Bonnie Baker

Photo of Bonnie Baker
  • Birth Name

    Evelyn Nelson
  • Born

    April 1, 1917
    Orange, Texas
  • Died

    August 11, 1990 (age 73)
    Ft. Lauderdale, Florida
  • Orchestras

    Orrin Tucker

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.

Post-Band Years

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.[1]

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.

Notes

  1. 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.

Music

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  • Havin' Myself a Time
    Orrin Tucker (Bonnie Baker), Vocalion (1937)
  • Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh!
    Orrin Tucker (Bonnie Baker), Columbia (1939)
  • You'd Be Surprised
    Orrin Tucker (Bonnie Baker), Columbia (1939)
  • Saturday Night/Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh!
    Bonnie Baker, Radio (1943)

All recordings are from the Internet Archive's 78rpm collection. Copyright owners, please see our removal policy.

Films

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  • Screenshot
    "Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh!"
    Orrin Tucker, Bonnie Baker
    from the film You're the One, Paramount (1941)

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Sources

  1. Simon, George T. The Big Bands. 4th ed. New York: Schirmer, 1981.
  2. Walker, Leo. The Wonderful Era of the Great Dance Bands. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1972.
  3. “Bonnie Baker.” IMDb. Accessed 24 Dec. 2015.
  4. “Tucker, Bonnie Baker at Variety's Ball.” The Milwaukee Sentinel 1 Feb. 1940: 6-D.
  5. “It's 'Queen' Bonnie Baker Now.” The Milwaukee Journal 25 Feb. 1940: 11.
  6. “Wee Bonnie Baker to Wed Maestro.” Spokane Daily Chronicle 18 Oct. 1940: 14.
  7. “Bonnie Baker Turns Towhead.” Spokane Daily Chronicle 13 Nov. 1940: 10.
  8. “O. Tucker Shuffles Chirpers Wholesale.” Billboard 24 Jan. 1942: 13.
  9. “Talent and Tunes on Music Machines.” Billboard 24 Jan. 1942: 59.
  10. “Campus Picks Top Chirps.” Billboard 2 May 1942: 19.
  11. “Collegiate Choice of Female Vocalists.” Billboard 2 May 1942: 21.
  12. “Radio Talent.” Billboard 6 Jun. 1942: 7.
  13. “Vaudeville Reviews: Oriental, Chicago.” Billboard 6 Jun. 1942: 16.
  14. Cover. Billboard 30 Jan. 1943: 1.
  15. “Bonnie Adopts name Legally.” Billboard 16 Oct. 1943: 15.
  16. “Marriages.” Billboard 18 Dec. 1943: 31.
  17. “Agencies Push Disk Deals with Indies.” Billboard 1 Jun. 1946: 39.
  18. “Wee Bonnie Baker, Manager Married.'” The Evening Independent [St. Petersburg,FL] 19 Mar. 1948: 16.
  19. “Marriages.” Billboard 10 Apr. 1948: 50.
  20. “Music as Written.” Billboard 23 Oct. 1948: 41.
  21. “Music as Written.” Billboard 18 Nov. 1950: 18.
  22. “Little Bonnie Baker Is Tired of 'Johnny.'” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 7 Jun. 1951: 13.
  23. Advertisement. Billboard 26 Dec. 1952: 23.
  24. Advertisement. The Southeast Missourian [Cape Girardeau, MO] 15 Jun. 1961: 10.