George Baker (baritone)
- This article refers to the record singer. For other people with the same name, see George Baker.
George Baker (10 February 1885 – 8 January 1976) was an English singer. He is remembered for singing on thousands of gramophone records in a career that spanned 53 years, beginning in 1909. He is especially associated with the comic baritone roles in recordings of the Gilbert & Sullivan operas.
Early life and career
George Baker, also known as George Portland (and other recording pseudonyms), was born in Birkenhead, the son of Walter Baker and his wife, Elizabeth, née Sanders. He studied violin, flute and piano as a child. At the age of 16, he served as organist and choirmaster at the Woodford Parish Church in Cheshire. He did the same at two churches in Birkenhead between 1903 and 1906. Baker studied singing with John Acton and won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music. There he studied with Gustave Garcia and was awarded a Patron Funds Grant to continue his vocal studies in Milan in 1914. He was married three times: first to pianist/conductor Grace Lilian Bryant (1871–1955), from 1911 until their divorce in 1922, then to singer Kathlyn Hilliard, who died in 1933, and then to Olive Groves, another singer and teacher, who died in 1974.
Baker first recorded for Pathé Records in 1909, while still a student; the piano accompanist and conductor (on his orchestrally-accompanied Pathé discs) was his future wife Lilian Bryant, musical director for Pathé's London studios. Pathé had just changed its emphasis from cylinders to vertically-cut disc records. After his Pathé debut, in the early 1910s Baker began making lateral-cut records for the Gramophone Company and other labels. In 1934 he recalled the experience as follows:
- We worked really hard in those days, for one song had to be sung perfectly at least six times. The records thus made would be played back again and further records made from them. The conditions under which we recorded were crude in the extreme. We sang in a tiny bare room and into a big tin trumpet, which was connected direct to the recording needle by a rubber tube. We sang collarless and in shirt sleeves, for the place quickly grew stifling. When electrical recording came in, this was all changed, and we now sing into microphones in beautiful rooms, not unlike broadcasting studios.
Baker recorded roles in the first British recordings of Parsifal by Richard Wagner, Hiawatha by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Salome by Richard Strauss and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. He recorded in a wide range of repertory, including as "Uncle George" in a popular early series of children's recordings, in dance band records, hymns, and in the once popular recording of The Departure of a Troopship.
In 1915 Baker made his stage debut in the revue Now's the Time at the Alhambra Theatre. In the 1920s, he performed with both the Carl Rosa and British National Opera companies. He also toured Australia for J. C. Williamson Ltd. in 1922–23, playing the roles of Lord Harry Coe in the musical revue The Peep Show, the Hon. André d'Aubigny in The Lilac Domino and Blair Farquhar in Sally. During this tour, Baker made several recordings for the Aeolian Company. During 1927 and 1928, he toured in the United States as Macheath in The Beggar's Opera, making his New York debut in March 1928.
In later years, Baker rarely appeared on stage, and he only appeared professionally on stage in one Gilbert and Sullivan opera, at the Royal Festival Hall in a performance of Trial by Jury, when he was 81 years old. Baker never performed on stage with the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, but he recorded many of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas with that company and others and was known for his excellent diction, which is crucial in their rapid-fire patter songs. He sang in the first complete recording of The Mikado (1917) and subsequently recorded a role (and sometimes more than one role) in nearly all of the G&S operas, most of them at least twice, into the 1960s. He described the recording process in the early years as follows: "The first time we recorded the operas was in the days of the old tin trumpet, and principals joined in all the chorus-singing. When it came to our turn to sing in concerted numbers, we elbowed our way through the other singers to get to the trumpet in time." Baker made his final recording as a singer in December 1962, in Gilbert and Sullivan's Ruddigore, a few weeks before his 78th birthday.
Baker was also in demand as an administrator. He served as the BBC's Overseas Music Director from 1944 to 1947 and spent thirty years as committee member, treasurer and chairman of the Royal Philharmonic Society. He was also the long-standing Honorary Secretary, and a trustee, of the Savage Club (which earlier counted among its notable members W. S. Gilbert and George Grossmith). He also served as Secretary of the Orchestral Employers' Association and for the Musicians' Benevolent Fund as a member of the committee.
Gilbert and Sullivan recordings
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Baker made the following G&S recordings with HMV: 1917 The Mikado (Ko-Ko, Pish-Tush (part), and Pooh-Bah (part)), 1919 The Gondoliers (Antonio, Don Alhambra (part), Duke of Plaza-Toro and Giuseppe); 1920 The Yeomen of the Guard (Jack Point and Sergeant Meryll (part)); 1920 The Pirates of Penzance (Major-General Stanley); 1921 Patience (Bunthorne and Major); and 1922 Iolanthe (Lord Chancellor).
From 1924 to 1933, he made the following recordings with D'Oyly Carte: 1924 Ruddigore (Robin Oakapple); 1927 Gondoliers (Giuseppe); 1926 Mikado (Pish-Tush); 1927 Trial (Usher); 1929 Pirates (Major-General) 1928 Yeomen (Jack Point); 1929 Iolanthe (Lord Chancellor); 1930 Patience (Bunthorne); 1930 H.M.S. Pinafore (Captain Corcoran); 1931 Gondoliers (Duke of Plaza-Toro); 1931 Pirates (Major-General); 1931 Ruddigore (Robin Oakapple) 1931 Yeomen (Jack Point); 1932 Princess Ida (Florian); and 1933 The Sorcerer (John Wellington Wells).
With Columbia, in 1931, Baker recorded Gondoliers (Don Alhambra and Giuseppe (part)); Yeomen (Sergeant Meryll and Wilfred Shadbolt); and Iolanthe (Lord Chancellor). On the Sir Malcolm Sargent/Glyndebourne series, he recorded: 1958 Pinafore (Sir Joseph Porter); 1959 Iolanthe (Lord Chancellor); 1961 Pirates (Major-General); 1961 Trial (The Learned Judge); 1963 Patience (Bunthorne); and 1963 Ruddigore (Robin Oakapple).
For the BBC, Baker recorded: 1966 Trial (Judge) and 1966 Ida (King Gama). He is also heard on a 1970 recording compiling many of his early recordings, called A Tribute to George Baker: Vintage Compilation. In 1973, for an LP set, The Art of the Savoyard, Baker recorded his reminiscences of Richard Temple, Henry Lytton, Bertha Lewis, C. H. Workman, Walter Passmore and other original Savoyards.(Pearl LP set GEM 118/120)
- Other pseudonyms adopted by Baker included Arthur George, Victor Conway, Victor Norbury, Lelie Milton, George Barnes, Walter Duncan and Walter Jeffries. Gammond, Peter (1970) sleeve note to EMI LP HQM 1200
- Gaye, p. 334
- Marriage certificate of Baker and Bryant, Staticflickr.com, accessed 11 January 2012. The certificate inaccurately gives Bryant's age as 36 in 1911.
- Chislett, W. A. obituary, The Gramophone, March 1976, (Vol. 53); p. 1453
- Zwarg, Christian. Liner notes for Truesound Transfers CDs TT-3111, "Lilian Bryant – (Pianist) 1" and TT-3112, "Lilian Bryant – (Conductor) 2", 2012
- Pathé recorded to a cylinder master which was pantographically transferred to a wax disc sub-master from which stampers were made. See Zwarg liner notes.
- Baker, George. "Making Three Thousand Records! The Gramophone, September 1934 (Vol. XII), p. 125
- Gammond, Peter (1970) sleeve note to EMI LP HQM 1200
- "Here and There with Roger Wimbush", The Gramophone, February 1970, (Vol. XLVII); p. 1264
- List of books by Baker
- A Tribute to George Baker (HQM1200) A Gilbert and Sullivan Discography
- Gaye, Freda (ed.) (1967). Who's Who in the Theatre, fourteenth edition. London: Sir Isaac Pitman and Sons.