Born: January 26, 1958 Primary Instrument: Vocal
Anita Baker is a sophisticated jazz vocalist with a string of hits from the late 1980s and early 1990s. A six time Grammy winner, in 1994, with success assured, Baker cut back her activities to focus on home and motherhood, in the process revealing something of the intense difficulties she faced during her own youth. Then, after a ten year hiatus from the business, she made a triumphal return with a new album that met with critical acclaim.
She was born on January 26, 1958, in Toledo, Ohio, and grew up in Detroit's inner city. Her birth mother, who was only 16 when Anita was born, abandoned her, leaving her in the care of a woman who has been variously described as a friend and as a relative; this woman, Mary Lewis, became her foster mother. When Anita was 13, her foster mother died, and an older sister in her adoptive family told her the truth about her past. This older adoptive sister, Lois Landry, raised Anita.
Baker's foster family provided her with a stable environment that emphasized hard work and religion; she joined a church choir and identified with the deep voice of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson. She began to sing secular music with her friends as well, and was performing in Detroit clubs by the time she was 16. Baker attended a community college briefly, but a strong drive toward musical performance asserted itself, and she dropped out of school to front a funk ensemble called Chapter 8, whose bass player had heard her perform in an East Side nightclub.
Chapter 8 toured widely and landed a contract with Los Angeles-based Ariola Records. They had a minor hit with I Just Want to Be Your Girl in 1980, but disbanded after being dropped from the label, which was itself in dire financial straits.
In 1982 Baker was signed by an independent label called Beverly Glen. Her first solo album, ”The Songstress,” was released in 1983. The album attracted wide industry attention, yielded two R&B hit singles (Angel and the gospel-drenched No More Tears, which did indeed bring to mind the voice of Mahalia Jackson), and sold a respectable 300,000 copies. But Baker, still naïve in the ways of the music business, received no royalties from the album and parted ways acrimoniously with Beverly Glen, a much-needed follow-up album still unreleased.
Baker signed with Elektra and threw herself wholeheartedly into her next project, the album “Rapture,” released in 1986. Baker supervised every aspect of the record's production. Filling the role of executive producer herself, Baker chose “Songstress” collaborator Michael Powell as producer, and the two painstakingly selected songs that fit Baker's smooth, ultra-romantic, jazz- inflected vocal style. They succeeded brilliantly. The album yielded two massive hit singles in both R&B and pop tabulations, Sweet Love and You Bring Me Joy. The singer was rewarded with two Grammy awards in 1987, and by the end of 1988 “Rapture” had racked up sales of over five million units.
Baker stretched herself with an appearance at Europe's prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival in 1988, but the two albums that followed “Giving You the Best That I Got” (1988) and “Compositions” (1990) followed basically the same path as their multi-platinum predecessor. Compositions featured examples of Baker's songwriting, which had gained in technical skill since she had begun to take classes in music theory. Both recordings again earned Grammy awards for Baker, who kept a full schedule of concerts and personal appearances.
Baker reemerged in 1994 with the”Rhythm of Love” album, which followed up on a series of interviews in which Baker finally delved into her own painful past. The album received mixed reviews, but sold well. At the time, fans did not know it would be the last Anita Baker album for the next decade. Baker signed a deal to produce an album with Atlantic, but she could never finish the job. It seems that she had more important things on her mind, for Baker had made the decision that she would not repeat the mistakes of her own mother and was giving more and more of her time to taking care of her children. For the next ten years, Baker played the role of mom, joining the local PTA and shuttling her kids to school activities. She also nursed her foster parents, Walter and Lois Landry, through the last years of their lives.
By the early 2000s Baker realized that with her kids needing less attention than before and the Landrys gone, she once again had time to devote to her music. She gave several small concerts in the Detroit area and was overwhelmed by the positive response of her fans. Soon her bookings grew and she signed with Blue Note to record two albums. The first album, “My Everything,” was released in 2004, and its title track soon soared to the top of the charts. To most critics, it appeared that Baker picked up right where she left off, providing soulful R&B in a sultry voice, which by now was widely recognized.
Source: James M. Manheim and Tom Pendergast