By Natalya Jones
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By Jesse Scheckner
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Ruby Baker sits in her white Mercedes-Benz, resting her forehead against the steering wheel. She has just finished the first of three sets at South Beach's Jazid, where she performs every Wednesday. The show has not gone well. "I'm just not feeling it," Baker says. She leans back in her seat, runs her fingers through her mushroom cap of hair. "Man, some nights we're just like magic." She releases a long, deflating sigh. "Tonight just ain't one of them nights, I guess."
The source of Baker's disgruntlement is not hard to discern. First there's the long drive she had to make from her home in Coconut Creek. Add to that an inattentive audience, replete with a stage-side table of loudly chattering fashion models. Perhaps most frustrating is the grueling schedule of a professional singer, which is what Baker has been for most of her 42 years.
A bum set is especially hard for Baker to endure. A true R&B diva, she's ruled by her emotions. When she's feeling good, her voice rises through the octaves in powerful, sultry waves. When she's feeling down, though, her words rise through long petulant silences.
And it's hard to blame Baker for copping an attitude. Having worked with the likes of Ray Charles, the Bee Gees, the Four Tops, and Gloria Estefan, Ruby Baker and her band certainly merit a more attentive audience.
By the end of this year, Baker says, she hopes to be finished playing jaded South Florida crowds. Her plan is simple: to record her own CD. She's recently begun writing songs and laying down vocal tracks. Already a couple of the major labels have expressed interest. Whether or not she signs a contract, Baker says she plans to release the disc this fall.
A career spent belting out songs to roomfuls of strangers is certainly not what Ruby Baker's childhood portended. As a young girl, she was so shy and spoke so infrequently it was feared she might have a learning disability. As it turned out, not only could little Ms. Baker speak with perfect articulation, she was a soprano.
"God gave me only two things when I was born:" she notes, "my life and my voice."
Indeed the Almighty wasn't much help when it came to other amenities. Baker grew up in Tampa's Ybor City, a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood. She was the youngest of two sisters and four brothers, all of whom were raised by her mother, a single parent. Her mother introduced her to Aretha Franklin and Barbra Streisand by playing their albums constantly. Young Ruby developed her own style by imitating the subtle vocal effects of these two singers. "From Aretha Franklin I got the soul, the strength, the power, and the range," Baker says. "From Streisand I got the control, the diction, and the range."
Listening to Baker sing, the influences are unmistakable. She has the uncanny Aretha-like ability to maintain an intense emotional commitment to every note while traveling a considerable vocal range. She can deliver a song in the softest purr just as easily as she howls and growls her way through the next.
Baker started singing professionally at the ripe old age of ten. Her oldest brother, Nelson Griffith, was managing a band that frequently gigged at an Ybor City nightclub called the Soul City Ballroom. Wanting to give his little sister some live experience, he regularly sneaked her into the club to perform two songs with the band. Without fail she brought down the house with her covers of the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" and "Who's Lovin' You." After her cameo she would be rushed home to meet her mother's 10 p.m. curfew.
Griffith also managed to land his sis a spot opening for B.B. King at the Armory in Tampa. Although still only ten, she sang in front of thousands that night. A couple years later, after winning a school talent contest with a band her brother had collected around her called the Mighty, the Good, and the Strong, Baker became convinced that singing was her destiny: "I was overwhelmed by all the congratulations afterwards. The recognition. Our winning was announced on Tampa's R&B station, and from then on we were big. I knew then that life was calling for me to be a singer."
Until the age of 17, Baker performed regular singing stints at nightclubs in and around the Tampa area, occasionally helping her mother pay the bills. After graduating from high school, Baker didn't bother with college. She was making too much money and having too much fun singing.
In 1976, on her 18th birthday, Baker moved to Newark, New Jersey, where she lived for more than a decade with her first husband. During that time she performed at a variety of venues with her band, Leather. Unfortunately the odd schedule of a professional singer wreaked havoc on her marriage. "You're out performing till almost the morning sometimes," she says, rubbing her forehead wearily. "It leaves his nights free, and a man wants to roam then, you know? It's hard."
In 1987 Baker left her husband and came to South Florida, where another brother, Gregory, arranged for her to audition as a backup singer for Gloria Estefan. Touring with Estefan allowed Baker to witness the kind of show that a huge budget and supporting cast could muster. Although impressed, Baker says she's not sure she'd ever want to undertake a production that massive herself.