Say the name “Anita Baker” and most people can identify her breakthrough album, 1986′s Rapture. Crooning modern-day classics like “Sweet Love” and the title track, Baker established herself as an influential R&B vocalist. She influenced a generation of singers—most notably Toni Braxton and Yolanda Adams—with her unique blend of jazz, R&B, and gospel. Drawing comparisons to Sarah Vaughan, Baker’s voice has graced several albums since Rapture, earning multiple Grammy awards and scoring impressive sales. But few realize that her debut album was not Rapture, but the 1983 release, The Songstress. While it failed to make a significant dent on the pop charts, it did crack the top 20 of the Billboard R&B albums chart. The Songstress may not be as famous as Rapture, but it remains an impressive debut effort, a solid collection of slow jams and disco-inflected tracks.
Growing up in Detroit, Baker performed with several local bands until she joined the group Chapter 8 in 1975. They released their debut album on Ariola, scoring a minor hit with “I Just Wanna Be Your Girl.” After Arista purchased the label, they promptly dropped the band, claiming that they did not care for Baker’s vocals. To pay the bills, Baker worked as a law firm receptionist until 1982, when Otis Smith—who had previously worked with Chapter 8—asked her to join his new label, Beverly Glen. Thus Baker ventured to the West Coast to record the tracks for what would become The Songstress.
Right from track one, Baker successfully displays her considerable vocal skills. Her warm, honeyed voice wraps around “Angel,” a ballad that became a standard at Baker’s later concerts. Simply produced, with soft piano, walking bass lines, and gentle drums accompanying her singing, Baker performs the sensual song with passion. Toward the end, her soaring vocals demonstrate her vast range and power. “You’re the Best Thing Yet” continues in this mood, her singing effortlessly gliding over some difficult chord changes. Similar to the Giving You the Best That I Got track “Good Love,” “Feel the Need” allows Baker to inject some funk into the proceedings, particularly utilizing her voice’s deeper ranges.
One of the more interesting Songstress songs, “Squeeze Me,” features a rare uptempo, disco-tinged performance; while Baker later focused on jazz and soul ballads, she handles funky tunes equally well. Along with a killer bass line and a relentless beat, Baker sounds confident and in charge. While slower, “Do You Believe Me” also features a brassy Baker performance, driven by a popping bass and gospel-inflected backup singers. While the synthesizer may date the track, it still serves as an enjoyable slice of soulful funk.
Apart from these uptempo excursions, Baker sticks with her forte—jazz and soul ballads. Although songs like “No More Tears” may not pack the emotional punch as “Sweet Love” or even “Angel,” Baker saves them from obscurity with that powerful voice. “No More Tears” allows Baker room to explore her voice’s upper ranges, while “Sometimes,” with its laid-back mood, serves as the very definition of “quiet storm” music. Finally, “Will You be Mine” utilizes some horns, piano, and strings to enhance Baker’s sultry performance. Beverly Glen organized a formidable array of musicians and arrangers to back up Baker, most notably Nathan East (bass) and Jerry Hey (horn arrangements). Despite this first-class production, the album seemed to fall through the cracks. She did, however, generate strong buzz from devoted R&B fans.
After the massive success of Rapture and subsequent albums Giving You the Best That I Got and Compositions, Elektra (her then-label) reissued The Songstress with new cover art in 1991. Thus the album received a deserved second chance, particularly among new Baker fans unaware of her pre-Rapture work.
While The Songstress may not be as famous as Baker’s later works, it remains a hidden gem of ’80s soul. The album heralds Baker’s emergence as a talented, distinctive vocalist who reinterprets jazz for modern audiences. Rapture may contain more memorable songs and slicker production, but The Songstress remains a thoroughly enjoyable listen.