Baker, Anita (Contemporary Musicians)
Singer, songwriter, producer
"Fear doesn't overcome me," singer Anita Baker told Ms. "I say if it's going to be done, let's do it. Let's not put it in the hands of fate. Let's not put it in the hands of someone who doesn't know me. I know me best." This determination has not only allowed Baker to weather early struggles with recording industry exploitation and later media battles, it has also made her an accomplished artist of enormous popularity, with almost complete control over her creative projects.
Known for her three-octave vocal range and exceptional evocative power in the recording studio and onstage, Baker described her voice in Ebony as "a tool that was given to me that would allow me to take care of myself and to rise above my beginnings." Baker grew up in inner-city Detroit, where she became aware of her vocal powers while singing In small church choirs. As a child she idolized gospel great Mahalia Jackson and as a teenager became enamored of the sounds of jazz singers Sarah Vaughan and Nancy Wilson. While these women continue to inspire Baker, she identifies her aunt, Lois Landry, a beauty salon owner with whom Baker lived from infancy to adulthood, as the individual whose love and encouragement most allowed her to develop her talent. Baker dedicated her landmark recording, 1986's Rapture, to Landry.
Although Landry gave consistent emotional support to Baker, she and other family members worried about the practicality of Baker's quest to become a singer. They encouraged her to attend community college and get a nine-to-five job when she graduated from high school in 1976. Baker enrolled briefly in community college, then quit to begin singing with bands in Detroit night-clubs. At the Cabaret Lounge, on the city's east side, David Washington, bassist for Detroit funk group Chapter 8, heard Baker and asked her to join the group. Baker agreed and spent the next several years touring with Chapter 8 and recording for Ariola Records. Although the album yielded one hit, "I Just Want to Be Your Girl," in 1980 Ariola chose not to renew the band's contract. At the time, Ariola executives said they were dropping Chapter 8 because Baker's singing was substandard. Baker later concluded that this assessment was most likely Ariola's attempt to mask Its imminent demise; hindsight aside, she was devastated by the company's judgment. She decided to take her family's advice and gave up singing altogether in favor of traditional employment. Waiting tables in a bar for a short time, she soon found a job as a receptionist at a Detroit law firm, Quin and Budajh.
Enticed Back to Music After Stint at Law Firm
Baker had not performed in a year and a half when she received an offer from Otis Smith, a former Ariola executive who had formed Beverly Glen Records. After Smith promised her an apartment and a salary matching what Baker was earing at Quin and Budajh, she agreed to move to Los Angeles and record a solo album for Beverly Glen. The Songstress was released in 1983, sold more than 300,000 copies, and was on Billboard's black music charts for more than a year. The record included the hit singles "No More Tears" and "Angels."
The treatment Beverly Glen dished out was no better than Ariola's, however: Baker did not receive royalties from The Songstress. The label claimed the album hadn't made enough money to cover recording costs and continually delayed release of a new Baker album. When Baker informed the company that she was leaving, executives threatened to sue any company that signed her. Ignoring these threats, Baker hired Sherwin Bash as her manager, a man she told Ms. was "as old as God" and had managed "everyone from the Carpenters to Neil Diamond." Bash arranged a deal with Elektra Entertainment, the president of which, Bob Krasnow, was willing to go to court with Beverly Glen. Baker signed with Elektra after a long court battle, with permission to work as executive producer on her first Elektra release, Rapture.
Finished Rapture With Own Funds
Enlisting the production assistance of Michael Powell, guitarist for Chapter 8, Baker threw herself into the project. Resolving not to squander what she saw as her chance to finally prove she could succeed, Baker personally paid for recording costs greatly in excess of Elektra's budget; Rapture was released in 1986. The record won two Grammy awards in 1987, and by 1988 had sold 5 million copies. Spinning off two hit singles, "Sweet Love" and "You Bring Me Joy," Rapture earned Baker an invitation to perform at George Bush's inaugural festivities. She also appeared at the prestigious Montreaux Jazz Festival, accompanied by jazz luminaries including David Sanborn on sax, Freddie Washington on bass, and Al Jarreau's rhythm section, all under the musical direction of the esteemed George Duke.
In 1988 Elektra released Baker's Giving You the Best That I Got. Like Rapture a collection of soul and R & love songs, the record revealed Baker's strategy of sticking with a winning formula. Although several reviewers commented that the songs Baker chose for Giving You the Best That I Got were inadequate vehicles for her richly varied voice, the album was a respectable success, selling over three million copies, winning a Grammy, and eliciting a three-month tour with R & B superstar Luther Vandross.
With the triumph of Baker's first two Elektra albums came trouble with the media, which had begun to exploit Baker's personal life. Widespread coverage of Baker's 1988 miscarriage made healing from the traumatic event more difficult and forced Baker and her husband, IBM marketing specialist Walter Bridgforth, Jr., to retreat to Maui, Hawaii, for several weeks. Baker tried to remain positive about the unwanted publicity, stating in Ms., "Since [the miscarriage] happened, hundreds of women have shared their experiences with me and let me know I wasn't alone. That was good. The bad thing was having the whole world know. Families can suffer their problems and difficulties with each other and it's not easy, but it's multiplied a million times when everyone knows about it."
To avoid media intrusion into her personal life, Baker had not notified the press of her pregnancy. She has also consistently resisted media efforts to place her in opposition to other popular black female vocalists. In Ebony, Baker said she feels a "sisterhood" with these artists, referring to Oleta Adams as "a complete artist," calling Vesta a "bottomless pit of vocal dynamics," describing Regina Belle as "awesome," and naming Whitney Houston as a "super talent [who gets a] bum rap because she's at the top." Of phenomenon Mariah Carey, Baker said, "I ain't gonna lie, I'm jealous!"
Felt the Sting of Criticism
Despite this graciousness, Baker did not escape the label "bitch"ommonly assigned to women who assert their professional autonomy in the music industry. She initially earned this dubious moniker when she reportedly chastised sound crews onstage when they made mistakes during her first tours. Baker has since acknowledged that she engaged in some unprofessional behavior. Luther Vandross's comments on the Oprah Winfrey Show implying that he and Baker were in conflict during their 1988 tour perhaps added to Baker's reputation as a "difficult" performer. Baker, however, did not make any negative statements about Vandross, telling Ebony, "I just wish that Luther and I had talked face-to-face, just once. We didn't.... We should have talked instead of our managers and promoters talking."
With Compositions, her 1990 Elektra release, Baker demonstrated that she had developed considerably as a songwriter while at the same time becoming adept at unraveling publicity snarls. She did not write most of the songs on Rapture or Giving You the Best That I Got, although this clearly was not because she lacked abilityhe received Grammys for co-writing "Sweet Love" and "Giving You the Best That I Got." While working on Compositions Baker built on both the confidence of those two successes and the skills she had been gaining in music theory classes. "I did a lot more writing on [Compositions] than I ever thought I would," she told Jet. "After my first Grammy for songwriting I had a little more confidence.... I leaned into it a little bit more." Her efforts were well rewarded: In addition to selling 1.5 million copies and winning a 1991 Grammy, Compositions gave Baker a credibility in the jazz world that she had not previously enjoyed. "[Compositions] got me the respect of people whose respect I wanted... . Betty Carter will talk to me now," Baker joked in Ebony. The album also gained recognition from other artists and the public for its warmth and immediacys executive producer, Baker chose to record half the songs in live studio sessions with a rhythm section. Compositions included the hits "Talk to Me," "Whatever It Takes," and "Fairy Tales."
Established Bridgforth Foundation
The aftermath of Compositionsfound Baker taking time off from recording and touring. In 1991 she enjoyed herself at home with her husband, in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, a short distance from her family in Detroit. Never idle, however, Baker continued to work on various projects. One that holds her attention is the Bridgforth Foundation, which Baker created and through which she has established a college endowment for a class of 25 children at Berry Elementary School, in Detroit. The Foundation also funds a program to educate young musicians in recording industry negotiation, teaching them how to promote their work in a commercially viable manner, retain competent attorneys, and control their finances. In establishing the program, Baker hoped to help other musicians learn from the missteps she had made during the early stages of her career.
Although Baker has enjoyed great success writing and singing varied and sophisticated love songs, she suggested in Ebony that new songs may broach topics other than love. "There are things that go on in my life besides the battle of the sexes," said Baker. "That is a part of life, but there are other things that are equally important." On January 19,1993, Baker gave birth to an 8-lb., 5-oz. son whom she and her husband named Walter Baker Bridgforth.
(With Chapter 8) Chapter 8 (includes "I Just Want to Be Your Girl"), Ariola, 1980.
The Songstress (includes "No More Tears" and "Angels"), Beverly Glen, 1983.
Rapture (includes "Sweet Love," "Same Ol' Love," "You Bring Me Joy," "Been So Long," "Watch Your Step," "Mystery," and "No One in the World"), Elektra, 1986.
Giving You the Best That I Got (includes "Priceless," "Lead Me Into Love," and "Giving You the Best That I Got"), Elektra, 1988.
Compositions (includes "Talk to Me," "Perfect Love Affair," and "Fairy Tales"), Elektra, 1990.
Chicago Tribune, January 6,1991.
Down Beat, October 1990.
Ebony, July 1989; July 1991.
High Fidelity, March 1989.
Jet, February 1988; February 1989; July 1989; October 1990.
Ms., June 1989.
New Yorker, March 20.1989.
People, July 30,1990.
Rolling Stone, October 23,1986; December 15,1988; August 9, 1990.
Stereo Review, March 1989; December 1990.
Variety, September 23, 1987; June 6,1990.