Chicago has seen its share of resourceful entrepreneurs and colorful characters, and one who left his mark on its musical landscape was producer and nightclub owner Narvel Eatmon, professionally known as Cadillac Baby. Chiefly remembered today as the man behind Bea & Baby Records, he signed many of Chicago's top bluesmen and assembled an impressive catalog that has been reissued piecemeal since his death in 1991. Eatmon was born in Cayuga, MS on July 3, 1914, and followed the same route northward as several of the musicians he would later record. His gradual success as businessman and impresario was built upon a number of simultaneously maintained storefront operations which included an appliance repair service, a well-stocked record store, and a candy shop heated by a wood burning stove.
The crowning glories of Eatmon’s little empire were Cadillac Baby’s Showbar at 47th and Dearborn and the Bea & Baby record company which he founded with his wife Bea in 1959. This label, and its subsidiaries, Keyhole and Miss, steadily racked up an impressive array of titles by Roosevelt Sykes, James Cotton, Sunnyland Slim, Homesick James, Eddie Boyd, Hound Dog Taylor, Earl Hooker, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Little Mac Simmons, L.G. McKinley, Willie Williams, Johnny Littlejohn, Detroit Junior, Hammie Nixon, Porter Kilbert, Oett "Sax" Mallard, Tall Paul Hankins, Sleepy John Estes, Arlean Brown, Menard Rogers, Willie Hudson, Andrew McMahon, and pop-oriented vocal harmony groups like the Chances, the Daylighters, and Faith Taylor & the Sweet Teens. In 1960, Bea & Baby released their most successful hit: Bobby Saxton’s “Trying to Make a Living.”
Tragedy struck near the end of the '70s when a fire obliterated the record store and headquarters of the label, destroying LPs and 45s, tapes, photos, and documentation. With the help of Michael Frank, whom he'd known since 1974, Eatmon managed to continue promoting music, and during the ‘80s they co-produced a recording project for rapper 3D. Cadillac Baby passed away in 1991. After portions of the Bea & Baby catalog resurfaced haphazardly on a number of carelessly contrived compilations, Michael Robert Frank set out to compile and reissue Eatmon's complete legacy of great recorded music in a more orderly and comprehensive manner on his own Earwig label. Unfortunately, confusion arose in 2008 when Cadillac Records, a major motion picture dramatizing the story of Chess Records, was released to great acclaim. The irony here is almost palpable, as Vee Jay and Chess were two of Bea & Baby's biggest competitors.