Producer Michael Powell helped create Anita Baker’s massive R&B record Rapture

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Anita Baker 'Rapture'

By the mid-’80s, Anita Baker was on the verge of setting herself apart from her contemporaries with her next offering. After spending years perfecting her vocal craft with legendary Detroit band Chapter 8 and experiencing modest success with them, she decided to leave the music business altogether. She worked odd jobs around her hometown, then she received a phone call that would change the trajectory of her soon-to-be budding musical career. In 1982, she signed a recording contract with now defunct Beverly Glen Records. A year later, she released her debut album, The Songstress, and it left a lasting impression on the charts. Shortly thereafter, she departed ways with her record company, signed a new contract with Elektra Records, and reunited with Chapter 8 member, Michael Powell, to assist with producing her follow-up album. Their union proved to be a match made in heaven. On March 20, 1986, Rapture was released by Elektra Records. With a refreshing fusion of jazz, soul, and R&B, it became an instant smash. The album spawned five singles, including the two Grammy Award–winning: “Sweet Love” and “Caught Up in the Rapture.” For the album’s thirtieth anniversary, we spoke with the man behind the magic, Michael Powell, about crafting this timeless record.

When and where did you first meet Anita Baker?

Michael Powell: Well, I first met her in the mid-’70s. Anita was singing with another band at this local club in Detroit called the Cabaret Lounge, owned by Matt Miller. The bass player, David Washington, heard her there, and he told us about her. So the next night, we went over there to hear her. She was singing backgrounds, and afterward, I asked her, “Do you want to join my group Chapter 8?” Chapter 8 and Brainstorm were the two hottest bands in the city of Detroit. She responded, “Yes. Yes. I would love to! When do I start?” We had to leave town for a couple of weeks to do some shows, so we couldn’t begin working with her until we returned to town. Anita was around seventeen or eighteen years old at the time. When we used to perform, the drummer you used to stick his drumstick in her back on stage because she used to stand in front of his drum set. She used to be nervous and didn’t want to step out on stage. He used to take his drumstick and point her in back and tell her to get out there and sing. We didn’t play around. We rehearsed seven days a week. Once we came back, we signed with a production company in Detroit called Jade Productions. They were talking to us about a local producer who had a record out back then. I remember that guy and his record, but I don’t remember his name. I didn’t like his record at all. The instruments were out of tune and it just wasn’t a good production. I asked them, “Can we get Maurice White from Earth, Wind & Fire to produce us?” They replied, “No. We can’t afford him. Who else do you want?” I said, “Maybe we could get Michael Henderson.” They couldn’t afford him, either. [laughs] We went over to meet the producer that they were talking to us about. The producer told us, “I can produce your first record, then maybe you could produce your second record.” A light went off in my head and I responded, “You just really lost a gig. I know what I want this band to sound like.” I’d done the arrangements for the band before we ever talked about doing records. When I went to the studio with everyone, I didn’t know how to produce a record, but I knew what I wanted the music to sound like. The two hits we had from our group were with Gerald Lyles “Ready for Your Love” and Anita sung “I Just Wanna Be Your Girl” which I produced and wrote.

I remember being in the studio and talking to Michael Henderson, and I asked him, “Can you tell me something about production?” He replied, “Michael, just make the music and vocals exciting.” I took his advice and ran with it. I was the musical guy in the group. We had the late Derek Dirckson, and he was more of the business mind. Together, we basically ran the band. The late Johnny Allen did the strings and horns for us. He actually did the string arrangements on “Shaft.” We recorded “I Just Wanna Be Your Girl” at Cloud Born Studio in Dearborn, Michigan. When we got the deal with Ariola, Derek and I decided we were going to produce this record. We did that one record with Anita, and after that record, the group disbanded after we went out on the road on the Dog Tour.

We booked the dates ourselves, and we got into a twelve seat passenger van with fifteen people. We drove from New Haven, Connecticut to Los Angeles, California for a gig at the Total Experience club. The Total Experience club was owned by the people that managed The Gap Band at that time. Our single, “I Just Wanna Be Your Girl” was a big record in L.A. Everybody was in the audience that night: Berry Gordy, the band Rose Royce, Lionel Richie, among many others. It was jam packed. We did a great job. We had solid choreography and uniforms. We were a show band with Anita [Baker] and Gerald Lyles singing up front. The bass player and I sung backgrounds. That was a rough tour for the band because we traveled from coast to coast. After we got back home, we took a break. We were on tour for three weeks. When we took that break, Anita decided that she couldn’t do that anymore. The road was too rough for her. Little did she know, it was too rough for me, too. [laughs] Anita began working at a law firm answering telephones. Later on, I received a call from Otis Smith who was the owner of Beverly Glen Records. He asked me, “What are you guys doing?” I responded, “Nothing. We just came back from our tour.” He asked, “Do you guys want to do another record and sign with Beverly Glen?” I responded, “Sure. Let’s do it!” I called everybody and they agreed that we should do it. The only person that didn’t want to do it was Anita. [laughs]

After she recorded her debut album, The Songstress, in 1983, she experienced some moderate success and decided to leave Beverly Glen Records and sign new record deal with Elektra Records. What is the story behind you producing her follow up album, Rapture?

When I finished the Chapter 8 record, I was staying at Barham apartments in L.A. She finished her album, The Songstress, but had a falling out with Otis, and she didn’t want anything to do with him. She moved out her apartment and signed with Elektra Records. I ran into her one day, and I played her some of Chapter 8’s new stuff. She said, “I want you to come by. I want to hear some of the stuff you’re working on.” So I went by her place, and I started playing her our music. Then, she cut the music off. She said, “I didn’t call you up here to hear that, really. I want you to help me with my album.” I replied, “Help you with your album?” She responded, “Yeah. I’m getting ready to do another album.” I said, “Yeah. I’ll help you out. Let’s do it. I have to finish the Chapter 8 record first.” She said, “That’s okay. It’ll give me some time to get the songs together. Don’t tell Otis that you saw me.” I asked her, “Why?” She answered, “Because we fell out. I left his label and signed with Elektra.” I said, “Okay.” Little did I know that I was staying in the same apartment that Otis had put her in, and she was still staying in the same complex. [laughs] When we were talking about her next album, she said, “I have a couple of tunes that we can start with.” I replied, “That sounds good. When I get back, we’ll cut those two songs and see how they turn out. You can go to the label and let them know that you want me to produce your album.” Once I returned, I produced “Watch Your Step” and “Caught Up in the Rapture.” When she took the songs to the label, the A&R guy at the time hated what I produced. [editor’s note: Mr. Powell originally claimed that Mr. Raoul Roach was the A&R for this album, but according to Mr. Roach himself, that is false. We regret the error. See Mr. Roach’s full comments at the end of the article.] He said, “We need to get somebody else to do this record. This ain’t happening. It doesn’t sound good.” So Anita played the songs to the president of the label, Bob Krasnow, and he went crazy. He loved it. Her manager loved it and everyone else loved it. Anita went to Bob [Krasnow] and told him, “I don’t want that guy in the studio. I don’t want him to have any of the music. I don’t want anything to do with him.” Bob said, “Okay. That is fine.” She came back to me and said, “Mike, they loved the records. Let’s go ahead and finish the album.” I just finished the Chapter 8 record, and I came home for about a week. Then, I flew back out to L.A. to start on Anita’s record. I was able to get the keyboard player from Chapter 8, Vernon Fails, as well as Nathan East, Greg Phillinganes, Ricky Lawson, Paulinho Da Costa, and Paul Jackson Jr. to play on this album.

At the time, the way I was producing records was I would complete the music first, and then I would bring Anita in to do her vocals. We finished the record, and people really liked it. I remember leaving the studio after we finished the last song. We were on our way to Detroit, but not on the same flight, and she said, “Well, we finally finished it.” I replied, “Yeah. It’s done now.” She said, “I really wonder if people are going to like this record. I hope it does well.” I replied, “It sounds good. It should do well.” I didn’t notice what the musicians from L.A. were telling me. They kept telling me, “This is a really good record, Mike” I responded, “Okay. Good. I’m glad that you guys like it.” It’s funny because I remember coming back to L.A. to work on some stuff for Regina Belle, and the A&R guy said to me, “You just finished that Anita record, right?” I answered, “Yeah.” He said, “That is going to be the biggest record of the year.” I replied, “The biggest record of the year? I think it’s going to do all right, but I don’t know if it’s going to be the biggest record of the year.” It did end up being one of the biggest records for that year. After that record, my career started to take off. I was producing for everybody. I produced the next two records for Anita, and it’s funny because between those records, we really never talked. I was doing my thing, and she was out touring doing her thing.

As the main producer for Rapture, what direction were you trying to take her sound in since her debut album didn’t perform extraordinarily well on the music charts?

Well, I didn’t listen to The Songstress album, and I didn’t listen to the radio or other people’s records. I was just cutting good music. The style of music that I produced for Rapture was really Chapter 8’s sound without Chapter 8’s musicians. I produced music that felt good to me and my soul.

You mention that the music from this album was extension of Chapter 8’s sound. Was this what you were shooting for or did it just happen naturally when you were creating the music for the songs on this album?

I wasn’t shooting to do a repeat of Chapter 8’s sound, but that was the way the music was coming out of my head. I was really growing as a producer with this album, because the more tracks that I did, the better I became. The hardest thing was getting the music to feel right. When I had Greg Phillinganes, Nathan East, Ricky Lawson, and Vernon Fails doing the root of the music, I couldn’t go wrong. I didn’t want to dictate to everybody how to play because they were so good that I had to let them go sometimes, then sometimes, I had to hold them back, especially Greg on keyboards. That guy was a master on keyboards. When we used to go into the studio to play, these guys would get it by the second take. When Anita wasn’t there, we’d cut the intro and verses, and if they sounded good, we’d keep it and overdub the rest of the song. When she was singing with us while we were cutting it, if she made a mistake, no matter what the music sounded like, we had to go back and redo it. We did a lot of redoing the music. We had to work on the vocal performance, too. It’s not like how it used to be. Now, when you’re working with Pro Tools, you can take a vocal from another track, and put it on another track and nobody would know the difference.

There are some phenomenal musicians playing on this album. What was the process of bringing them onto this project?

This is an interesting story. Barney Perkins, the engineer, called Nathan East to tell him to come to the studio. He came and we talked over dinner. In those days, we always talked about things over dinner. I told him about this album, and how I was from Detroit. Barney walked me through the process of getting those musicians, and we were able to get Nathan to be a part of it. I asked Barney, “Can we get Greg Phillinganes?” He replied, “I don’t know, man. We’re going to have to call Greg. I have to see.” So Nathan and I went out one night to the Paradise Club in L.A. We’d been trying to reach Greg, so he finally called when we were in the car. Nathan answered and said, “Greg, we need to get you involved with this gig.” Greg asked, “Who is it with?” Nathan said, “It’s with this girl from Detroit. You know her. Anita Baker.” He responded, “Yeah. I think I’ve heard of her. Who is producing it?” Nathan answered, “This cat from Detroit. He used to play in her band.” Greg responded, “Uh. I don’t know about that, man.” He didn’t know I was on the phone listening. [laughs] Nathan said, “No, man. He is good. It’s going to be cool.” Greg asked, “Who else is playing?” Nathan answered, “Well, we’re trying to get Ricky Lawson. We already have Vernon Fails.” Greg asked, “When is the date? I’m not going to commit to the whole album, but I’ll check it out.”

So he came over to the studio for the first date, and he had a couple of tunes he wanted to play. We worked on those tunes, and he liked what was happening. Greg and Nathan don’t play on everyone’s records. I was really glad to have them on board. Paul Jackson Jr. played guitar and I played guitar, too. Paulinho Da Costa was on there, and I had the A Team to cut a record. I remember when George Duke cut a record back then, and he used the same musicians I used on Rapture. The record actually sounded like my stuff. When you put certain musicians together, you’re going to get a certain sound. As a producer, I wasn’t trying to reinvent the wheel. I was just trying to bring out the best in everybody. One of the most important things to me was to make sure the music felt good.

Once you were able to sell Greg Phillinganes to join the project, did everything else start falling into place with getting the other musicians to join?

Yeah. [laughs] Once I had Greg, everybody wanted to be a part of it then. I remember one time when Greg and Anita had a falling out. Greg was in the kitchen, and he was talking to Phil Collins on the phone. Phil asked, “What are you working on?” Greg answered, “I’m doing a session over here at this studio.” Phil asked, “Who are you doing it for?” Greg answered, “This girl singer.” And Anita walked in the kitchen. Greg was just being funny. If you know him, that’s how he is. He is real sarcastic. She got mad. She said, “I’m not no damn girl singer!” [laughs] They didn’t really exchange words after that. So Anita came in the studio, and pulled me to the side and said, “He better not be here tomorrow.” I said, “WHAT! Anita, I can’t fire him. I’m sorry. That ain’t going to happen.” She said, “I don’t want him here.” I didn’t tell Greg she said that. Nathan and I went to his brother’s house. His brother was a priest. We told him, “Look. We have to pray that she changes her mind. This is the team. These are the musicians we’re cutting this record with.” We prayed and everything.

The next morning I called Anita and said, “I know you were upset, but Greg was just kidding. We can’t fire Greg.” Anita replied, “Well, he shouldn’t have said what he said.” I said, “He was just playing with you. He was talking to Phil Collins.” When we arrived at the studio, she had this huge basket of fruit, wine, and cheese for Greg. Nathan and I laughed our heads off. [laughs] I’m glad it worked out because that would’ve changed everything. Don Myrick from Earth, Wind & Fire used to come to the studio high as a kite, but he did a great job playing the sax on “You Bring Me Joy.” When Gerald Albright came into the studio and played the sax on “Watch Your Step,” he blew it out on the first time. I was like, “WHOA!” I was sitting there looking at him like “Are you serious?” He was that great. He could play a mean bass, too. I wasn’t used to guys being able to switch off from instruments and being good at whatever instrument they played. When I was in the same room as these guys, my chops as a producer improved tremendously because they were watching me too. When I would change arrangements and had them to play a certain way, they would be impressed.

When you were in the studio with the other musicians on this album, can you describe your creative approach and studio routine?

Well, we would arrive in the studio around twelve o’clock and work until four or five o’clock in the morning. I would have the music written out for the musicians. If I had a demo, I would play it, but if not, I knew where the sound of the music was going. Sometimes, we would have to cut songs in a different key because, once she got to the studio and she didn’t like the key the song was in, we had to change it. We had done preproduction in Detroit before I went out to L.A. I did the keys with her, but once we got the energy of the musicians on a track, vocally, she wanted to do something higher pitched to bring more energy to the track. I did all the arrangements there in the studio with everything. The one thing we didn’t do a lot of were overdubs. Whatever we did, she would hear it. When we finished, we always made the recording sound so good that everybody who would hear it asked, “What else do you have to do to it?” So sometimes, it was a struggle for me to get the overdubs done that I’d hear like little bell parts or a string part or stuff like that. I still had to do those things after she sung her vocals. But when you had people who didn’t hear what I heard, it made a difference. I wanted to go back in and do some overdubs, and they’d say, “Overdub what? It sounds great just the way it is.” I’d tell the engineer that we couldn’t make the song sound this good, we had to make it sound like it needed some work. [laughs] I didn’t get everything done on there the way I wanted, though.

When we recorded in Detroit, we were reaching for the sound we created when we were in the studio in L.A. I’d constantly had the engineer tweaking stuff. Whenever we would cut something in L.A., I’d tell him, “Make it sound like a record.” When we were cutting it, I’d have the engineer put reverb on the music. In L.A., we had to record songs in different keys. The musicians were so good that all I had to say was to take it up a half step or take it down a whole step. They had the sheet music in front of them, and they would transpose it in their heads and do it. When I was working with guys like Nathan, Greg, and Vernon, their musical knowledge was so on point that it didn’t matter what key we cut the music in. On some of the songs, Anita would get to the end of the song and didn’t want to sing anymore. She’d say, “I’m not singing on the vamp. I’m going to let it play.” And we let it play. On “Caught Up in the Rapture,” she didn’t want to sing at the end. It ended with the guitar playing. We never had a falling out in the studio. I’d voice my opinion and she’d have hers, but ultimately, whatever went down, everybody would look at me, so I had to make sure that everybody was doing what they were supposed to be doing. There was nothing on the radio that sounded like the music from this album. The closest thing to it was Sade’s first record. At that time, music was coming out of its disco phase and everybody was doing up-tempo music. We came out with a ballad, and I think people were starving for that kind of music. Plus, she already had an audience from her first album.

What was involved in making sure the music sounded similar when you made the transition from Detroit to L.A. and to working with the aforementioned musicians in the studio?

We worked on only two songs in Detroit: “Caught Up in the Rapture” and “Watch Your Step.” She wrote “Watch Your Step,” so we weren’t going to change the key in that song. I used a couple of pieces from Chapter 8 on “Caught Up in the Rapture.” The bass player, David Washington, and the drummer, who played with the Temptations, Buster Marbury, and the keyboard player, Vernon Fails, played on that song. When we recorded “Caught Up in the Rapture,” we did it at Sound Suite Studios. I flew the engineer in, and we cut it there. Anita sung it in the kitchen because she wanted to sing while we were playing it. There was a blue light across the way on a building that she was focused on. She used the light and sang it from the kitchen. I was just so tired of being in L.A., between cutting the Chapter 8 record and a few songs for Anita’s album, I told her, “Look. I want to go home.” I told the engineer, “If we cut anything else, it’s going to be in Detroit.” My engineer was from Detroit, but he didn’t want to come back. The studios in Detroit were inferior to the ones in L.A. They were better sounding studios. When I listen to “Caught Up in the Rapture,” it sounds completely different than everything else. The stuff we did in Detroit had a low five kind of edge to it. It didn’t have that sheen on it. The room where we cut this song in was one of the rooms where the Dramatics cut their songs. This used to be Don Davis’s studio.

What was involved during the mixing and mastering process for the songs on this album?

Barney Perkins and I developed a good relationship, so he mixed the songs in L.A. Then, we took the record to Bernie Grundman to get it mastered. That’s where a lot of Michael Jackson’s hit records were mastered. We were able to get it mastered there. The guys who master records usually don’t even have the producers there. By being the new guy in the game, I wanted to see the whole process. On this first record, I didn’t have a lot to say to the mastering engineer because I didn’t know what I was listening to. For an Anita Baker record, someone wasn’t going to be bumping and blasting it in their car. They were going to listen to it low on their speakers. When they were mastering the album, they had a set of home speakers up on the console. That was the sound they were used to mastering records to. This is what gave them their sound, whatever speakers they were using. I was trying to understand the process, and in the end, it made sense. When they mastered the record, they made sure all the songs had the same level, color, and volume.

Talk to me about her vocal prowess and talent.

Going into the Rapture album, I think she was comfortable with her voice by then. I can remember telling her, “Anita, I can’t understand what you’re saying. You’re mumbling a little bit.” She responded, “Well, that’s what my audience wants me to do.” I said, “Okay.” How do you argue with that? She was very comfortable with her voice. She would tell me not to put an echo on her voice because it would reinterpret her vocal. She wanted her vocals to sound like the way she sung them. Sometimes, I would tell her she sang something out of tune. If she couldn’t hear it, she didn’t want me to mess with it, but that goes back to me doing the record. I would go back and fix it. She had a great contralto voice.

How long did it take to complete this album?

It took us about six months to finish everything. We were in the studio for seven days a week. It would take us two to three days to mix a song. We couldn’t mix the whole album all the way through. We had to mix two or three songs to send to the manager, president of the label, and her, just to get everybody’s opinion. The only opinion that mattered was hers and mine. If she wanted something, I’d definitely give it to her to see if she liked it or not. I chose my battles carefully. It was part of the collaboration process.

Let’s go in-depth on a couple of singles that were released from this album.

On “Sweet Love,” Louis Johnson played bass on it. This was before I was calling around to assemble the A Team of musicians for this album. Actually, I’d have Barney [Perkins] to call these cats because I didn’t know who they were, and they didn’t know me. I remember that Dean Gant and Vernon Fails were playing the piano on this one. Paulinho Da Costa played the congas and Paul Jackson Jr and I played the guitar. There was a nine-foot Yamaha piano in the studio. It was a new piano and the sound of it was dark. The guy that was working on the piano had to brighten the sound up, which meant he had to lacquer the ambers and let them dry. We needed to get the ambers hard to get that bright sound to emerge from the piano. He had to do it twice. There was a certain sound we wanted on it. Anita came in after we cut the music for the song. This song was a signature piece.

“No One in the World” was a song that Marti Sharron had been after me to record. She was one of those songwriters who went around California with her books of songs. She and her partner wrote the song, and they produced the track. They gave it to Anita, and she did the vocal. Bernie and I mixed it. Anita wanted me to make it fit with rest of the album, so I gave it the Mike Powell treatment. This was the only song on the album that someone else produced.

“Same Old Love” was a song that Freddie Washington played bass on. This track was pieced together. We spent time at various studios putting down drums and keys. This was another song that was hard to get the vibe right. To this day, it still feels kind of jerky to me, but Anita liked it. When I say jerky, I mean to say it didn’t flow quite right. I had different musicians coming in, so we were piecing stuff together. When you’re piecing stuff together, every piece you put on has to make the song better. I felt like the song started coming together when we laid the bass on it. We were using live drums on the other songs, but on this one, we used a drum machine. So it had a different feel from the others.

As you reminisce about the album thirty years later, what are your feelings about the impact it had, not only on quiet storm R&B and jazz but popular culture as a whole?

The album made people go back to using live musicians again. Back then, all the producers were using drum machines and making all the music themselves. My thing has always been, when you only use one person on a song, as opposed to the energy of four or five different musicians bringing their talents to the table, it’s going to be hard to match. The sound from this album is what people were going for after it was released. It was real music.

 

* Mr. Raoul Roach’s response: First of all, I wasn’t the A&R person when those records where brought to Elektra. That was the previous A&R guy. I was hired after Rapture was first released. It was Scott Folks who was my predecessor. I first played Anita Baker’s Rapture record driving in a car with Quincy Jones while I was working for him as his P.A., and remarked how much I loved it, and Q listened carefully and called Anita himself to congratulate her. She thought someone was playing a trick on her. Little did I know, less than a year later I would be working at Elektra and loved everything she and Mike did. And it was the next album, Giving You the Best That I Got, that I was A&R on. It wasn’t easy working with her. I did make some mistakes; I thought her and Rod Temperton would do great work togehter and set up a meeting, and it didn’t go well. I worked with Mike on a couple of things outside of Anita, including Keith Washington, so for him to not recall the correct info and mistake me for Scott isn’t cool.

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