Composer, arranger, conductor and copyist Brad Baker was the classic behind-the-scenes man. His craft or those he practiced it with almost guaranteed him a certain kind of anonymity.
He gravitated toward the instant success that disco afforded many people during the mid 1970s, but he never earned that first-call status of those like Gene Page, Van McCoy, Horace Ott, Vince Montana or Wade Marcus, who cut their chops earlier on jazz, R&B or pop music. He also never became one of those name producers like Tom Moulton or, later, Jellybean Benitez, who could instantly identify a groove and make the most of it for the dance-floor crowd.
Baker toiled in obscurity, mostly in the disco world and, from what I can find out, only from about 1975 to 1985. He also contributed to a number of jazz releases starting with Reuben Wilson's mostly unjazzy cult classic Got To Get Your Own (Cadet, 1974) and mostly only for Sonny Lester's Groove Merchant and LRC record labels.
There may have been others. But whatever it is hasn't been too well documented. Discogs.com doesn't even list most of the albums covered below. The fairly decent discography site lists Baker's participation on a handful of obscure records, mostly from the world of disco: the instrumental "Art Deco" by the New York City Rhythm Orchestra (Full House, 1976), Camouflage (Roulette, 1976; Honey Bee, 1977), Don Downing (RS International, 1978), Jay Black (Millenium, 1978), Showdown (GIP, 1979), Heat (SMI, 1979), Tabou Combo Superstars (Tabou Combo, 1980), Mantus (SMI, 1980), The Rainbows (Fox Moor, 1981), Fantom (Coast to Coast, 1981), Meco (Arista, 1982), B.T. Express (Coast to Coast, 1982; Record Shack, 1983) and Lea (Oh My!, 1985). Interestingly, Rhino's recent dual-disc release of the Talking Heads 1977 debut album, Talking Heads '77, includes a previously unissued bonus track called "Love -> Building on Fire" which includes horns arranged by Brad Baker and frequent musical partner, guitarist Lance Quinn.
Baker also co-wrote all seven of the songs from famed mega-hit producer Joel Diamond's miserable 1979 Casablanca disco album Joel Diamond Experience (featuring the cringe-worthy "Tall In The Saddle" among other embarrassments). Obviously, Baker contributed none of the cheesy half-baked arrangements scored by one Ron Frangipane.
Most notably, Brad Baker contributed to quite a few of Gregg Diamond's mid-to-late 1970s disco productions (George McRae, Andrea True Connection, Gregg Diamond's Star Cruiser, Gloria Gaynor, Bionic Boogie), during the same period he was Groove Merchant/LRC's house arranger. These are probably Baker's best known work. While Diamond (1949-99) scored several hits at the time - which haven't really stood the test of time - it was Baker's percolating horn charts and, more notably, his lush string arrangements that added something special to Diamond's otherwise pedestrian disco. To get a feel for what Baker could accomplish, sample the instrumentals "Big West" and "Feel Like Dancing" from the first Bionic Boogie album, Bionic Boogie (Polydor, 1977) - which features Diamond on keyboards as well as guitarist Lance Quinn and percussionist Jimmy Maelen, who appear on most of the Groove Merchant/LRC albums Baker scored below. This was some of the best string writing disco knew outside of Gene Page and one or two others.
By the mid 70s, Sonny Lester, a successful producer dating back to the 1950s, was looking to develop a sellable sound for his Groove Merchant label. When Lester started the Solid State label in 1965, he brought in respected arranger Manny Albam to craft settings for the label's initial releases, probably in deference to the success Creed Taylor found at Verve at the time cushioning leader/stars in the orchestras of Claus Ogerman, Oliver Nelson, Lalo Schifrin and Don Sebesky. Very shortly after Albam came aboard, Lester found that many of his artists including Jimmy McGriff and Thad Jones/Mel Lewis didn't need that extra - and expensive - kick. So he pared down and when a groove needed to be set, Lester brought in the busy Horace Ott to sweeten albums by McGriff, Junior Parker, Groove Holmes and Carmen McRae.
By the mid-1970s, Lester had developed a roster of tier-two stars, led by organist Jimmy McGriff, for his Groove Merchant label. But even though the label's artists were more authentically catering to black audiences with jazz, blues and R&B, none of these records were selling anywhere near as well as Creed Taylor's CTI and Kudu records were at the time.
CTI records always boasted first-tier support from big names such as Don Sebesky, Bob James, Deodato and former JB Pee Wee Ellis. With CTI scoring hits by Deodato, Grover Washington, Jr., Esther Phillips and even old-timers Freddie Hubbard and Stanley Turrentine, Lester must have thought it was time to reconsider orchestrating his own records.
For whatever reason, he tapped New York-based arranger Brad Baker and sure enough, Baker developed an individual sound right away that became integral to Sonny Lester productions; something that could unashamedly be called "the LRC sound."
Guitarist Lance Quinn was partnered for whatever reason with Baker for many of these records, which is best described as orchestral disco jazz. The two collaborated on many of the songs and most of the arrangements that came to make this sound so identifiable.
The only down side to the Baker/Quinn sound was that it often enveloped or overcame the soloist it was supporting so completely as to render their participation almost moot. As a result, much of the music cited below is better heard from the perspective of being a Brad Baker album - with consistently significant contributions from guitarist/composer Lance Quinn, guitarist/composer Jerry Friedman and bassist/composer Bob Babbitt - with the artist credited on the LP sleeve as being a guest to the proceedings.
Masada - Joe Thomas (Groove Merchant, 1975): Joe Thomas' second Groove Merchant album is the first time Brad Baker's work appeared on one of Sonny Lester's productions. This is a particularly good one too. Thomas, who sticks to tenor sax throughout the album, collaborates with Baker on four of the album's six tracks ("Gemini Flyin' High," "Masada," "I'm Gone and I'm Glad" and "Flame"). These are the album's highlights too. The funk is deep and palpable here. Vocalists - including Cissy Houston - are added to three tracks, but only help to move the groove along. A first-rate team of New York session men are gathered here, including Jerry Friedman, Jeff Mironov and Lance Quinn on guitars, Pat Rebillot on keyboards, former Motown great and "Funk Brother" Bob Babbitt on bass, Steve Gadd on drums and Jimmy Maelen on percussion. Some of these folks form the core unit of all the releases that follow. Thomas collaborates with Baker on all the arrangements. Brad Baker helms the orchestrations and, presumably, the conducting too. Masada has been issued on CD by Beast Retro in 1997 (now out of print) and by the Candian Unidisc in 2006.
The Mean Machine - Jimmy McGriff (Groove Merchant, 1976): Organ grinder Jimmy's McGriff's first collaboration with the Brad Baker/Lance Quinn team yielded this rather exceptional album of orchestral disco jazz. McGriff switches to keyboards other than organ - mostly electric piano and clavinet - so with the prominence of the orchestral effects, it's almost like a Baker/Quinn album with occasional features for McGriff and reed player and fellow Groove Merchant recording artist Joe Thomas. Baker conducts the orchestra, contributes one of the album's six titles (the fab funky "Please Don't Take Me Out"), co-writes two ("The Mean Machine," "It Feels So Nice (Do It Again)"), and either arranges ("Please Don't Take Me Out," "Overweight Shark Bait") or co-arranges the entire album. Four tracks from this album were issued as part of a CD titled Red Beans (LRC, 1994) and the entire album was recently issued on CD by the Canadian Unidisc company. Read my review here.
Keep On Lovin' - Lonnie Smith (Groove Merchant, 1976): Organ grinder Lonnie Smith's second Groove Merchant album was a surprising shift from the spacey near-cosmic jazz he'd laid down on previous recordings. Here, the groove is simple, basic and designed to engage the feet more than the brain. Smith sings on several tracks ("Keep on Loving," "What I Want") and switches over to the Fender Rhodes for the most part. Brad Baker's funk-oriented arrangements must have seemed like something new to the Doctor. Lonnie Smith had never been dressed like this for a night out on the town. But he reacts like he knows he belongs here. Because he's on Fender Rhodes, it never really sounds like a Lonnie Smith album. But Baker's arrangements have a signature all their own which gives this album something worth remembering it for. Joe Lovano, very early in his career, takes several solos here too. Baker contributes two pieces co-written with guitarist Lance Quinn, "Sizzle Stick" and "Lean Meat," and they are easily the album's highlights. Issued on CD in 2006 by the Canadian Unidisc company and also coupled with most of the tracks of the previous Afro-desia in 2000 by the Connoisseur Collection.
Windows - O'Donel Levy (Groove Merchant, 1976): Guitarist O'Donel Levy spent much of the 1970s associated with Sonny Lester's family of labels. Windows is the first of his two collaborations with arranger and conductor Brad Baker. Unlike Baker's other assignments, this one is dominated by the leader's own funky compositions. As a player, Levy has always struck me as too time-locked in the early 1970s. Normally, that sort of thing wouldn't bother me except, funky as he was, it tended to sound a bit too anonymous. In front of some good grooves as are heard here and Baker's just-perfect accents, though, Levy really shines. Windows is definitely a funk classic. Highlights include "Panama Red," the hard funk of "Freedom and Good Times" (a vocal feature that stands tall along side the funk the Commodores, the Ohio Players and P-funk were chunking out at the time), the smooth-gets-tough groove of "Moisturizer" and the funky "Green Machine," which probably refers to the Chevy van pictured on the LP's front cover. Even the ballads are worth checking into here. Levy's a pretty decent singer ("I'll Sing from My Window") and gives "I Believe in Miracles" a George Benson-like scat solo worth checking out. Baker's talent for adding just the right touch to someone else's music is probably best heard here. Windows, which I have finally come to think is worth the effort, was issued on CD by the Canadian Unidisc company.
Red Beans - Jimmy McGriff (Groove Merchant, 1976): This is a strong and memorable Brad Baker/Lance Quinn album. But poor Jimmy McGriff is practically buried by all of it. Perhaps it's because he's playing almost every keyboard except the organ. Michael Brecker solos distinctively on "Red Beans" and "Cakes Alive." Guitarist Jerry Friedman pretty much dominates "Love Is My Life." Brad Baker conducts the orchestra and probably arranged most of the album too. Baker and Quinn co-wrote four of the album's six songs ("Red Beans," "Cakes Alive," and the album's two best numbers, "Big Booty Bounce" with McGriff on organ and the lovely "Love Is My Life" with McGriff on piano and Baker's soaring strings). A great record to enjoy what Brad Baker and Lance Quinn achieved together. The music from this album is pretty easy to find on CD in several forms. Read my review here.
Feelin's From Within - Joe Thomas (Groove Merchant, 1976): Despite the grammatical error in the album's title, this is otherwise a pretty perfect collaboration between Joe Thomas and the Brad Baker/Lance Quinn musical machine. Thomas sticks to flute throughout most of the album, switching to tenor sax for "Galaxy Dreamin'" and the ballad "Venus." Baker contributes one of the album's six pieces ("Venus"), co-writes three ("Feelin's From Within," the great Polarizer," featuring Barry Miles on synthesizer, and the groovy "Galaxy Dreamin'") and co-arranges the entire album. Good from start to finish and one of Baker/Quinn's better examples of keeping the spotlight on the soloist. Issued on CD by the Canadian Unidisc company.
Tailgunner - Jimmy McGriff (LRC, 1977): Baker conducted the orchestra backing organist Jimmy McGriff on this pretty much all-out disco affair, arranged one song ("Flexible Flyer"), co-arranged with Lance Quinn three others, and co-wrote with Lance Quinn four of the album's six tunes ("Tailgunner," "Sky Hawk," "Flexible Flyer" and the interesting funk of "Grandma's Toe Jam," which features Jerry Friedman's beautiful guitar). Not bad, just not great, and surprisingly, none of it has shown up on CD yet, not counting the CD-R amazon.com is currently offering (probably through Sonny Lester himself). "Grandma's Toe Jam" can, however, be found on CD as "The Move" from How to Belly Dance for Your Lover (Groove Jams, 1998). Read my review here.
Funk Reaction - Lonnie Smith (LRC, 1977): Like the previous Keep on Lovin', this doesn't feel much like a Lonnie Smith album. But even though Brad Baker did the arrangements with Lance Quinn (except on "Babbit's Other Song," where Baker co-arranges with the song's composer, Bob Babbitt), the material just isn't that good. Together, Baker and Quinn wrote the lame title track, featuring Smith's unenthusiastic, almost parodying vocals, and the interesting "For the Love of It," which is so dominated by reeds that you can only guess it is Lonnie doing the rather dull synthesizer solo. Guitarist Richie Hohenberger so dominates his own two contributions, "It's Changed" and "When The Night Is Right," that you forget you're listening to a Lonnie Smith album altogether. The highlights here - "For the Love of It," "Babbit's Other Song" and "When The Night Is Right" - are good for what everybody brings to them, but not much else. Brad Baker isn't the reason this album doesn't work but, curiously enough, he either wasn't invited back for Lonnie Smith's final LRC album, Gotcha (1978), or he didn't receive credit for what sounds like his work on the LP's jacket. The first three tracks of Funk Reaction were issued on a CD simply titled Lonnie Smith (LRC, 1991). The second three tracks were issued on the strangely-compiled Afrodesia (LRC, 2002).
Here I Come - Joe Thomas (LRC, 1977): Baker arranged and conducted Here I Come, his third collaboration with Joe Thomas. It's a slick, but solid album of orchestral groove jazz with more than its share of highlights: "Here I Come," "Gotcha," also featuring guitarist Jimmy Ponder, "A Place in Space," "Same Old Song" and "Green Dragon." Thomas divides his time pretty evenly between his tenor sax and flute and his playing on both instruments sounds as if it sounds right at home in Brad Baker's orchestrations. Baker contributes the melodic "A Place in Space" (which, like "Same Old Song" has the melody stated by synthesizer and introduces Thomas soloing on flute a few minutes in) and co-wrote the title track with Thomas, an excellent jazz groover showcasing Thomas on tenor with guitarist Jimmy Ponder. "A Place in Space" also backed Thomas' 12-inch disco hit "Plato's Retreat" (TK, 1979). Here I Come was issued in its entirety on a CD called Plato's Retreat and Other Funky Delights (LRC, 1993).
Time Has Changed - O'Donel Levy (LRC, 1977): A dull and mostly dreadful album that was "supervised," whatever that means, by both Brad Baker and Lance Quinn. Guitarist O'Donel Levy contributes all of the compositions and sings on all but two tracks, "Butta" and "Love Will Never Die," the only two tracks worth hearing more than once. Available on CD-R from amazon.com.
All Things Beautiful - Jimmy Ponder (LRC, 1978): Guitarist Jimmy Ponder's fourth solo album is his only LRC album and, probably, his best-known album from the 1970s. With its Pete Turner cover, it even suggests a CTI album, which was probably the point. Brad Baker arranged and conducted and co-wrote four of the album's seven tracks with Lance Quinn ("Love Will Find A Way," "Chasing That Face," "Love Me Right" and the surprisingly exquisite "A Trip To The Stars"). These are the album's highlights too. This album was released in its entirety - with three additional songs from another session - on a budget-priced CD simply titled Jimmy Ponder (LRC, 1991). Read my review here.
Gotcha - Lonnie Smith (LRC, 1978): While Gotcha finds Lonnie Smith returning to his roots somewhat, finally unearthing his Hammond B-3 on a couple tracks and getting back more to jazz, several oddities pop up here. Lance Quinn, not Sonny Lester, is listed as producer and Lonnie Smith, not Brad Baker, is listed as the album's arranger. In fact, Brad Baker is not credited anywhere at all on this LP which is odd because his touch is evident, most notably in the funky horn charts of "Do It" (featuring Eddie Daniels on sax), the jazzy groove of the guitar-driven "My Latin Sky" (no sign of Smith here whatsoever) and the strings and the horns of Smith's Stevie Wonder-like "I Need Your Love." Smith's "Sweet Honey Wine" is given a Benson/Ogerman "Breezin" type groove that doesn't necessarily recall Brad Baker's work, but the song does show up on the Brad Baker compilation Hot Chocolate. So somebody knows something we don't. Undoubtedly, this is Smith's most distinctive album for the label. But it's unfathomable why there is no credit given here to Brad Baker - if for, no other reason, pure inspiration. All tracks from this album appeared on a CD simply titled Lonnie Smith (LRC, 1991).
Outside Looking In - Jimmy McGriff (LRC, 1978): Not only one of Jimmy McGriff's best albums of the 1970s, it is probably one of Brad Baker's best jazz achievements. It's definitely jazz in the disco realm, but it's as if Baker and company perfected the groove at this point. The album was arranged and conducted by Baker with features for McGriff, alto saxist Hank Crawford, tenor saxist Eddie Daniels and guitarist Jimmy Ponder. Baker co-writes four of the album's six tunes ("Outside Looking In," "Playland," "Midnight Boogie" and the brilliant "Tapioca"). Excellent from start to finish and worth every dime for "Tapioca" alone. All tracks from this LP except the title track were issued on a budget-priced CD simply titled Jimmy McGriff featuring Hank Crawford (LRC, 1990). Read my review here.
Get In The Wind - Joe Thomas (LRC, 1978): Joe Thomas never flinched from introducing a groove into his jazz and he doesn't here either. Indeed, here, he crosses over completely and unapologetically right into disco with the help of arrangers Lance Quinn and Brad Baker. Thomas is on flute pretty much throughout and succumbs to covering such then-in disco pop hits as Dolly Parton's "Two Doors Down," Boz Scaggs' "Lowdown" and Atlanta Rhythm Section's "Imaginary Lover" (the only tenor sax feature). This is the album that includes the notorious "Plato's Retreat" too. "Plato's Retreat" does not carry a writing credit from Thomas and, in fact, he's barely audible on the piece. But the song turned into something of a dance-floor hit, especially around New York where the infamous (hetero) sex club the song was named for was located (until the AIDS scare - of all things - shut it down in the mid-1980s). The tune is intentionally pure disco with almost no trace of jazz - but dig Baker's strings during the break. Baker co-writes three of the album's six tracks, including "Plato's Retreat." The other two tracks - "Mr. Mumbles" and "Get into the Wind" (both nicely featuring spots for trumpeter Marvin Stamm) - are the album's highlights and sound most like the familiar and classic Thomas-Baker moments of before. Three of the album's six tracks ("Plato's Retreat," "Mr. Mumbles" and "Get Into the Wind") were issued on a CD called Plato's Retreat and Other Funky Delights (LRC, 1993).
B. Baker Chocolate Co. - B. Baker Chocolate Co. (LRC, 1979): Giving an arranger his own album was nothing new - think of Nelson Riddle on Capitol (thanks to Frank Sinatra) - but it didn't happen often in jazz. CTI's Creed Taylor was, however, famed for rewarding his successful arrangers like Don Sebesky, Bob James and David Matthews with their first albums. After nearly five years crafting "the LRC sound," Brad Baker got his shot from producer/label owner Sonny Lester - and he came up with a winner. In addition to assembling many of the top-shelf New York studio musicians present on previous Baker-arranged albums, the cream of LRC's roster provides their firepower for this above-average affair, including guitarist Jimmy Ponder, keyboard player Lonnie Smith, organist Jimmy McGriff ("Dreamer," "It's Where You're Coming From"), alto saxist Eddie Daniels ("Higher & Higher/The High and the Mighty"), flautist Sherry Winston and alto sax/flute man George Young. Baker and Quinn contribute three of the album's six tunes ("Snow Blower," "Carousel," "Spirit Level") and these characteristic moments are undoubtedly the album's highlights. Baker and Quinn collaborate on the arrangements throughout, except on "Carousel" where the pair are aided by Lew Del Gatto and Lonnie Smith's "Dreamer," which is credited to B. Baker, Smith and Christianson. The disco medley "Higher and Higher/The High and the Mighty" is probably the least interesting five and half minutes on the set, but its familiar groove helped it find its way onto a 12-inch disco dance single that got some club play. While this album has not yet been issued on CD (discounting the CD-R that appears to be available for sale from amazon.com), five of the album's six tracks appeared under different titles on a CD titled How to Strip for Your Lover (Groove Jams, 1998): "Snow Blower" = "Dream Lover," "Carousel" = "Love Call," "Dreamer" = "The Mystery of It All," "Spirit Level" = "Discovery" and the strangely un-re-titled "It's Where You're Coming From." It's worth noting the remainder of this CD and How to Belly Dance for Your Lover (Groove Jams, 1998) are made up of re-titled Brad Baker tunes from the Sonny Lester archives. "Snow Blower," aka "Snowblower," which has become a sort of cult dance-floor fave, has also factored on several compilations including Classic Jazz-Funk 2 (MasterCuts, 1991) and Birth of the Cool Funk: Vintage Jams and Serious Grooves 2 (LaserLight, 1998).
Make Your Move - Joe Thomas (LRC, 1979): Brad Baker's association with Sonny Lester's Groove Merchant and LRC record labels began as it ended, with a Joe Thomas album. Make Your Move was certainly the end, and probably inglorious one at that. Like much of LRC's output at the time, it was pure disco. LRC, after all, was being distributed by Florida-based T.K. Records, home to K.C. & The Sunshine Band, T-Connection and other hit disco acts of the time - and the pressure was probably on to cash-in on those dance-floor sales. Thomas is almost like a guest on this album, stepping in for the occasional brief solo. Vocalists dominate on all but two of the tracks, yet there are some notable highlights including "Caught You Lying Again" (featuring guitarist Hiram Bullock), "Let Me Be the One" (featuring Marvin Stamm on flugelhorn and Bullock again on guitar), the get-down of Jerry Friedman's "Get On Back" and Lance Quinn's "Sugar Smack." Only "Get on Back" and "Sugar Smack" prominently showcase Joe Thomas. "Make Your Move," surprisingly Baker's only co-writing credit here, was issued as a 12-inch dance single, backed with "Get on Back," and it developed something of a cult, especially in the UK. All in all, Make Your Move is a pretty good record, but it lacks the distinction that both Joe Thomas and Brad Baker brought to previous productions together.
Hot Chocolate - Brad Baker Chocolate Company (51 West, 1980): Sonny Lester moved his operations over briefly to the Columbia (now Sony) distributed 51 West label. While there, he assembled several compilations of previously issued LRC recordings including this tribute, of sorts, to the man who crafted the distinctive late 1970s orchestral disco jazz of the Groove Merchant and LRC record labels, Brad Baker. Included on this ultra-rare LP - seemingly the last word from Brad Baker - is "Sweet Honey Wine" from Lonnie Smith's Gotcha, "A Place In Space" from Joe Thomas' Here I Am, "Sky Hawk" from Jimmy McGriff's Tailgunner, "Space Cadet" from Jimmy McGriff's Red Beans and "Dust Pan" and the excellent "Tapioca," both from Jimmy McGriff's Outside Looking In.
In conclusion, I ask simply, whatever became of Brad Baker? I can find no biographical information on the man anywhere around, whether he's alive or dead and, sadly, almost no evidence whatsoever that he ever lived at all. If you have any information or know I can find out more about Brad Baker, please let me know.