By Ron Bally
AUGUST 24, 1998: KING ERNEST: Ernest Baker was born to perform. Returning to the live blues circuit to rave reviews in 1995 (after a 15-year hiatus) and re-christening himself "King Ernest," the flamboyant 59-year-old soul/blues shouter hasn't lost a bit of his fiery spirit--or tamed down his flashy stage theatrics.
During his lengthy lay-off, Ernest worked as a supervisor in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. He continued to sing only with his local church choir. After retiring, the 6-foot-3 vocalist decided to jump back into show business, and began performing in small clubs in South Central L.A., where he was rediscovered by record producer/promoter Randy Chortkoff. (Chortkoff also produced Ernest's 1997 comeback album, King of Hearts, on the Evidence imprint.)
Ernest says he's "played everywhere" since, including extended stints touring Canada and Europe. He's expanded his secular audience beyond the juke joints, attracting a younger crowd because of his appealing mixture of blues standards with spectacular R&B and soul gems from the past.
His set list covers Rufus Thomas, Wilson Pickett, Al Green, T-Bone Walker, Hound Dog Taylor and Muddy Waters, among others. And that's in addition to drawing from his pool of original compositions.
Ernest, a deeply soulful vocalist and dynamic frontman, has always considered himself a natural-born performer. "That's what one guy told me," he confirms in a phone interview from his Los Angeles home, following a leisurely Las Vegas gambling excursion with his ex-wife.
"I had an old professor back in high school who told me I was born to do what I'm doing. He said all I needed to know was the breathing thing, because the voice was just natural."
Three ornate costume changes and sojourns through the audience with microphone in hand during his explosive, emotion-drenched sets validate his claim. He's been described as a cross between James Brown and Howlin' Wolf, but he considers himself more of a "smoother, more mellow-toned" blues singer in the vein of his mentor, Little Junior Parker and his adopted uncle, Bobby "Blue" Bland.
"I lived with (Bland's sister) Sandra in Chicago," he explains. "And everybody thought she was my mom, because I left the South when I was 18, after one year of college, and I came to stay with her. That's how people started thinking he was my uncle. She was my replacement mom." Tragically, "she drank herself to death" before Ernest started wooing Windy City audiences as Good Rockin' Ernie with his raucous, high-energy R&B/soul revue during the '60s and '70s, sometimes opening shows for Bland himself.
He quickly acquired the reputation not as a down-home bluesman, but as a sexy and vivacious crooner who spent more than a little time sidestepping the ladies' undergarments tossed on stage.
Born in Mississippi in 1939, and reared in New Orleans, Ernest descends from a rich musical heritage that began in Italy of all places. "My great-grandaddy was an old Italian dude from Milan," he offers. "He lived to be 109 and was a violinist--all his half-Mulatto children in the Southern states were violinists and guitar players."
Ernest remembers his father performing with the original Sonny
Boy Williamson when he was a young boy
"Even though I'm in my 50s, I'm not ugly yet," the articulate, soft-spoken Ernest chuckles. "So they call me a 'flamboyant, good-looking singer' instead."
Ernest doesn't think much of the current crop of so-called R&B/soul "singers" proliferating MTV and the radio airwaves. "To me, you don't find many real singers," he states flatly. "They're not great singers. They get over because of the good arrangements and studio wizardry." He considers guys like Lou Rawls and Frank Sinatra great singers.
How does he describe his high-octane shows to the uninitiated and curious? "It's wild, man. They'd get a wonderful mixture of blues and soul together, and they'd hear a guy who belts out songs--a guy who really sings for you. They eat that up." Amen, brother.
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