FLORENCE, Ala. (AP) - Gary Baker said he’s still trying to process the fact that he will be inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, alongside people like Nat King Cole, Hank Williams, Rick Hall and others.
After all, he wasn’t born in Alabama, but the majority of his body of work as a musician, producer and songwriter took place in his adopted state.
“It’s still weird to think about,” Baker said. “I was walking through the hall of fame a few days ago and was dumbfounded. I knew most of the people who were in there.”
Then it dawned on him that soon, he will be there among them. He wondered: “Are you sure you’ve got the right guy.”
“It’s so surreal,” he said. “It’s like I’m going to wake up and it’s not going to be there.”
It is real. On Jan. 25 at the Marriott Shoals Conference Center, Baker, Mervyn Warren, Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton and Elton B. Stephens will be inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame.
The banquet was sold out.
Board member Judy Hood is sure the selection committee has the right guy.
“Gary has kept the spotlight on Alabama throughout his award-winning career,” Hood said. “He has been very generous with his time, resources and inspiration. We look forward to honoring him Saturday night.”
Baker is a native of Lewiston, New York, a small town less than 10 miles from Niagara Falls and about 30 miles north of Buffalo.
He was inducted into the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame, and was recently inducted into the Lewiston-Porter High School Hall of Fame.
He won a Grammy Award for the hit “I Swear,” which was a crossover hit for country artist John Michael Montgomery.
“It’s different than winning a Grammy,” Baker said. “That was so fun and so cool, but there’s something about this. This is my home. I live here. I love it here. The honor is beyond anything I could ever have hope for. It’s very special to me.”
Baker said he returns to Lewiston every year for the Summer of ‘69 festival, a songwriting festival he’s been involved with for about 14 years.
He said he headed south after high school graduation, but he didn’t land in the Shoals right away.
“I went to Houston for a couple years and Nashville for a couple of years,” Baker said.
He also spent some time working at Bill Evans’ Studio in the Country in Bogalusa, Louisiana.
“That was my introduction to the studio world,” Baker said. “Bill Evans was really good to me.”
What brought him to the Shoals was an opportunity to play bass in Lenny LeBlanc and Pete Carr’s LeBlanc and Carr band.
LeBlanc said he and Carr were putting together a band to go on the road when their drummer suggested Baker, who was playing at a club in Houston at the time. Baker, he said, helped them recruit keyboardist Steve Nathan.
“We had a great band,” LeBlanc said. “Gary was just starting to write when he started playing bass for us. He was a great bass player, too. He could play, sing and write. You could see the potential he had as a writer in the early days. He worked hard for years before he got a cut. He honed that craft, and it really paid off.”
Baker decided to stay in the Shoals and has been here for past 42 years.
When LeBlanc and Carr broke up, Baker began playing sessions at East Avalon Recorders, FAME Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals, and Muscle Shoals Sound in Sheffield. He played bass and provided background vocals, he said.
His first session at Muscle Shoals Sound was with famed Swampers drummer Roger Hawkins.
“Here I was, 22 years old at Muscle Shoals Sound,” Baker said. “I was probably too young to be scared out of my pants.”
Baker also enjoyed a stint with the country band The Shooters, which included singer/songwriter Walt Aldridge, drummer Mike Dillon, keyboardist Chalmers Davis and guitarist Barry Billings. That led to record deals with RCA Records and Curb Records.
He then decided to use the connections he made on the road and concentrate on his skills as a songwriter. That provided inroads to work with pop acts like Brittany Spears, 98 Degrees, the Back Street Boys and others.
“When I sit back and try to think of everything, it’s pretty amazing,” he said.
Despite pressure from his publisher to move to Nashville, Baker said he decided to remain in the Shoals because of his family.
“I was deeply involved with my children in Little League,” he said. “I made some really good friends. I thought the school system was phenomenal. I liked our community. I never wanted to move. I was from a small area anyway.”
The day he’s inducted into the hall of fame, Baker will be featured on a new television show, “The Song,” which features songwriters discussing popular songs they wrote. The episode and another episode on Feb. 1 features Baker discussing his 1995 hit “I Swear” with co-writer Frank Myers.
The song was recorded by numerous artists and earned Baker and Myers Grammys. The pop/rhythm and blues group All For One performed the song on the show.
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