Still Getting Down

The legacy of bluesman Lee Baker will survive his tragic death.

I first met Lee Baker from the audience, and from there I got to know him well before meeting him. If you heard him play, you were touched. At a recent acoustic gig by Mud Boy and the Neutrons at the Overton Park Shell, his bandmates Jimmy Crosthwait, Jim Dickinson, and Sid Selvidge were romping through their treatments of unfamiliar folk songs, and Lee's guitar lines scurried in and out and through and around them, sounding like a farm dog playing chicken with the tractor.

Lee learned improvisation when he played in the pit band at the W.C. Handy Theater in Orange Mound. That was in the early 1960s, when Lee was in high school.

Soon he and other blues enthusiasts began meeting the musicians who had invented the music they loved. Lee's soul particularly reverberated with that of a Memphis bottleneck slide player named Furry Lewis. You could not only hear Furry in Lee's playing but actually see Furry Lewis in Lee Baker. Furry even rechristened him Lee Bailey and ordained him with the gift of a National steel guitar.

In the late 1960s, Lee sang and played with one of the first blues-heavy metal bands, Moloch. Their album on Stax's Enterprise imprint included the song "Going Down," which has since become a staple recorded by Joe Walsh, Freddie King, and Jeff Beck, among others.

Mud Boy and the Neutrons was formed in 1972, and when their firsthand influence from blues artists was laid over their collective white background, Mud Boy became the missing link between the Rolling Stones and Delta blues. I once asked Jim Dickinson about Lee and Mud Boy, and Jim said, "Really, all we are is a backing band for Baker."

Mud Boy and the Neutrons released their first album, Known Felons in Drag, in 1986, and followed up with Negro Streets at Dawn in 1993. Baker appeared on many other records, and some of my favorites are Big Star's 3rd (Sister Lovers), Alex Chilton's Like Flies on Sherbert, Jim Dickinson's Dixie Fried, Sid Selvidge's Waiting for a Train, and Lorette Velvette's Dream Hotel. In recent years, Lee helped form the Agitators, which was often a Moloch near-reunion and which regularly included Jimmy Segerson, Richard Rosebrough, Joe Gaston, Larry "Twitch" Davis, Phillip Dale Durham, the late Michael "Busta" Jones, and L.T. Lewis, a drummer who played Beale Street through its glory days. The Agitators released one cassette, titled Aw-Stop It.

Instead of pursuing an industry career in music, Lee Baker let the rhythms of life flow over him at Horseshoe Lake. He didn't need instruments to make music with his wife Carol or his sons Joe, Bo, and Ben. And when Lee played the guitar, he played with his whole being, rocking his body because his soul moved him. His gnarled solos soared to new heights past where others would have stopped, the tractor driver in him believing that the mirage of the oasis was really just ahead.

Where are the rest of Lee Baker's days? Where is the rest of Lee Baker's music? Life is not just, and the murders of Lee and his aunt Sally McKay prove that. And when the murderer is caught and a bad thing happens to a bad person, Lee will not be returned to us. I saw Lee Baker make music, and he influenced me, and I think I'm not the only one he touched. I think of his family, and I think of his friends, and I think of the strangers who will hear his recordings long after we're all gone, and I know that Lee Baker lives. (Robert Gordon, a filmmaker and author of numerous articles and this year's The King on the Road/Elvis Live on Tour: 1954 to 1977, profiled Lee Baker in his 1995 book about Memphis music, It Came From Memphis.)