From Church Girl To Lounge Singer To Multiplatinum Singer/Songwriter, Anita Baker Returns From A Three-Year Sabbatical With Life Songs About Love
Pretenders beware: Anita’s reclaiming her throne.
Anita Baker knows that deep-brown black girls become goddesses even when they wear white. Even in her early twenties, the soul singer gave us pale chiffons and white silks with flairs and wings, always shunning leather and Lycra for fabrics that breath. Tiny and pretty, with the mammoth voice and wispy high-top fade, she was like the girlfriend aunt who sang at all the family weddings— or the wife you dreamed you’d meet and spend an eternity with, building sandcastles near the sea, whispering sweet songs about angels.
Anita at 36 is what she’s always been: a Detroit homegirl and Aquarian love priestess to the bone. She’s settled near the water, and on this summer day sits quietly in a simple elegance of her 15-room mansion, where she makes real fantasies of black love, family, and beauty. In white shorts and white oxford shirt, she stares out her parlor window at two mating ducks and wonders aloud whether they’ve left eggs under her roses. She began recording her latest album, Rhythm of Love, when she was six months pregnant. Walter Jr., is at a play school, and her new son, six-week-old Edward, is nestled away upstairs. It’s enough to make you sigh.
Anita was lip-synching her second album, Rapture, at a local club when she met her husband, Walter Bridgforth, in 1986. “I told everyone I met him at a shoe store,” she says, laughing. “But I lied. I met him at a bar. I had on this tight white thang…. He picked me up at a bar, girl.” Bridgforth ran up to her, demanded a hug, and proceeded to mock all the men who’d been trying to get with Anita that night. “He was like, ‘I got six sisters, and I just bought each of them your album!’ and I told him, ‘for six albums you can get a hug brotha.’”
That night she called him on the phone. “And every night since then I’ve called him at the end of the night,” she says. “He came to see me once in D.C., and we got a limo and toured the monuments. Sarah Vaughan was playing Blues Alley, and it was pouring down rain. By the time we got to the club, there were no more tickets. I was still a nobody,” she says, exhaling. “So we went around back, in the alley, and listened to the whole show through the back door. It was the hippest thing.”
“Rain is a good sign,” I say. “Abundance.”
“Yeah,” she says, still a little dreamy. “Good things happen.”
To get to Anita Baker’s waterfront mansion Grosse Pointe, Mich., you have to drive through Detroit, where we were both born. My old stomping grounds, the East Side—Anita is from the almost-as-scandalous Lower West Side—is Detroit’s oldest black neighborhood. Often cited as one of the nations most congested and run-down areas, now it’s just run-down. Grosse Pointe is only a Schwinn ride away from the East Side, but worlds apart. The succession of sprawling homes that face Lake St. Clair marks this area as a bastion of an award-winning architecture, landscaping, WASP patriarchy, and old money. Until the 1960’s, and who did not look like a “typical American” had to earn points—for attributes such as dress and “swarthiness”—to become eligible to purchase a house in Grosse Pointe. Greeks, Italians, and Jews needed more points than Anglo-Saxons. Blacks and Asians could not earn points. Since the point system was suspended, only a handful of black American’s have parked their U-Haul’s beneath the Pointes cast-iron streetlights.
Being a star did not make it easier for Anita to get to Grosse Pointe. From the moment she chose a Lakeshore address, few locals were surprised to hear rumors of the trouble she was having: no cross burnings, just a silently affected American system at work. “It’s gotten to a point where housing discrimination is so institutional, you can barely take it personally.” She nods toward her assistant, a white girl named Chari. “If I move next door to her,” Anita say’s, “She loses property value. That’s the way it is.”
“What do they think you do?” I ask. “Spit watermelon seeds at your neighbor’s barbeque pit?”
She winks and says, “Maybe they thought I’d throw the rinds in the lake.” Still, she could have stayed in Detroit. The city boasts some of the most beautiful upper-middle-class black neighborhoods in America. Even Aretha Franklin decided to reign from a mansion just west of Woodward Boulevard. “I know, I know,” Anita says, gazing at the seemingly endless lake, which a small yacht is crossing. “But when I was growing up, my grandparents would load up their station wagon and take us for a Christmas drive down Lakeshore. For me, this was making it.”
Like all fairy-tale dreams, Anita’s starts with destiny. For the first 12 years of her life, she didn’t know that as a baby she’d been left on the doorstep of Mary and Granville Lewis and their five daughters. The Lewises’ youngest daughter, Jean, was closest to Anita’s age, and they were raised as sisters. Baker was sure that the minister and his wife were her maternal grandparents. They loved her like they loved their own girls and encouraged her to sing before she could read. She and Jean earned quite a reputation on the storefront-church circuit as the
Lewis Sisters, Anita’s throaty contralto making her sound all grown and convicted about Jesus’ love.
The Lewis home was strict and Baptist. “We were always in church, at least four days a week,” Anita says. When she was almost 13 and still grieving for the Lewises, who had recently died one right after the other, Anita’s biological mother showed up. “[The Lewises] turned out to be this couple my mother left me with,” Anita says. “She was only 16; I don’t fault her.”
Her mother still lives in Detroit, but they don’t correspond. “I’m thankful I was left in a home where people really cared for me,” Anita says. “Your beginnings are important. Who knows what I’d be or what I’d have become? But I do think meeting her like that was the reason I got into trouble later.”
Trouble? “Girl, I was kicked out of every high school in the city,” she confesses. “Teenage trouble. Sixteen is sixteen no matter how good you are.” By the time Anita graduated from Central High, her neighborhood had given birth to the notorious crew Young Boys Inc., and Detroit became, in the words of screenwriter and former journalist Barry Michael Cooper, “New Jack City.” Just around the corner from Anita’s home, between Dexter and Davison Avenues, the brothers of YBI were learning how to compete in the booming heroine business. Before the arrival of crack, the drug trade literally consumed Detroit, and secured the city’s rep as murder capital of the country. Benzes and BMW’s became the cars of choice in the ‘hood. Black girls Anita’s age discovered Gucci, Versace, and airbrushed manicures.
These are quieter times, though. The thugs who can point out where people got killed or houses got jacked are middle-aged now: in their late twenties. The rest are dead or serving time. People from Anita’s old neighborhood remember her vividly. “She was a church girl, but not shy,” says one neighbor. “She definitely had boyfriends and used to skip classes.” There are a few ex-high rollers—some of them recovering, toothless junkies—who claim to have been Anita’s first love. One swears he bought her an ankle-length leather trench coat.
But Anita, like most Detroiters over 30, has no interest in talking about YBI or when Detroit was a war zone. She likes to dwell on the city’s “second coming.” After 20 years, Detroit has a new mayor, Dennis Archer, whose good relations with the suburbs are supposed to resurrect the city’s skeletal economy. Anita and her real-estate-developer husband own
a site on Jefferson Street where an International House of Pancakes is being built.
Detroiters respect her privacy but give her neighborly waves when she’s out on the town. The three black radio stations play her practically every 11 minutes. And like other legendary singers Detroit claims by first name—Smokey, Marvin, Aretha, Stevie, George (as in Clinton), and even Diana—Anita will pack houses here as long as she breathes.
When Anita Baker was 18, she was living on her own, fronting a band called Message, and performing boys’ club and local lounges. “Every time we performed somewhere,” she says, laughing at herself, “There’d be some musician in the audience and I’d end up in his band.”
Six bands later, she was performing at Henry’s Cabaret Lounge—now a strip joint. “This fine guy with dark hair, jet black eyebrows, and caramely skin gave me an impressive-looking card with raised metallic letters,” she says. “It said, ‘Chapter 8.’” That was the first encounter with local bandleader David Washington. “That’s all it had to say. Chapter 8 was the premiere band in the city.” Anita soon suspended her own “no audition” rule and made an appointment to come belt out her best rendition of Chaka’s “Smokin’ Room.” Washington was impressed, but everyone was doing Chaka. He asked her how she would do the song. “Once Chaka has done it, you can’t redo it,” Anita says. “There is no other way.” So she sang the gospel classic “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” and got the gig.
The day I visit Anita at her home, “I Just Want to Be Your Girl,” the R&B classic Chapter 8 recorded on Ariola Records, is the bonus song that will win the 98th caller $98 on WJLB.
Touring with Chapter 8 was the first time Anita left Detroit. They did it grunge-style: in a Winnebago, with enough money to splurge on a TraveLodge every couple of cities. “I never saw a dime, but I was doing it! You dig? I was doing it.” When they performed at Lonnie (Gap Band) Simmon’s Total Experience nightclub in Los Angeles, Beverly Glen Records owner Otis Smith was in the audience. Months later, after Chapter 8 had returned to Detroit and Anita had re-created herself as a receptionist, Smith tracked her down and begged her to cut a solo album in L.A.
Anita called her Aunt Lois for advice. “Go if you must,” said her aunt wisely, “But don’t lose those benefits.” Anita moved into L.A.’s Oakwood Garden Apartments, a floor beneath some kids called New Edition, and just above Saturday Night Live’s Garrett Morris. She recorded The Songstress and learned important lessons about the music industry.
No one told me the $200 a week I was making was a recoupable advance,” she says indignantly. “No one told me about publishing or writer’s credit. People laugh at old R&B artists ‘cause they want to be paid in cash. It’s ‘cause they’ve been burned so many times!” Baker has been executive producer on all of her albums since Songstress, making her one of the few black women (along with Patrice Rushen and Angela Winbush) who control their own recording projects. “They call me a bitch,” Anita says thoughtfully, “because I know what I want and I know how to ask for it. I’m not a singer who just shows up at my sessions or at my shows. I didn’t just show up for my career. I want to be respected, but I’m also respectful. I was raised right.”
After a bout with Otis Smith, Anita was granted her freedom. She landed a deal at Elektra, recorded an album’s worth of ballads, and titled it Rapture. The record blew up in black America during the summer of 1986, when hustling was at an all-time high. “Been So Long” was the midnight jeep-banging shit, but it was so—sophisticated. Anita’s allusions to Sarah Vaughan—like Luther Vandross’s nods to Sam Cooke—and both singers’ grand (if sometimes syrupy) musical arrangements brought dignity back to R&B after five years of the synthesizer. By the end of the year, there were only Anita and Luther.
Anita in particular was capable of soaring into the stratosphere and then falling into a scat while riding a jazz-fusion riff, all in one verse. Sade may have cast herself as Billie Holiday incarnate, but Anita avoided the victim’s plea. Her lyrics basked in the afterglow of good loving. She occupied the pop charts for weeks on end, collected Grammys (seven so far), and spawned contemporary, earthy R&B divas like Toni Braxton. A princess or two has emerged to outsell her—Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston—but none enjoys the loyalty accorded Anita.
Her black love on wax reflects her black love in life. Anita and Walter have made it through five years of marriage and two very public miscarriages, and still testify to Ebony readers about their ongoing honeymoon. “‘Only for a While,’ from the new album, helped me through my miscarriages,” she says, as the song plays in the background. “I told Walter, ‘Baby, I got to stay home.’ And that’s what I did.” She was missed. For three years, urban radio has been waiting on this, Rhythm of Love.
Will it be another Rapture? No, but how could it be? That album’s knockout blend of jazz, gospel, and fiery soul set the music world on its ear at a time R&B needed it most. Although she scored a monster hit with “Giving You the Best That I Got,” Anita has yet to live up to the critical, popular, musical, and vocal grand slam that was Rapture. Happily, though, Rhythm of Love only rarely slips into the mannered, overblown sound that has held her back on some of her recent albums; more often it returns to the jazzier inflections of Baker’s breakthrough—the rich, supple voice that, in the end, is what the rapture’s all about.
For Anita, though, it’s all about her family. “When Walter and I first met,” she says, “He was still seeing someone he’d been off-and-on with for five years. We’d gotten real intense, and then all of a sudden I’d call and he’d be, like, ‘I got company,’ which meant, Oh shit. He’s back with her.
“I sent him a card—I still have it—that said, ‘I love you. I enjoy you. But if that’s what you need to do, I respect that and I wont bother you anymore.’ That made him crazy! The next thing I know, I’m in New York for my debut at Radio City Music Hall. It’s the night before, and I’m trying to concentrate on my arrangements when the hotel operator calls my room, saying, ‘It’s Walter; he’s got to get through.’ I told her N-O. I couldn’t do the halfway thing with him. It had to be all or nothing.
“The operator was calling back every 10 minutes, telling me, ‘He says the other relationship is over. He’s coming to New York tomorrow.’ Finally, I took the call and told him he was the most selfish man I’d ever met. Doing this to me before one of the most important nights of my life!” When she hung up, they were officially official, and her heart breathed a sigh of relief. And the next night she rocked Radio City.
Dusk settles on Lake St. Clair. Baby Edward is still dreaming, a quiet smile parting his lips as his mommy runs her tiny thumb across his soft scalp. She hums a couple of bars of a melody. Does he know his mother is Anita Baker, that her lullabies have tucked away lovers for years now?
Walter interrupts the interview to ask if she needs anything from outside. She shakes her head no without looking up from the baby; when she does, she catches him still staring. They smile, and I look away. Earlier, we had spoken about Billie Holiday and other fallen divas. “I’m not your tragic ending,” she said. “There will be no suicides, no drug abuse, no poorhouses, no broken family.”
Her eyes smile. “No lost love.”