By Lee Zimmerman
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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.
Since moving to Coconut Creek, she's been busier than ever. In addition to her Wednesday-night gig at Jazid, she performs at the Escape in Fort Lauderdale's Las Olas Riverfront every Thursday and at O'Hara's in Hollywood every other Tuesday. Adding to her hectic schedule are regular jobs singing at event banquets for corporations, such as MCI or Disney. She and her five-piece band also perform at lavish private parties.
Baker says she's satisfied patching together work, though her ultimate goal is to score a recording contract. "The contracts I've been offered have just not been favorable," she notes.
One of the problems Baker has encountered is her unwillingness to suffer fools (or foolish contracts) gladly. She doesn't have the sort of deferential temperament that music execs favor. "I don't think a lot of people really like me, as far as my personality goes," she says bluntly. "I've been told that I'm hard to approach. But I don't know why. I love everybody. I'm full of love. I think I'm just one of those people you have to get to know. I think people also get upset because I'm so meticulous. If something someone plays doesn't sound right, I tell them. I'm not going to hold back. I may not be able to play an instrument, but I do have two ears."
Indeed Baker is also a songwriter of some repute. She cowrote the song "Let Me Take You Down," sung by Stacey Lattisaw. The tune climbed to No. 5 on Billboard's R&B chart in 1988. Baker is hoping to showcase her writing talents, as well as her voice, on her forthcoming album.
Still Baker, ever the perfectionist, refuses to sing any of her new material publicly, until she deems the songs ready. That means, as she heads back inside for her second set at Jazid, she's left belting out covers of songs such as Etta James' "Damn Your Eyes" and "Smooth Operator" by Sade. A gracious bandleader, Baker has no problem allowing other members of her quintet to take over vocal duties. "There are five points to a star," she reasons.
Stepping back from the spotlight, she allows Johnny James, her saxophonist and cousin, to rap a couple of Will Smith hits. Although the inclusion of two rap songs feels a bit disconcerting in a jazz club, the tunes ignite the audience.
Baker herself can feel the energy -- and she responds. Her voice rises from a growl to a searing cry. She exhorts the audience to let the music move them, and they rise from their seats, making an informal dance floor in front of the stage. In a moment of exuberance, Baker calls to the female half of a couple dancing nearby. Wrapping her cousin's arms around her waist, Baker rubs her butt against his thighs. "You have to do it like this, honey! Look! Like this! Oh!" The audience roars. Ruby Baker's face lights up with a broad grin. At last she is having fun.
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