How Anita Baker Redefined Quiet Storm’s Music With Sophisticated Soul
Legendary R&B siren Anita Baker will hold her final performance at Little Caesar’s Arena tonight. In honor of his significant contributions to the music industry, we reflect on his iconic career.
Influenced by jazz singers Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, Baker gravitated towards music from an early age. While singing in her church’s gospel choir in Detroit, she cultivated and honed her love for music and her powerful and emotional three-octave vocal range.
Listen to five must-see tracks from Anita Baker
1. “I just want to be your girl”
After being invited to audition for the R&B collective, Chapter 8—which was the backup band for the Detroit Emeralds—Baker would join the band to become its lead singer on its 1979 self-titled debut album released on Ariola Records. Her track “I Just Wanna Be Your Girl” showcases her vocals, giving a little insight into Baker’s talent and what would come next.
However, Ariola Records was acquired by Arista Records, who decided to drop Chapter 8 because they felt Baker’s voice and personality lacked quality. Disheartened, Baker would leave the music industry for a time and work at a Detroit law firm. Then, in 1983, she was contacted by a former colleague from Chapter 8 and asked her to record an album for the Beverly Glen label. Production soon ensued on what would become Baker’s debut album, “The Songstress,” a picture-perfect track that showcased her as a highly capable musician with a velvety voice that was masterful in the art of authentic slow jamming. This is no more evident than on the track “Angel” on the release.
The release went against the trends of the African American scene at the time which was filled with nerdy synths, dance divas and rappers. Instead, Baker opted for a more soulful sound combined with undertones of jazz and heartfelt ballads that cultivated a mature, sexy adult contemporary vibe in his music. If “The Songstress” was the appetizer, her next album “Rapture” would be the main course. Listeners wanted more of Baker’s voice and on his second outing, they would hear the full extent and glory of his vocal abilities – unapologetically.
3. “Caught 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, a musical lightning bolt in a bottle, winning two Grammy Awards for Best R&B Female Singer and Best R&B Song. Other important milestones have been associated with this groundbreaking release. First, Baker appointed herself as the album’s executive producer, and as such the material was of a seamless quality, with each song a beautifully personal poem. Baker called the sound architecture of the material “fireside love songs with jazz overtones”. His search for control over his own material would be a key theme that would manifest more later.
Second, by virtue of the release, Baker became the face of the Quiet Storm movement, a style of black radio subgenre that was pioneered by artists such as Smokey Robinson, the Isley Brothers and others in the years 1970s which favored the intimate textures of soulful slow jams. in a slow-motion atmosphere with romantic nuances in the middle of melodic grooves. Baker took that level of sophisticated soul and put it on even higher ground with his warm, tender homages to the endurance of love and happiness. His songs will become timeless musical devotions.
And third, Baker’s voice took on transcendent qualities, his rich contralto sounding far older than his years, delivered with utmost precision and conviction while enveloping listeners in his symphonic textures that flooded all the senses.
Soul music was at a crossroads by the time “Rapture” dropped in 1986. Much of the genre was destined for the pop dance scene – ala Whitney Houston – or had become somewhat formulaic, as evidenced by the popular machine-driven productions from Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. “Rapture” reset the genre and reaffirmed that soul music was an authentic medium, a creative space where diverse and varied sounds such as jazz, R&B and adult contemporary could coexist in the same dreamscape. It was timeless and nostalgic, but also edgy and pointed to a future direction for R&B.
The album resonated with both the underground and the mainstream and gave Baker a long multi-platinum career. Her next album, “Giving You the Best That I Got”, will continue her trajectory as a sophisticated soul-provider.
4. “Give you the best I have”
This album earned Baker three more Grammy awards and cemented his stardom. Two years later, Baker released an album called “Compositions”, followed by “Rhythm of Love” in 1994, both albums topping the soul charts with a musical blend of jazz, soul and adult contemporary. Baker would take time off to focus on his family, raise two sons, and focus on their personal growth and development. She would reappear later in 2004 with a deal with Blue Note Records and release “My Everything”, an album that would top the pop and soul charts.
Baker’s musical resume is one 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 his legacy also includes musical activism in recent years. Baker, like many artists early in his career, fell victim to poor artist contracts that prevented them from owning their own material. However, Baker was able to use an inversion of copyright law and said she had ‘survived’ all of her artist contracts and, by law, his masters and the rights to his name and image should be restored to him. Reversion allowed artists to receive their copyrights after 35 years.
But since she didn’t get those copyrights, the veteran singer went public with her fight, during which time she encouraged fans not to release her music until she was the sole owner of its catalog. Her stance galvanized musical artists, as many supported her and inspired others to have the courage to fight for their own masters and copyrights. Baker triumphed with a recent announcement that she had bought out her masters.
5. “Fairy Tales”
Anita Baker’s impact on music continues to evolve as new generations of music lovers discover her work. She 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 soul-driven, R&B-driven sophistication. tradition with future trends. He is a wonderful and deeply intuitive personality, an incomparable paragon of the soul whose music is both transcendent and timeless. And that’s pretty good for an artist whose label told her during her Chapter 8 days that she didn’t have star quality.
Photo courtesy of Ben Houdijk Photography.