Legendary R&B siren Anita Baker will hold her final performance at Little Caesar’s Arena tonight. In honor of her significant contributions to the music industry, we reflect on her iconic career.
Influenced by jazz singers Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, Baker gravitated to music from an early age. While singing in her church’s gospel choir in Detroit, she cultivated and refined her love for music and her powerful and emotional three-octave vocal range.
Listen to five essential tracks by Anita Baker
1. “I Just Wanna Be Your Girl”
After being invited to audition for the R&B collective, Chapter 8 – who were the backup band for the Detroit Emeralds – Baker would join the group to become its lead singer on its self-titled 1979 debut album released on Ariola Records. Its track “I Just Wanna Be Your Girl” showcases her vocals front and center, giving a small glimpse into Baker’s talent and what would come later.
However, Ariola Records was bought out by Arista Records, who decided to drop Chapter 8 because they felt Baker’s vocals and persona lacked star-quality. Discouraged, Baker would leave the music business for a time and work at a Detroit law office. Then, in 1983, she was contacted by an old colleague from Chapter 8 and asked to record an album for the Beverly Glen record label. Production quickly ensued on what would become Baker’s debut album, “The Songstress,” a perfect title that cast her as a highly capable tunesmith with a velvety voice who was masterful in crafting the art of the bona fide slow jam. No more is this evident than on the track “Angel” from the release.
The release went against the trends of the African American scene of the time which was filled with cheesy synths, dance divas and rappers. Instead, Baker opted for a more soulful sound combined with shades of jazz and heartfelt balladry that cultivated a grown and sexy adult contemporary vibe in her music. If “The Songstress” was the appetizer, her next album “Rapture” would be the main course. Listeners had been wanting more of Baker’s voice and on her sophomore release, they would hear the full scope and glory of her vocal abilities – unapologetically.
3. “Caught Up In the Rapture”
One of the signature cuts from the 1986 release is “Caught Up In the Rapture.” The album would be her magnum opus, musical lightning in a bottle, garnering two Grammy wins for Best R&B Female Vocalist and Best R&B Song. There were other significant milestones associated with this groundbreaking release. Firstly, Baker named herself Executive Producer of the album and as such there was a seamless quality to the material with each song being a beautifully personal tone poem. Baker referred to the sound architecture of the material as “fireside love songs with jazz overtones.” Her seeking control over her own material would be a key theme that would manifest itself to a greater extent later on.
Secondly, by virtue of the release, Baker became the face of the Quiet Storm movement, a Black radio subgenre style that was pioneered by artists such as Smokey Robinson, the Isley Brothers and others in the 1970s that fostered the intimate textures of soulful slow jams into a slow-motion atmosphere of romantic undertones amid melodic grooves. Baker took this level of sophisticated soul and put it on even higher ground with her warm and tender tributes to the endurance of love and happiness. Her songs would become timeless music devotionals.
And thirdly, Baker’s voice took on transcendent qualities, her rich contralto sounding much older than her years, delivered with the utmost precision and conviction while enveloping listeners in its symphonic textures that flooded every sense.
Soul music was at a crossroads by the time “Rapture” dropped in 1986. Much of the genre was aimed at the pop dance scene – ala Whitney Houston – or had become somewhat formulaic as typified by the popular machine-driven productions of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. “Rapture” reset the genre and reasserted the case for soul music being an authentic medium, a creative space where diverse and variant sounds such as jazz, R&B and adult contemporary could simultaneously exist in the same dreamscape. It was timeless and nostalgic, but also forward-thinking and pointed to a future direction for R&B.
The album resonated in both the underground and mainstream and would set Baker up to having a long-lasting, multi-platinum career. Her next album, “Giving You the Best That I Got,” would continue her trajectory as a purveyor of sophisticated soul.
4. “Giving You the Best That I Got”
This album earned Baker three more Grammy awards and cemented her stardom. Two years later, Baker released an album titled “Compositions,” followed by “Rhythm of Love” in 1994, both albums resting atop the soul charts with a musical mix of jazz, soul and adult contemporary. Baker would take some time off to dedicate to family, raising two sons and focusing on their personal growth and development. She would later reemerge in 2004 with a deal with Blue Note Records and release “My Everything,” an album that would reach the top of the pop and soul charts.
Baker’s music resume is one that most artists would kill for – eight Grammy Awards, four American Music Awards and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame are just the tip of the iceberg. But her legacy also includes music activism in recent years. Baker, like many artists at the start of her career, were victims of bad artist contracts that prevented them from owning their own material. However, Baker was able to utilize a reversion in copyright law and declared that she had “outlived” all of her artist contracts and, by law, her masters plus the rights to her name and likeness should be returned to her. The reversion allowed artists to be given their copyrights after 35 years.
But with her not being granted those copyrights, the veteran songstress took her fight public, during which time she encouraged fans not to stream her music until she was the sole owner of her catalog. Her stance galvanized music artists as many came out in support of her and stimulated others to have the courage to fight for their own masters and copyrights. Baker triumphed with a recent announcement that she had reacquired her masters.
5. “Fairy Tales”
Anita Baker’s impact on music continues to evolve as new generations of music lovers discover her work. She has brought a sense of class to the industry that you would see with jazz artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson and Sarah Vaughan, bringing the genre to the mainstream with a sophistication grounded in tradition-oriented soul and R&B with future leanings. She is a wonderful, deeply intuitive personality, a peerless paragon of soul whose music is equal parts transcendent and timeless. And that’s pretty good for an artist whose record label told her during her Chapter 8 days that she didn’t have star-quality.
Photo courtesy of Ben Houdijk Photography.