Last week we lost one of our best friends and staunchest supporters, Darrell Baker. In between the last e-mails we exchanged a few weeks ago and our plan to call him this weekend for his 69th birthday, pancreatic cancer intervened, and now he’s gone in a flash.
Darrell’s great early musical loves were Harry Lauder, Al Jolson, and Bert Williams. It was because of Bert that we first “met”—as people do nowadays, by e-mail—back in late 2001. He enthusiastically offered his assistance (and records) in putting together our CD volumes of Bert Williams’ records. Over time Darrell became a trusted consultant, helping us with selecting records for projects, loaning us items from his collection, reviewing our writing, connecting us with other collectors, and even helping us pitch our restorations correctly. He was funny and irreverent and kept us honest.
He played in rock and folk bands in the ’60s and ’70s, but his real passion was for musical theatre. More than once he played FDR in productions of Annie and Fagin in Oliver. When he and his wife Tina retired from Irvine CA and relocated to Portland OR about nine years ago, the couple got to fulfill a lifelong dream: to produce live musicals and write theatre reviews (for their West Side Theatre Reviews blog). Their first project, Crazy Old Man, a musical retelling of the story of Noah’s Ark, premiered in Portland last summer. Energized by that, they quickly set about on a new play, Somebody’s Ripper, a musical about the lives of the victims of Jack the Ripper. Portland-area Theatre in the Grove put together a three-day stripped-down run of the show a week before Darrell passed.
We have some great recordings by Darrell. Not the Lauder records, of course—those went into a permanent collection at UCSB—but his own recordings. Some of his live shows from the early ’70s. Demos of original recordings. A self-released compilation of Scottish songs. A tribute album to Hank Williams. Plus raw demos and songs-in-progress from the two musicals. We’re still not sure where his late burst of energy came from—or how he found the time to write all these new songs. He said he fit them in between writing show reviews with Tina.
Darrell was something of a renaissance man. Unaffiliated with any institution, he nonetheless participated in several explorations and archeological digs, including the Canary Islands, Hawaii and Egypt, with the likes of Thor Heyerdahl, Donald Redford and Don Ryan. As recovering academics, we were blown away by his completion of the mammoth volume, The Encyclopedia of the Pharaohs: Volume I – Predynastic to the Twentieth Dynasty 3300–1069 BC, which he and Tina presented to us during a visit in April 2009. Here was this “non-scholar” working without anyone’s approval on a subject he was fascinated with from the time he was a boy. Now it’s on the shelves of the most prominent universities in the world. Oh, Darrell also wrote the discography on Harry Lauder. No one would ever think it was the same author.
Maybe that’s the lasting memory we’ll take from our friendship with Darrell: passion and commitment. It doesn’t matter what you do; love what you do, do it well, and *finish* it. Which reminds us…
Perhaps now Darrell will find out the answer to the question, “I want to know where Tosti went when he said, ‘Goodbye.’”