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Anita Baker carving out big-time career

VOCALIST Anita Baker should be tired by now of people asking her how that great big voice comes out of such a tiny person. But she doesn't mind at all. ``I get a kick out of it, because I'll walk into a radio station, and they'll go, `Where's Anita Baker?' And I say, `Down here -- hi!' ''

Right now Miss Baker's stature is climbing on the rhythm and blues and pop charts. She's got a winning album, ``Rapture,'' a hot video, ``Sweet Love,'' and she's been touring nonstop across the United States.

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Personable, talented, fiercely independent, Baker is on the verge of becoming a major star. Yet just a few years ago, she was working a 9-to-5 job at a law firm in Detroit, with no thought of singing at all, even though she had sung in public since age 16.

``My first record deal was in 1980, with Ariola Records,'' says Baker, curled up in a chair in her hotel room here. ``I signed with a group called Chapter 8. But after we did our little record, the company chose not to record us again. They said they didn't think I had what it took to make it in the business. At the time I was about 22, and I figured, these are professional people -- they wouldn't say this to me if it weren't true.''

So she took a job waiting tables for a few months, while sending out r'esum'es.

Then the law firm hired her because ``they liked my voice over the phone. They taught me how to do word processing, and I was real conscientious. I forgot about the music. I was happy to see that I could do something else besides sing.''

But, according to Baker, up popped Otis Smith, who had known her from her Ariola days. He was part of that company but had formed his own label, Beverly Glen.

``He got in touch with me through the band, Chapter 8, and said, `I just recorded Bobby Womack and Johnny Taylor, and I think you'd be really good.' I said, `Nah, I got my Blue Cross card, my little week's paid vacation . . . .''

But eventually she left her job and went to California to sign with Beverly Glen. Her album ``The Songstress'' was released in 1983. It stayed on the R&B charts for more than a year. Word spread that Anita Baker was a talented woman with an unusual voice, and she began to get other offers. Last year she signed with Elektra Records.

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``This was my maiden voyage on a new label, a major label,'' says Baker, ``and there were people who said, `Is she worth it? Can she do this without Beverly Glen?' ''

When Elektra Records released Anita Baker's ``Rapture,'' it was clear that her talent wasn't a product of Beverly Glen alone. Baker not only sang on the album, but wrote several of the songs, contributed to the arrangements, and acted as executive producer of the project.

``I went way over budget, into my own personal funds, just to make sure that anybody could listen to this music, from the point of view of the production, the clarity of the mixes, and so on.''

Baker puts a lot of thought into her recordings. ``I look for simplicity in the production,'' she says. ``Everything has to revolve around the acoustic piano, because that's where I started singing in church, with an acoustic piano to accompany me. I don't need 50,000 strings, and I don't need a lot of artificial sounds. I like warm, thick, rich tones, deep tones, fat tones -- if it's thin, I don't want it. That's why I don't like synthesizers, because the sound is so thin.

``In my backup, I'm looking for the perfect vehicle for me. Not something marketable, contemporary, but a little buggy for me to ride in.''

What about the lyrics to her songs?

``If the lyric is too suggestive I won't sing it,'' she says. Her song ``Same Ole Love'' is about a long-time, comfortable relationship -- a topic one doesn't hear often in contemporary pop music. She says, ``It's so warm -- like your old blue jeans, you wear them every day.''

Becoming pensive, she adds, ``I agonize over the lyrics. They've got to say exactly what I want them to say without being blunt. I don't like things with hard edges on them. The corners have to be rounded for me, and, again, warm.''

On stage, Anita Baker is all spontaneity and nerve -- she's tough and soft at the same time. Unlike some of her contemporaries, she doesn't plan her act at all.

``I don't know what I'm gonna do from the time I go out there until it's over, and I like that, because if I have to think, I'm in trouble. It's not a presentation. The day that the excitement comes from a big production instead of from me and the guys, then it's not real any more, and I won't want to sing.''

It's hard to put a label on Baker, although she calls her style ``gospel-influenced soul and R&B.'' She sees herself as a ballad singer, and, indeed, her album ``Rapture'' is mostly ballads. Her idol is Sarah Vaughan, and one can hear that influence, along with hints of Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, and even Michael McDonald.

As for performing, she says, ``There's nothing like it in the world; it's better than anything. A lot of times before I go on I'll be so nervous, I'll walk around in a circle and feel that nervous tension and just let it be there. . . . I can feel that electricity.''

Baker performs at New York's Radio City Music Hall this weekend and continues her US tour through November.

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