Diminutive big band singer “Wee” Bonnie Baker is best remembered today as vocalist on the 1939 Orrin Tucker hit “Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh!” Born Evelyn Nelson, she earned her nickname due to her short stature and a singing voice that made her sound very young. Baker was ﬁve foot tall, weighed less than a hundred pounds, and wore a size four shoe.
Baker grew up in Houston and attended a private high school in Macon, Georgia, where she sang with a local bandleader. After graduation, she spent time working in Houston nightclubs before meeting Tucker, then a relatively unknown bandleader, in St. Louis in 1936. Tucker hired her on a recommendation from Louis Armstrong.
Baker’s career with Tucker was uneventful until the runaway success of “Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh!”, a twenty-year-old WWI-era song which sold over a million-and-a-half copies. Baker’s singing style made her wildly popular in her own right, and she began to receive equal billing with Tucker. In 1940, she was voted most popular female band vocalist in Billboard magazine’s annual college poll, holding on to seventh place in 1941 and eleventh in 1942. Throughout the 1940s, she remained the most highly-imitated singer in show business. Baker made two Hollywood appearances while with Tucker’s orchestra, including the feature ﬁlm You’re the One.
Tucker released Baker in January 1942 during a shake-up of his entire vocal staff. Far from hurting her career, Baker’s popularity soared. When Tucker enlisted in the Navy in mid-1942, she turned down an offer to front the band in his absence. As a solo act traveling with her own vaudeville unit and singing with various orchestras, she was making far more money than she could on a band salary.
Baker remained extremely popular through the mid-1940s. On January 30, 1943, she made the cover of Billboard and later that year sang several numbers in the Monogram feature ﬁlm Spotlight Scandals. Baker’s popularity began to decline slightly after the war, though she continued touring and performing both on the theater circuit as well as on radio and occasionally television. She recorded solo for the Memo label in 1946 and on Universal in 1948. In 1952, she recorded with Mel Blanc and Billy May on Capitol, singing opposite Blanc’s Porky Pig, Tweety and Sylvester characters, and in 1956 she provided vocals for two Chilly Willy cartoons.
Baker married a number of times during the 1940s. In October 1940, she reportedly told friends that she and Tucker planed to wed. If that were true, however, it never happened. In October 1943, she legally changed her name to her stage moniker and became engaged to a soldier, Lieutenant Johnnie Morse. The two married in December. In March 1948, she married her manager, Frank Taylor. The couple had a child in October. In Spring 1949, however, Baker married comedy writer Bill Rogers. The pair teamed up, with Rogers playing guitar and writing specialty songs for her.
Baker and Rogers continued performing as a team into the 1960s. Baker came to hate her signature song, as audiences always called for it. She grew tired of singing it, estimating that she performed it two thousand times each year. Bonnie Baker passed away in 1990, age 73.
- Some sources also list a Bill Gailey as Baker’s husband, and Billboard reported that Baker’s legal last name was Lakey in late-1943—just before her marriage to Morse—different from her birth name of Nelson. She may have walked down the aisle as many as ﬁve times during the decade.