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A Royal Return

King Ernest
He's the One: King Ernest shifts from blues to soul and back with ease on his new Evidence album, "King of Hearts."

Photo by Mark Castle



King Ernest reclaims his blues crown 30 years later

By Nicky Baxter

BLUESMAN Ernest Baker is a talker. I asked him a solitary question about his musical career, and by the time he was done, I felt like a priest after a day working the confessional booth. But then Baker's got a lot to talk about; at 57, he's been around the block and back again.

He started out as an R&B shouter in the late 1950s, quit to play cop for 14 years, only to hang up his holster in exchange for a second turn in the hot flash of the floodlights. This time around, he is garnering the kind of praise that prompted a record company head to dub him "King" Ernest more than 30 years ago.

"Yeah, they still call me King," Baker declares proudly. "They call me that because I was so wild, man. People said I could dance faster than James Brown and better than Jackie Wilson."

Born in Natchez, Miss., and raised in Louisiana, Baker took to music early, accompanying his C&W-twanging father to parties and juke joints. Immigrating to Chicago in the late 1950s, Baker managed to get an auspicious start: "[Guitarist] Byther Smith was the first guitarist I sang with; I started out with him. That man taught me so much, man." He goes on to list a handful of other early influences, most prominently singer and harp player extraordinaire Junior Parker and blues/R&B great Bobby Bland. "I used to live with his sister," Baker claims with just a smidgen of the puffed chest in his voice. The two were so close, in fact, that the singer calls Bland his uncle.

There may not be any biological connection between the two musicians, but "I'm So Tired," the opening cut off King of Hearts (Evidence), Baker's long-overdue first CD, makes the link obvious. Baker cries a mighty river without drowning in it--vintage Peacock/Duke wailing. Behind him, Baker's band does its best to recapture Eisenhower-era blues, complete with a horn section just this side of slick. The only miscue is some obtrusive piano pounding.

King Ernest has got much more up his sleeve than mere mimicry. King of Hearts spans the blues spectrum. On "I'm Not the One," the singer growls his way through a checklist of complaints about his woman. Elsewhere, King Ernest sings in a soul vein, his gospel background seeping into the foreground. Baker, who in his spare time sings in church, sees no contradiction between crying the blues and singing for his savior: "I used to feel bad about it, but not now. See, they both come from the same source."

As for the yuppified "blues" that now threaten to usurp the "Muddys" and "Wolfs" of his childhood, Baker does not mince words: "These young white kids don't know nothin' about the real blues except what they hear on records. But see, I lived the blues. I seen what my daddy went through and what his daddy went through. It was rough, man."

For his performance at JJ's Blues, Baker assures me that he intends to put on a "Chicago-style" show, with multiple changes of suits and, of course, his freaky stage antics. "I just like to perform, period. Sometimes I get so soulful it sounds gospel. You'll see."


King Ernest plays Friday (April 25) at 9pm at JJ's Blues, 3439 Stevens Creek Blvd., Santa Clara. Tickets are $10. (408/243-6441)

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From the April 24-30, 1997 issue of Metro

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