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.