gambling excursion with his ex-wife.
"I had an old professor back in high school who told me I was born to do what I'm doing. He said all I needed to know was the breathing thing, because the voice was just natural."
Three ornate costume changes and sojourns through the audience with microphone in hand during his explosive, emotion-drenched sets validate his claim. He's been described as a cross between James Brown and Howlin' Wolf, but he considers himself more of a "smoother, more mellow-toned" blues singer in the vein of his mentor, Little Junior Parker and his adopted uncle, Bobby "Blue" Bland.
"I lived with (Bland's sister) Sandra in Chicago," he explains. "And everybody thought she was my mom, because I left the South when I was 18, after one year of college, and I came to stay with her. That's how people started thinking he was my uncle. She was my replacement mom." Tragically, "she drank herself to death" before Ernest started wooing Windy City audiences as Good Rockin' Ernie with his raucous, high-energy R&B/soul revue during the '60s and '70s, sometimes opening shows for Bland himself.
He quickly acquired the reputation not as a down-home bluesman, but as a sexy and vivacious crooner who spent more than a little time sidestepping the ladies' undergarments tossed on stage.
Born in Mississippi in 1939, and reared in New Orleans, Ernest descends from a rich musical heritage that began in Italy of all places. "My great-grandaddy was an old Italian dude from Milan," he offers. "He lived to be 109 and was a violinist--all his half-Mulatto children in the Southern states were violinists and guitar players."
Ernest remembers his father performing with the original Sonny
Boy Williamson when he was a young boy
"Even though I'm in my 50s, I'm not ugly yet," the articulate, soft-spoken Ernest chuckles. "So they call me a 'flamboyant, good-looking singer' instead."
Ernest doesn't think much of the current crop of so-called R&B/soul "singers" proliferating MTV and the radio airwaves. "To me, you don't find many real singers," he states flatly. "They're not great singers. They get over because of the good arrangements and studio wizardry." He considers guys like Lou Rawls and Frank Sinatra great singers.
How does he describe his high-octane shows to the uninitiated and curious? "It's wild, man. They'd get a wonderful mixture of blues and soul together, and they'd hear a guy who belts out songs--a guy who really sings for you. They eat that up." Amen, brother.
King Ernest and his R&B and Soul Review perform at 8 p.m. Saturday, August 22, at Plaza Palomino, located at Fort Lowell and Swan roads. Advance tickets are $12, available at Hear's Music, Piney Hollow and Plaza Palomino (Suite 219). They'll cost $15 at the gate. For more information, call 297-9133.
HOT PICK: If albino reggae legends are a dime a dozen these days, Winston Foster, aka Yellowman, stands out among the pack. In the 1970s, he was, if not one of the originators of dancehall reggae, primarily responsible for taking that style to an international audience. (In fact, many credit the "toasting," or DJing, style he helped popularize as being one of the primary influences of the genesis of rap music.) He began his career in Kingston, Jamaica, ruling reggae dancehall parties with his often-humorous and usually "slack" (highly sexually explicit) lyrics. What Jah was to Bob Marley, punanny was to Yellowman.
Eventually he took things too far, alienating much of his international audience by delving into lyrics that were both misogynistic and homophobic. It was a tough time, made tougher when he was diagnosed with throat and skin cancer. It must have also been a time of intense soul searching, because when he emerged from the chaos, he was a different man.
Leaving behind the slack style that made him famous, Yellowman's material in recent years has shifted its focus towards issues of race, spirituality, and discovery of his African roots. As if that weren't enough to convince the world he's come clean, he's even tackled the subjects of AIDS prevention and sexual harassment (he's against it). Currently enjoying his status as reggae elder statesman, he saw his 1997 release, Freedom of Speech--a collection of duets with old-school pioneers like Frankie Paul and Gregory Isaacs and relative newcomers such as Beenie Man--nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album.
Yellowman and his Sagittarius Band coast into The Outback, 296 N. Stone Ave., on Monday, August 24. Doors open at 8 p.m., with Neon Prophet taking the opening slot. Advance tickets are $15 for the general public, $12 for students, and can be purchased at Twelve Tribes Reggae Shop, CD Depot, and at the club. Call 622-4700 for additional information.
LAST NOTES: In the category of '80s-Bands-Reuniting-to-Cash-in-on-Their-(Minimal)-Success-of-15-Years-Ago, Missing Persons will be pulling into town this week. Best known for the pair of hits ("Destination Unknown" and "Walking in L.A.") from their debut album, the synth-heavy band holds the distinction of being fronted by Terry Bozzio, one of the most cloyingly squeaky-voiced singers of that blighted decade which spawned an awful lot of cloyingly squeaky-voiced singers. To their credit, the songs were catchy and memorable enough to warrant inclusion on a number of '80s compilation albums, and continue to be played at local dance clubs' '80s Nights. The band plays at Pink E's, 8640 E. Broadway, on Friday, August 21. Advance tickets are $6, $7 on the day of the show. (FYI: They're going for twice as much at the band's Phoenix show.) Call 296-2646 for details.
Club Congress continues its Multimedia Monday series with a locals-only show this week. The always-interesting, instrumental drum 'n' guitar duo, Twine, headline the show. Though I must 'fess up to the fact that I haven't seen them yet, relative newcomers The Cassadines have created quite a buzz in the ears of people whose opinions I trust in such matters. The band will occupy the opening slot. See 'em now so you can say you saw 'em when; I'll be there, and so should you. The rawk will be bookended by four short films showing at 8:15 p.m. and 12:05 a.m. It all goes down Monday, August 24, at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St. Admission is $3 at the door. For more information, call 622-8848.
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