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Where is Anita Baker?

Veteran entertainment journalist gives ‘the best that he’s got’ trying to track down the renowned songstress, Anita Baker, for a final interview after she announces her retirement. Will she show him some ‘sweet love’?

PHOTO BY JONATHAN GARRETT PHOTOGRAPHY

It sounded like such a simple assignment.

“Anita Baker announced her retirement earlier this year,” my editor at BLAC Detroit emailed me. “I’d love it if we could do some kind of career retrospective.”

Anita Baker? The Songstress? “Giving You the Best That I Got.” “Sweet Love.” “No One in the World.” My personal favorite, “Just Because.” Eight-time Grammy winner. Platinum-selling recording star since her second LP Rapture in 1986. “The most promising black woman singer of the ’80s,” Dennis Hunt of the Los Angeles Times once extolled, a promise kept and far exceeded over a brilliant, sometimes tumultuous, four-decade career.

Oh, yes, I replied enthusiastically. In the pantheon of world-renowned black female vocalists with strong Detroit ties – Aretha, Gladys, Martha, Aaliyah – Anita, “the human saxophone,” earned her first-name stature a long time ago with a silvery contralto unlike any other. What’s more, this story would complete a full circle for me.

As pop music critic for The Detroit News in the 1980s, I wrote one of the first local feature stories on Baker, an interview subsequently syndicated nationwide. Just a few years removed from a receptionist job at a downtown Detroit law office, her innocence was disarming.

“It’s fantasy time,” Baker said then, laughing. “Even dreaming, I only dreamt as far as seeing myself in a recording studio. I always wanted to know what I would sound like on the equipment. So I’ve surpassed even my little dreams. It’s like I’m on a roll.”

For her millions of fans, however, the roll ended abruptly.

Clearly I got caught up in the rapture of doing one of the first and last print interviews with Anita Baker. Why not interview her again? She still calls Detroit home. How hard can it be to contact her?

What I hadn’t heard was that Baker announced her retirement Jan. 12 suddenly, without notice … and on Twitter.

Subsequent tweets reinforced her decision.

Well, I’d like to. I didn’t realize that, beyond her tweets and a brief, obscure interview on BlackDoctor.org, Baker hasn’t communicated publicly with anyone since declaring herself retired. And when you’re a retired entertainer, you don’t need a spokesperson.

Gregory Reed, the Detroit entertainment attorney who once paid $100,000 at auction to obtain the manuscript of Alex Haley’s first major work, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, while representing Anita, says Baker hasn’t been his client for some time. Another lawyer, Jamal Hamood, who was named in media accounts as her representative in a 2014 civil suit, sued Baker himself later that year. “I’m one of a long line of attorneys who has filed suit against her,” he said politely over the phone. “I’m probably not the guy you want to talk to.”

I reached out to musicians, agents, club owners, recording studios, reputed friends, known associates. Nothing. Suddenly, it hit me: She retired via Twitter; maybe she can be contacted the same way! Thus began a campaign of at least one tweet a day.

“You were gracious enough to let me interview you in the past,” I wrote. “May I talk to you again?”

“On 1/12 you tweeted, ‘Coffee’s always on. Stop by ANYtime,’” I noted. “I’d like a cup, please!”

Zip.

In the BlackDoctor article, Baker suggests that raising her two sons and caring for her two ailing parents – her father, who eventually died of bone cancer, then her mother, who fell victim to Alzheimer’s disease – took precedence over her singing career for so long that it was hard to get back in the groove. In hindsight, perhaps the sudden nature of her announcement and subsequent reclusiveness shouldn’t be surprising: Anita Baker has a reputation for being as unpredictable as she is tempestuous.

“Someone just asked me, ‘Which artist made you absolutely love what you do and want to quit at the same time?’” pondered Gerard Smerek, the Detroit recording engineer considered one of the best in the industry, who began working with Baker on her Giving You the Best That I Got LP. “Without blinking an eye, I said, ‘Anita.’

“Don’t get me wrong, I love Anita. She’s brilliant. When we were all locked in, it was like skating around the universe. Anita is just a genius. And her own worst enemy.”

Smerek put me in touch with Detroit producer Michael J. Powell, arguably the one person most responsible for Baker’s success. Powell spotted her singing with a band at the old Cabaret Lounge in the mid ’70s and persuaded her to join his R&B group, Chapter 8. “They had her singing background,” he recalled.

Powell, who produced Baker’s multi-platinum LPs Rapture, Giving You the Best That I Got and Compositions, said he hadn’t spoken with her for a while – and remains stunned by her retirement. “That’s unbelievable,” he said. “As hard as it is for black folks to reach the status she reached, then to say ‘I’m going to retire’ doesn’t make any sense.”

He’s hoping Baker changes her mind someday. The two had another album ready to record.

“We had breakfast at the Hudson Cafe downtown, and talked about what we wanted to do and how we should do it,” Powell related. “So I went to work. I wrote 10 songs, called her and said, ‘Anita, I got some stuff I want you to hear.’ We met at Harmonie Park Studios, played the songs and she cried like a baby. She said, ‘This is exactly what I want. This is perfect.’”

Powell dubbed a tape for her and waited for further instructions. Weeks passed.

“I called her to see what’s up and if she was all right. She said, ‘Michael, I can’t do these songs.’ I asked why and she said, ‘They remind me too much of Walter.’” (Walter Bridgforth Jr., her ex-husband, whom she divorced in 2008.)

“I said, ‘That’s what songs like this are made from!’ They’re at least two years old, but they’re timeless. I’m going to hang on to them just a little bit longer, because Anita is so funny. Any day she might call and say, Mike, I’m over it, let’s do these songs.’ They were tailor-made for her.”

JIM MCFARLIN IS A DETROIT NATIVE AND VETERAN ENTERTAINMENT JOURNALIST.

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