Standing Through Tragedy

Tulsa musician Danny Baker pays tribute to his late wife with songs he wrote for her on his newest record, Love & Blues.

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Photo by Phil Clarkin

Ask most musicians about their latest discs and you’ll more than likely get responses along the lines of, “It’s by far the best thing I’ve ever done” or “Everything really came together for me on this one.”

Danny Baker, on the other hand, isn’t at all sure that his new release on Bison Records, Love & Blues, is his best album. Then again, it could well be.

The longtime Tulsa bluesman simply can’t say one way or the other – and for a good reason. He began working on it only a few days after the funeral for Natalie, his wife of 15 years. Throughout the process, he says, “I was kind of paralyzed and crippled.”

The man responsible for making the recordings happen was David Teegarden, the Grammy-winning drummer and Tulsa Sound figure who owns a studio in the city’s Pearl District.

“After the service, David came up to me and said, ‘Why don’t you come down to the studio Tuesday? We’re going to get you in there, get you a project to work on, get something going,’” Baker says. “So the first Tuesday after her funeral, we went down there – David and [bassist] Casey Van Beek and me – and David just turned on the tape and he said, ‘Start playing.’ So I started playing these originals, and we knocked out six or eight songs that first day.”

As it turned out, that material ultimately became Love & Blues and consisted mostly of tunes that Baker had composed for his wife. They had never been recorded. In fact, none of them had even been completed.

“I had written songs for her throughout our marriage, but I’d never finished them,” he says. “A couple of ’em I wrote the first year we were married, and when I showed them to her, she said, ‘Oh, I like them, but they sure sound sad.’”

He laughs.

“So, you know, me being the weirdo I am, I thought, ‘Well, if you think they’re sad, I won’t work on those,’ and I just put ’em on hold,” he says. “And, as time and years went by, I never quite finished the other songs I’d written for her.

“But when I went down there [to the studio], they just all came back to me.”

He recorded at Teegarden Studios for, he believes, at least four or five months. The subsequent release features Baker with his band of top-drawer Tulsa veterans – Danny Timms on keyboard, Gary Gilmore on bass and Scott Musick on drums – and includes two B.B. King covers, “Everybody Wants to Know Why I Sing the Blues” and “The Thrill Is Gone.” The rest are original Baker compositions. 

“It’s a labor of love,” he says. “I’m not going to lie. This may not be my best performance or the best album I’ve put out. I was kind of on autopilot; I don’t ever really remember a whole lot of the sessions. I just remember showing up and working. But the album is certainly a tribute to my wife.”

Another Baker disc, Mama’s Cookin’, led to Danny and Natalie’s marriage in the first place. As Baker remembers it, a professor at a college in Odessa, Ukraine, had found that CD and wrote to get his permission to use one of the songs for the soundtrack of a movie that her students were making. One of those students was his future wife. Soon, they began corresponding.

“I knew nothing about the Ukraine, other than it was a part of Russia. When I got a beautiful photograph and letter from Natalie, it was all in Russian, so I had to go over to Tulsa Community College and get a Russian professor to translate it,” Baker says with another laugh. “And that’s how it began. She took English lessons, and I took a class at TCC, and after about a year or two of talking, we decided that I’d take a trip over there. I did, and we got engaged.”

That all happened around the turn of the century. They were together until her 2017 death. During their marriage, Baker performed with his band and played guitar on a few recording projects, but for one reason or another he never got enough of his own stuff recorded to make up an album.

Then, his old friend Pride Hutchison moved back to Tulsa after being a part of the Los Angeles music scene for years. After setting up a recording studio, Hutchison asked Baker if he had any songs. As it turned out, he had a couple of new ones. One, “Whispering on the Wind,” was composed with Tulsa-based songwriter Ron Yates. The other, “Sweet Nicole,” was a Baker original. The former was a country-flavored rock number; the latter Southern-style blues-rock.

“Pride said: ‘Hey, man, I like these songs. Let’s do a dual release here, and I’ll pitch it to a couple of movie people I know. If we like the way things are going, we’ll maybe add some songs later and try to put you out a full album. But right now, let’s just do the single,’” Baker says. “So that’s what we did.” 

In the midst of recording those two songs, Natalie Baker died, so the project languished for a couple of years. Now, along with the Love & Blues album on his own Bison label, Baker has the two songs out on a single out from Explosive Records, Hutchison’s label.

For years, Baker has drawn some of the best players around for his bands or studio work. For the Explosive Records release, he and Hutchison continue that tradition, with such nationally known names as vocalist Marcy Levy, steel guitarist Jay Dee Maness and organist Lamar “Kronick” Mitchell listed in the credits.

“I’ve known Marcy most of my career, and I’ve always been kind of shy around her to be honest,” says Baker, laughing. “She’s a wonderful, wonderful person.”

Once again, there’s a connection with Natalie – going back to the 2011 funeral of organist Dick Sims, one of Levy’s close friends.

“You know, after she played with [Eric] Clapton, Marcy’s next band was Shakespears Sister,” Baker says. “And at Dickie’s funeral, Natalie said, ‘Look. There’s Shakespears Sister.’

“I said, ‘No, that’s Marcy Levy.’

“‘I know her name, but that’s Shakespears Sister. One of my most favorite songs in the whole world is called “Stay” by Shakespears Sister. It was a huge hit in the Ukraine. Will you introduce me to her?’

“‘Sure,’ I said. ‘She’s my friend.’ And Natalie said, ‘No she’s not.’”

He laughs.

“So I introduced them. I’d never seen my wife starstruck about anybody, but she thought that was the coolest thing – that she got to meet one of her idols – and it happened to be her husband’s friend. She just couldn’t believe that.”

While Baker readily admits that he grieves daily for his wife, he takes some solace that her memory echoes through both of his new recording projects. Pragmatically, he wants the release of the new material to lead to “a few bigger dates” and perhaps a tour for him and his band.

“I don’t know if the album’s going to sell well or not,” he says with the blunt wisdom that comes from years of experience in the music business. “I hope it does. But I also hope that it adds to my legacy – that it lets people know I’m still valid, I’m still here and I’m still standing.”