King Ernest: Blues Got Soul

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By Barbara Flaska

Just when I thought there would never, never be a record like this ever again, here is King Ernest Baker. But they won’t ever be making a record like this again, because King Ernest was killed in a car accident within days of listening to the final mix. So here it is, a fitting testament, and this record will find a worthy place in collections standing next to that solitary Howard Tate album, or mixed in among Little Milton, LaVern Baker, Etta James, or your favorite rhythm and blues singer.

Not that King Ernest didn’t give it a try. After almost three decades of scuffling with just a few fine but forgotten singles to show for his efforts, King Ernest had a reputation in Chicago and New York of putting on an exuberant live show, his dancing compared to James Brown or Jackie Wilson. He never achieved national recognition and his music career stalled. In 1980, he resigned himself to a straight job and kept up his singing on Sundays as Brother Baker in a Los Angeles church choir. A couple of years ago, King Ernest embarked on a musical comeback after retiring from the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. At the age of 61, he got to realize his dream and make a record that should survive the tests of time.

Opening with “Suffer and Stay”, King Ernest shows some of his tremendous vocal command. This is King Ernest at his absolute best, the timber and range of his singing is so remarkable, I can’t think of a single person to compare him with. His voice is as sweet as a slowly cooked honey. You don’t often hear a voice this compelling, he soars and croons, moving from baritone to angelic falsetto without a hint of pretense. Here he is also singing with a band that includes low-profile electric guitars, pumping baritone saxophones reminiscent of the Stax sound, organ played with a few dramatic embellishments like Earl Bostic or Bill Doggett used for accent. The singer not only keeps up with the volume of the accompaniment, but drives their energy. This is a smoky, sultry song that tells of the anguish of sticking out a bad relationship for the sake of one’s own tender heart. There is a direct emotional delivery, a pride and artistic integrity, a feeling within the music which overtakes the listener. King Ernest is completely sincere.

“Blues Conviction” is really confessing the blues. This is the kind of song that would have inspired Joe Tex to spontaneously begin testifying and preaching on stage about the joys of real love and the dangers of cheating. It’s a story we’ve all heard too often. Temptation won the upper hand and got the best of King Ernest, and his woman caught him driving around town with another girl. The song conveys the pain and shame of his adultery, asking for forgiveness from God and his woman. You suspect of the two that God will be the only one willing to forgive this guy. The musical backdrop led by a sweet-sounding guitar and sleazy sax provides a bit of telling atmosphere for how this man might have been persuaded to risk everything for a passing fancy that led so directly to his emotional ruin.

King Ernest wrote half the songs on the record, and he wrote his songs in a classic style. “Fallin’ Down on My Face With the Blues” is a heart melter. It’s King Ernest’s turn to cry, now. However beautifully Ernest performs “The House Where Nobody Lives”, written by Epitaph artist Tom Waits, and makes the song believable and heart-wrenching, you can clearly hear the difference between the styles of writing.

I think to call this record a “blues” record is a bit of a misnomer, blurring the distinction between “soul” and “blues”. King Ernest’s style of singing and material goes back in time to the end of black rhythm and blues but before the late sixties when “soul” became a fixed genre.

They call this “blues” but it’s really closer to old rhythm and blues or soul music. Soul music has pretty much fallen off the edge of the earth, and the old rhythm and blues is becoming an arcane endeavor for collectors. Once upon a time, the real rhythm and blues as invented in America may not have liberated Paris, but it certainly meant something.

The end is near. We won’t be hearing this sort of music again. The newer forms and stylists are here because the lights have been dimming as the older musicians fall by attrition or inevitably grow older and die. They were closer to the roots and more authentic just by virtue of environment and chronology. As the new blues comes up, to my ear the music and the passion has thinned somewhat, but my parents said the same about jazz.

This record is an absolute treasure for anyone who remembers what real deep-hearted soul is about. Given the circumstances surrounding the release, the record may never achieve great numbers in sales or get any radio play although it by all rights should. But I am willing to bet someone will stumble across it and forty years from now will treasure it every bit as much as that tattered single Howard Tate album that has survived endless household moves and cross-country migrations.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/ernestking-blues/