She didn't exactly plan it this way, this seven-year hiatus from stage and studio. Time whipped by, unheeded, as it is wont to do, sucked up in a maelstrom of sandwich-generation demands: dying parents, rambunctious toddlers, marriage on the rocks.
The music just didn't come. She figured it would return. In time.
But the years whirled by, and with them, family dramas writ large and small. Thoughts of the past, of platinum records and sold-out tours and seven Grammys were pushed back, way back. Until, that is, R&B singing star Anita Baker, she of the pixie haircut and the mournful contralto, was confronted by her therapist: You used to be a singer. Why aren't you singing?
Very good question.
It was a question she finally was ready to answer.
So Baker called her agent and asked him: "Why am I not a singer now?"
Well, he told her, there's no reason why. Let's see if we can have some fun. And he promptly booked her on a series of performances, performances in New York and Atlanta, Oakland and Detroit, performances where she could dip in, roll around in her old tunes, let the melodies wash over her. See what happens.
Call this a comeback.
For Baker, who will be performing tonight and tomorrow night at Wolf Trap, it is a comeback of a different hue, a comeback without a new product to peddle -- there is no freshly minted CD -- a comeback based not so much on the necessity of making a buck (though that would be nice), but a comeback that is, to crib from one of her song titles, Just Because.
"I couldn't go in the studio," Baker says. "I needed to do something easy. I just have to rehearse my band and go out there. . . .
"It's a brave new world, but I'm having a great time. My audience comes out; they fill out these halls. It's just me and my audience. They yell out songs, we sing it. Sometimes they make me cry to the point where I can't sing and they sing it for me."
Among her fans, she's always inspired slavish loyalty, selling out multiple engagements in venues such as Radio City Music Hall and DAR Constitution Hall. Her career was born about the same time that WHUR-FM developed the "Quiet Storm" format, soulful music, music for grownups, music to make out to, music that didn't need break-beats to get bodies swaying. Baker's husky vocals, moody, mid-tempo ballads and jazz-inflected phrasings that inspired comparisons to Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan fit right in with the format. Rolling Stone once said of her, "When she wraps her voice around an intelligent lyric, her smoky contralto has few equals."
She started singing the old-fashioned way: with her church's gospel choir. In 1975 she joined Chapter 8, an R&B group that made a name for itself singing around Detroit. The group got a record deal, only to be dropped by Arista in 1979. At the time, interest from another label was hard to come by. One record exec famously told Baker that she couldn't sing. But in 1982, she was signed by a boutique label, Beverly Glen, and released her first CD, "The Songstress," in 1983.
Her second album, "Rapture," released under the aegis of Elektra Records, went platinum, eventually earning her a Grammy.
With her success came rumors of being a diva, of being difficult. There was a falling-out with that other R&B crooner, Luther Vandross, during a tour they co-headlined. (They reconciled.)
Then, too, there was the fight for control of her image.
"I had a guy who tried to put a blond wig on me, and I was labeled difficult. I wouldn't let him have his way with me.
"I have no interest in an 'image.' The day that I have to do that is the day that I do something else."
She didn't have to do something else: Even though she never had a No. 1 hit, her music sold briskly. Acclaim was hers. But just as she was at the height of her popularity, Baker, born in Toledo and raised in Detroit, stepped away. First it was marriage, to Detroit businessman Walter Bridgforth, then babies. Touring seemed harder and harder to do, what with two diaper-clad boys in tow. Her youngest took his first steps at the Ritz-Carlton in Chicago.
She needed her babies, needed the regularity of home life.
She'd always demanded to be compensated for her catalogue of hits; those demands, she says, ensured that she was taken care of financially. She could afford to take time off.
So she scaled back, recording in a tiny home studio. But then her adoptive mom got sick, suffering from dementia and strokes and a host of other Alzheimer's-related ills. Every day, Baker would ride her bike to the nursing home to sit with the woman she calls her "Earth mom."
"There were beautiful days where I would come in," Baker says, beginning to cry. "She wouldn't know me, but she would know Anita. She would say, 'Where is Anita? The last time I talked to her, she was singing in California.' And I would tell her, 'Anita is coming tomorrow.' And that's how we would communicate."
Then her father fell ill with cancer, and then the woman she calls her "birth mother." Caretaking became all that she knew. Music was an afterthought.
"People would say, 'You need to make a record,' " Baker, 45, says in a telephone interview from her Detroit home. "I said, 'My parents are dying, how can I make a record?'
"Record companies have business to attend to. I had to make a choice. I chose what was before me."
Life was following the course of her hit, "Fairy Tales," where a young woman discovers that her mother's sugar-spun stories about life lived happily ever after needed some serious revisions:
She never said that we would curse, cry and scream and lie / She never said that maybe sometime he'd say goodbye / The story ends as stories do / Reality steps into view / No longer living life in paradise. . . .
Her marriage fell apart; divorce papers were filed. Six days away from a final decree, the judge sent the couple back for counseling.
I was out of control / but I still loved my man with my body and soul / When the road gets rough / you say things you should not say / I never meant to treat my baby that way / I apologize / believe me I do. . . .
"We found our way back home," says Baker, whose boys are now 9 and 10. They've been reunited a little more than a year.
And as she found her way back to marital stability, making peace with the past, the music started to flow again. From her grief, she started to write.
"People have been begging for her to come back," says Jamie Foster Brown, editor and publisher of Sister 2 Sister, who has followed Baker's career since its start in the early '80s.
"This is what having great music means," says Brown, who saw one of Baker's recent performances in Detroit. "Once you put out great music, people want to see you. They don't have the opportunity to hear or see these artists anymore, particularly on the radio, because music is so narrowly focused. It's all about hip-hop. And a lot of these older artists get pushed aside."
For now, at least, says Baker -- who is negotiating with a new record label that she won't identify -- she isn't worrying about being pushed aside. She likens her appeal to that of Sade ("flattering myself greatly") and Norah Jones, vocalists who attract big crowds without benefit of the corporate music machine.
"I've never been part of the star machine," Baker says. "I think it would scare me if someone said I had to walk through that machine.
"At 45, I'm not part of that. . . . But then, I wasn't at 25, either."