In some industry circles, as recently as a few years ago, black female singers had an unflattering nickname. They were called buffaloes. That's because they were a dying breed.
The veterans--Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan and Dionne Warwick--were having their troubles then, mainly because they were largely being ignored by radio. For a while, in the late '70s, it looked like disco diva Donna Summer would lead a resurgence of black women singers. But she faded along with disco. Tina Turner's comeback hasn't helped black women singers much because there are few black lady rockers to follow in her footsteps.
What had always been missing was a steady stream of new blood. Newcomers couldn't get anywhere. Jennifer Holliday was hot briefly, but her thunderous gospel style proved too overwhelming for pop audiences.
But in 1985, a sophisticated pop-R&B; singer named Whitney Houston surfaced. For black women singers she's the Messiah. With one multimillion-selling album, her first--"Whitney Houston"--she made black women singers fashionable again. At nearly the same time, there was another emerging star, Sade, singing an updated version of the soft Brazilian jazz that was popular in the early '60s.
The Houston-Sade breakthrough paved the way for Patti LaBelle and Janet Jackson to become major stars in 1986. But last year's most significant new star was Anita Baker, arguably the most promising black woman singer of the '80s.
"Because of what Whitney and Sade did, there was an opening for me," Baker pointed out. "For radio stations, black woman singers aren't taboo anymore."
Basically a ballad singer, Houston has made it easier for the masses to accept other black women ballad singers. And because of Sade's jazz orientation, other black women who sing in a jazz style have a chance of getting airplay.
Baker not only sings ballads--or as she calls them, fireside love songs--she also sings them with lush jazz overtones. "A few years ago, if a black woman walked into a record company with a tape full of jazz-oriented ballads they would have laughed at her and then kicked her out," Baker said.
Her album, "Rapture," easily one of last year's finest, is full of jazzy ballads, showing off her radiant contralto. These old-fashioned soulful, torchy ballads are gingerly laced with jazz but have enough contemporary touches to make them songs palatable to today's hipper audiences.
Baker is very trendy now. The "in" engagement of the season was her seven sold-out concerts at the Beverly Theater a few weeks ago.
Boosted by the Top 10 single, "Sweet Love," "Rapture"--on Elektra Records--has sold more than a million copies, a remarkable achievement for this kind of album. Surprisingly, Baker is the executive producer of "Rapture." It's rare for an artist without clout--particularly a black woman--to be entrusted with total control of an album project.
"I didn't demand that they make me executive producer," Baker explained. "We interviewed some hot-shot producers but none were right. Elektra finally saw that the best way to capture me on record was to put me in charge of my own record."
In producing, Baker--a raging minimalist--adheres to the "less is best" doctrine. "If there's a lot of fancy instrumentation, that limits what I can do with my vocals," she explained. "If every little space is filled with music, I can't move around vocally."
Her last album, "The Songstress"--on Beverly Glen Records--isn't what you would call a minimalist's delight. "It was a bit overdone for my tastes," Baker said. "One song had all those strings. They weren't necessary. But I didn't have anything to say about what happened on that record."
On "The Songstress," Baker's talents are often buried by overproduction. The songs are a problem too. They don't show off her voice very well. But her big gripe with "The Songstress" is the choice keys.
"I had to sing the songs in whatever key was there," she recalled with a scowl. "The decision was made for me. The keys weren't right. That made for lousy diction. There's not a song on the album where you can understand what I'm saying. I was singing from the back of my throat, up in my nose most of the time."
Despite its flaws, Baker's basic talent shines through on "The Songstress." This 1983 release introduced her to black audiences. Otis Smith, the head of Beverly Glen Records, lured her to Los Angeles in 1982 to make this album, her second. Her first was an obscure R&B; album she made in 1980 as lead singer of a group called Chapter 8.
Her Beverly Glen tenure, disrupted by battles over royalties and assorted differences, ended with Baker suing to gain her freedom. That's when she signed with Elektra Records.
Baker, who'll be 29 on Saturday, is barely 5 feet tall. She's bright and articulate, though she mentioned several times during lunch that she doesn't have a college education. Baker is also feisty. It's easy to see why she has a reputation for being temperamental.
A displaced Detroit native, Baker lives in North Hollywood, in a well-known singles apartment complex. But her heart is back home. Her fiance, whom she sees on weekends, is in Detroit. So is her family. She's been perpetually homesick since migrating here in 1982.
"I have no family here, I have nobody here," she lamented. "I need my family. I know I can count on them. I didn't realize how much I needed them until I didn't have them around me."
Family is so important to her because, she admitted rather wistfully, she doesn't make friends easily: "I'm not negative about people. I just don't get close to them without a lot of difficulty. I think the reason is that I have very good instincts about people. I can see through them. I don't want to get close to most of them. A woman who's by herself has to be careful."
She won't have to endure the L.A. single life much longer. With a sigh of relief she announced: "Next year this time I'll be married to my boyfriend and living in Detroit. I can't wait."
Singing is no more than a job to some artists. They could, with little agonizing, switch to another line of work. But for some, like Baker, singing is almost as necessary as breathing. "When I'm not singing, my life is empty . . . empty ," she said somberly. "That's no jive either. I couldn't imagine life without singing. It wouldn't be any fun. Nothing would mean anything.
"Love is wonderful too. It's right up there with singing. But singing gives me a feeling that I don't get from anything else. It's better than sex sometimes."
Singing has been Baker's personal heaven since she was 16. "That's when I realized I had tapped into something that was magical and spiritual for me," she said. "I had been singing since I was 12, but before that I just did it because it got me attention."
With the expansion of her range, in her mid-teens, Baker became more and more intrigued with singing. Remarkably, this happened not because of vocal training but through unstructured exploration.
"I pushed my voice based on which singer I was listening to," she explained. "For instance, if I was listening to Aretha (Franklin), I sang whatever she was singing. She has a strong top register. When I mimicked her, I found that I could push my top end farther than I thought."
After a while singing wasn't just singing for Baker. It was a revelation. "I'd hit a note and something would go through me, like a chill," she said, shivering at the memory. "I'd say: 'Damn! What was that? That happened just from a note?' Through singing, I started to go to that place more often, where the chills would come, where I'd get that warm feeling all over.
"I was hooked--like with a drug or something. I can't explain it very well. I just know I've been going back to that place again and again ever since."