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The private rapture of Anita Baker.
by Lynn Norment, Jul. 1, 1991
SITTING at the highly glossed wooden kitchen table in her two-story home, Anita Baker is casual and relaxed--no makeup, no fancy clothes, no pretensions. There is no music in the background, no servants, no groupies, no bodyguards.
Also absent, for the moment at least, are stress and tension. The reason: Anita Baker, the sultry contralto who has won seven Grammy Awards, is taking time off from recording, touring and anything else that creates stress.
That doesn't mean she's hiding out and studying the ways of a hermit. This hiatus is far from that, for she is spending quality time with her husband and family, exercising daily to her aerobics tapes, and doing things she enjoys most, like fishing and riding her bike along the lake. In addition, she is weighing and considering fundraisers, television specials and other projects.
"But I'm picking and choosing in terms of the stress factor. If it's not fun, I'm not going to do it," she says decisively. "This is my year with my husband, and with things that are important to me. No stress."
At home in Grosse Pointe, Mich., it's easy to forget the hustle-bustle of a year of performing, traveling and constantly being in the limelight. Here on Lake St. Clair, and dressed comfortably in black leggings and sweater and pink houseshoes, Baker reflect on her success, contemplates the future, and reveals her personal passions, her private raptures.
It was only five years ago that Anita Baker first captured the hearts and souls of millions with her sultry Rapture album that sold five million copies. "They're gone by fast, real fast," she says of the years. "There's been some heartbreak--some high points and some low points."
Her lowest point was enduring a 1989 miscarriage after a strenuous, oftimes contentious, tour with Luther Vandross. Understandably, she prefers to dwell on the positives.
"I would say that my peak was making my first million at the ripe age of 29, after the first album," she says.
Since then, the millions have multiplied. Her second album, Giving You The Best That I've Got, sold 3 million copies; and her latest, Compositions, which she describes as a "very uncommercial jazz" album, has sold 1.5 million copies, far exceeding her expectations. It won her a Grammy, new fans and "it got me the respect of people whose respect I wanted"--people like Branford and Wynton Marsalis and other jazz artists. "And Betty Carter will talk to me now," Baker says.
Other "peaks" in the life of this 33-year-old singer include her marriage to Walter Bridgforth, a former IBM marketing specialist whom she calls her "best friend," and moving into her cozy, tastefully decorated home on Lake St. Clair. They are the first Blacks to own lakefront property in this ritzy village of automobile industry tycoons and executives. And despite her fame and wealth, there have been racial snubs. (Such as the department store clerk who assumed that Bridgforth had stolen the credit card used to purchase a television set because he "didn't know any Blacks could afford to live on Lake Shore.") But that and other snubs don't bother Baker or her husband. They feel very much at home, so much so that they are building a much larger house a few doors down.
Baker is not content, however, to just sit back and enjoy the good life. Her heart is still rooted in inner-city Detroit, where she grew up and where many family members still alive.
To share the prosperity and experience of her good fortune, she has established the Bridgforth Foundation and adopted a class of 25 students, now 8th graders, at Berry Elementary School. "They call themselves the Future Force," she says with pride, explaining that she meets periodically with the students and how she "cried like a baby" at their 6th grade graduation ceremony. A college endowment has been established.
The second major focus of the foundation is to educate new talent on how to survive in the recording industry. "Once I started the program for young musicians, I felt that a huge weight had been lifted off me," says Baker. "I've learned so much over the past five years in this business, and I just needed a way to share it. That's what the foundation is all about."
Baker says all new artists should be aware that negotiation, not talent, is "three-fourths of the music business." She also advises them to put together an attractive package that will stand out among the millions of tapes that record companies get every year. Having a good attorney when negotiating a record contract is also a "must," and Baker insists that artists must maintain control of their money.
"I could not have learned these things if I had not made mistakes," says Baker. She then recounts the well-known story of how in the early '80s she produced a hit record for a company but never received a penny, only the "typewriter, TV set and [leased] apartment" she got when she signed.
When asked what makes her angry, Baker immediately says "stupidity!" She ponders for a moment. "I just can't think of a better word for it. Stupidity, like in those parents whose children bring home D's and F's, and they don't take time to find out there's a free tutoring program. That's stupidity, and I just have no patience with it."
Baker is most appreciative of the loyal support of her fans, adding that she is "very approachable." However, she detests rude people who follow her around or yell out to her in public. "But most of my fans are very considerate of me," she adds.
What really annoys her, though, are people who try to compliment her by insulting other artists. Rather than being competitive, Baker feels a "sisterhood" with her fellow singers. She describes newcomer Oleta Adams as "a complete artists," Vesta as a "bottomless pit of vocal dynamics," and Regina Belle as "awesome." How about Mariah Carey? "I ain't gonna lie, I'm jealous!" she says, adding that she envies the guidance that Carey had in getting a record deal. "I sent her a note when she won the Grammy and Soul Train Award, and she sent me back a really nice note," says Baker. And she considers Whitney Houston a "super talent" and a friend who gets a "bum rap because she's at the top." Baker calls herself an "underdog," and so, she says, people and the press don't pick on her quite as much.
Another pet peeve of Baker's is people who try to cozy up to her to take advantage of her fame. "I don't let people use me," she says defiantly. "That's why I like a small number of people in my life. The more people in my life, the more complex it becomes, so I just try to keep it at a minimum."
When husband Walter comes in with a bag of groceries, Baker greets him with a warm kiss and hug, and then proceeds to make his favorite dish, corn chowder. While cutting corn off the cob and peeling potatoes, putting her beautifully manicured nails in peril, Baker tells how she's learned so much about finance from her husband. "The man knows how to handle money," she says, adding that it was Bridgforth who negotiated her lucrative Coca-Cola endorsement deal and spearheaded their interest in urban renewal property. Altogether, the couple have invested $4 million in property in Detroit and Grosse Pointe.
"Woman, why isn't my food ready?" Bridgforth demands, banging on the kitchen counter. Anita gives him the evil eye, and they burst into laughter.
She tells how her husband once pulled a similar stunt outside a shopping mall. While dozens of people looked on, he drove their red truck up to the curb and shouted out the window: "'Nita, get in this car! I told you not to stay in there that long!" The two drove away laughing, though it's not clear what the onlookers thought.
Baker confesses that in their relationship, Bridgforth is the boss ("he run this") and she acknowledges that "marriage has its ups and downs." She says those contemplating matrimony must realize that "you are going to have to change a little bit, especially those of us who are strong independent career women. You are going to have to make some sacrifices, but the rewards are worth it. . . . I'm still selfish sometimes, but I try to catch it immediately," she says. "And I can be spiteful when I'm mad. But I also make sacrifices, I make allowances, I apologize when I don't want to apologize.
One "big unresolved" aspect of Baker's personal life is her strained relationship with her mother; she and six older siblings were reared by an aunt and uncle. "As I get older, I look more like her," she says of her mother. "Every time I walk past a mirror, I see her." Baker says a few months ago, she called her mother, a first step toward resolving their differences.
Though Baker prefers not to discuss the circumstances that led to her growing up with her aunt, she has no regrets. She feels that her gifted voice, which she discovered while singing in church as a child, was due to divine intervention. "It was a tool that was given to me that would allow me to take care of myself and to rise above my beginnings, and it was manifested through my Aunt Lois," she says.
Baker says that her family, husband and home are her main sources of happiness. With pride she points out a dining room filled with country French antiques, living room with gorgeous lake view and dozens of framed family photographs, and master bedroom with its oversized antique bed. It is in this domestic environment that she gets inspiration for her music. "At home I'm relaxed," she says. "I may be in the yard talking to neighbors, or riding my bike, or fishing, making up the bed--and things just come to me. I'll hum a melody, and if it feels real good, I'll play it on the piano and put it on tape, and then develop it later.
"The music speaks words to me," she continues, admitting that most times the melodies are rather "blue" and "melancholy," such as what she calls her signature tunes, "Giving You The Best," "Talk To Me," "Good Love," "You Bring Me Joy," and "Lonely."
Does this suggest that Anita Baker is a brooding, moody person?
"Very, very," she says, admitting that there are times when she's very down, such as when she repeatedly got "no's" to her proposal to produce other artists. Of course, she since has found plenty of interest for her production deal and is quite excited about it.
At the end of the year, when Baker is back into the working mode, she'll produce new artists as well as write new songs for her own next project. In the meatime, she'll continue to take it easy at home--do a little fishing, finalize plans for her new house, do a fundraiser or two, and maybe--"but only if it's fun"--perform at a couple of jazz festivals this summer. She'll also focus on starting a family.
For this multitalented woman whose songs are steeped in passion and whose performances are sensuality personified, a big houseful of children will be her most important and fulfilling private rapture.