DICK TWO TON BAKER

The Music Maker of Chicago
Part 3

Fan and Friend of the Duke
The earliest press mention I've ever found about Two Ton was in the January 1941 issue of the jazz journal Down Beat, which described him as a "pianist and jive singer at WJJD and WIND, who owns virtually every record the Duke Ellington band has made. Baker, a terrific artist in his own right, recently wrote two tunes, titled ‘The Duke's Back Again' and ‘The Duke Tunes Up.'"

It wasn't until a few years later that Two Ton finally met his hero, and the two quickly became lifelong friends. The liner notes for Baker's 1972 LP state, "'Satin Doll' was written and taught to Two Ton by Duke Ellington at a gathering at Two Ton's home one evening almost twenty years ago [the tune was indeed written in 1953]. For a time, Duke and Dick were the only ones performing 'Satin Doll.'"

And Ellington, in his autobiography, Music Is My Mistress, written in 1973, mentions Two Ton twice. Writing about the Blue Note club in Chicago:

    While it was open, between 1949 and 1970, I always called the Blue Note the Metropolitan Opera House of Jazz. We enjoyed a beautiful relationship with Frank Holzfeind, [the owner,] and we played there many times. For years, we would go in there for four weeks in the summer and for the month of December through Christmas and New Year's, and I always remember how Two Ton Baker would play Santa Clause the Sunday afternoon before Christmas Day. In addition to being the great musician he is, Two Ton Baker was the perfect host. In size and personality, he was the perfect Santa Claus. He would sit and play piano, and give presents to the kids, and everybody came and brought their children. They loved Two Ton Baker.

The James kids with Duke and Two Ton at the Blue Note in 1952

Eric and Mary Lee James with Two Ton and Duke Ellington at the Blue Note, c. 1952. (Courtesy of the James Preservation Trust, www.ericjames.org)

In 1972, Ellington was honored with a week-long Duke Ellington Festival at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and agreed to give "master" classes on two of those days. Perhaps unsure of himself as a piano soloist at that stage of his life, Ellington invited stride master Brooks Kerr and Two Ton Baker to the stage to play examples of the music he was describing. These classes were filmed and preserved by the University; incredibly, this is the only meaningful video recording of Two Ton Baker.

Two Ton at the Blue Note

And Two Ton didn't just play Santa Claus at the Blue Note. The club obviously thought enough of his skills at the keyboard to costar him with some of the biggest names in jazz. This playbill, probably from 1957, shows him with Gene Krupa and Dave Brubeck, presumably as an opening act or playing intermissions. Click on the image to see the full playbill, which includes Count Basie, George Shearing and Bob Scobey.

All Over Town
In addition to being nearly an around-the-clock presence on a major Chicago radio station, Dick Baker was constantly in front of the public at various events (it must be conceded, of course, that many of those events were sponsored by WGN or the Tribune, so it was certainly in the paper's interest to report faithfully on them and mention its own properties, including Two Ton Baker).

Two Ton at Lake Bluff Children's Orphanage

Late in 2009, Kraig Moreland, a historian working on a film documentary of the Lake Bluff (IL) Children's Orphanage, which operated from 1894 to 1969, learned that Two Ton Baker came to the orphanage frequently to entertain the children. The photo here (click on it to see more) was taken in 1945, showing that he already had a soft spot in his heart for kids even before he started recording children's songs or doing a kiddie TV show.

A September 1949 piece in the Tribune notes, "On the air twice a day on WGN, Baker's unpredictable piano playing, songs, and chatter are entertainment highlights to a large and loyal audience. During a recent stage appearance at the Chicago Theater more than 700 persons by actual count turned away when they found that Baker would not appear that one day. So strong an attraction has he become that he will be costarred with singer Jo Stafford at the Chicago for two weeks starting Friday."

Two Ton seems especially to have lent his support to war-related activities. An August 1945 article in the Tribune, reporting that Two Ton would be the featured performer at the 16th Annual Chicago Music Festival at Soldiers' Field, states, "Baker has entertained at thousands of service camps, war hospitals, and bond rallies." A September 1948 story reported that "He holds the honorary rank of colonel, awarded him for his tireless work at Gardiner General hospital, where he spent more than 200 hours entertaining service men." Obviously, Two Ton's size made it impossible for him to put on the uniform, but he served--and served honorably.


Part 4: Two Ton in the Grooves

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