How does a 40-year-old mother of four become one of R&B gospel's hottest properties? Tony Cummings checks out the career of HELEN BAYLOR to find out.
The thank you credits on the back of Helen Baylor's new album 'Start All Over' are illuminating. "For over 10 years I've desired to work with Bill Maxwell. I believed that someday I would. Well, it has happened! The experience has been much more than I dreamed it would be. Thank you Bill for your tireless hard work, your tenacity, your perfectionism, the first class roster of players you brought to the project and most of all your friendship. You are truly God-gifted."
The musical marriage of Helen and Bill is surprising in that it took so long to occur. Helen - the soulful voiced gospel diva whose previous two albums have produced a buzz in the mainstream R&B world - and Bill - the legendary producer who after all those seminal Andrae Crouch albums went on to be a co-founder of fusion-jazz maestros Koinonia and last year produced a CCM hit for Phil Driscoll - are a combination made in Heaven. Koinonia (or most of them) and trumpeter Driscoll are playing on 'Start All Over' while Helen's singing is immaculate, keeping all the soulful assurance and crossover potential of that shown on the album's predecessors. 'Start All Over' is already gleaning rave reviews and big US airplay. Since Helen's signing to Word Records in 1989 things have been moving up and up for the R&B gospel singer. But in classic dues-paying tradition, the elevation of this Tulsa-born mother of four to the status of international singing star came only after years of struggle and turmoil.
Helen was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Frequently shuttled between her parents and grandparents, Baylor's early years might best be defined as nomadic. Her music career began as a child - first, in the adult choir of the Pentecostal church she attended, and then, as a 12-year-old singing in Southern California nightclubs. Nicknamed Little Helen, the first song she learned and sang in the clubs was Wilson Pickett's "(In The) Midnight Hour". "I didn't have any idea what the song was about, but there I was: a 12 year old singing this in nightclubs. People actually thought I was a midget, because I was real little and I had all this makeup on!," she laughingly remembers. By the time she was 13 Little Helen had recorded her first single "The Richest Girl". These early experiences, combined with the sounds of Stax and Motown and the gritty R&B and soul of Gladys Knight, Mavis Staple and Roberta Flack shaped Baylor's musical roots.
During her teens, her climb up R&B's proverbial career ladder continued. She began a succession of profitable recording and touring stints with Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, B B King and others. For her 17th birthday, a friend took Helen to see a stage production of the early 70s counter-culture rock musical Hair. Persistent pursuit of the touring company's casting director finally landed Helen an audition and a spot in the acclaimed show.
Helen travelled with Hair for two years. Maintaining a steady diet of drugs, her life began to unravel. At one point, she was temporarily fired from the touring company after going on stage unable to perform due to excessive drug use. Other cast members' protests saved her job. After a year the show closed and Baylor was again recording and singing background for artists such as Chaka Khan, the Captain & Tenille and Les McCann. While on tour with Chaka Khan, Baylor met her future husband James Baylor. By vocation a lighting director for various touring groups, James Baylor made supplying drugs his fulltime avocation.
Eventually, Baylor's drug use coupled with the music business' wear and tear drove a wedge between her and the people she worked with. "I was so burned out on drugs, and had been so misused by the business and in my own social life I started treating people very badly," Helen laments. Her abuse had peaked. "It was common knowledge that I could overdose at any time, because the drugs had gotten that bad."
God chose to work in her desperate, forlorn condition. His vehicle was Christian television. One Friday night in January 1981, while watching a Christian television programme, Helen accepted Christ into her heart. She was immediately set free from the drugs had plagued her all those years. She remembers, "I immediately went around the house praising and thanking God for my deliverance, and that Sunday went to church and was filled with the Holy Spirit." Although Baylor was living with James at the time of her re-dedication to Christ, they were soon married...and through the witness of her life, three years after their marriage, he too accepted the Lord.
Helen withdrew from the music business after her conversion. As she
explains, "I still had people in the business calling and offering me
record contracts and jobs and the like. But, what had been driving me
before - the need to be recognised and loved - wasn't driving me
anymore. I loved the Lord so much that I kept telling these people
"I wanted to sing for God's glory, so I thought that God was going to open the doors for me to go sing for and save the world. But it didn't happen. So, for the next six years, I struggled and got angry with God, and the people at my church, and just about everyone else because I'd hear my old stuff on the radio, and here I was not doing anything. Finally, I started working in my church, getting it together, and one day six years after I first felt the desire to sing again for his glory, God told me to go prepare to do just that."
In 1987, Helen independently recorded a four-song Christian music cassette entitled 'Fear Not'. A Los Angeles wholesaler sold more than 30,000 of the cassettes. Two years later, Baylor signed with Word. Her first album, 'Highly Recommended', showcased her rich, tenor voice with her love for R&B, soul and funk. But it also had CCM appeal. There was even a cover of an old Debby Boone Christian radio hit "Can You Reach My Friend". Reviewers compared Helen to everyone from Roberta Flack to Anita Baker but there was no denying the strong spiritual message of the album. 'Highly Recommended' sold in both gospel and CCM markets while the title track, with almost a Degarmo And Key groove to it, crossed over onto secular playlists.
Helen's second Word release, 'Look A Little Closer', did more of the same. The title song, written by Helen and the album's producer, John Bokowski Jr, was inspired by one of Baylor's friends from her secular music days. When the guy starts to talk the old talk, Baylor tells him to "Look a little closer, can't you see that I have changed/I'm not the girl I used to be, my life is rearranged/Look a little closer, I'm not the one I used to be/I gave my heart to Jesus and he gave a brand new life to me."
At the time of the album's release Helen told an American journalist, "I haven't talked to Aretha or Chaka, but other people I've seen that I used to work with are shocked that I'm still alive, because I was pretty strung out on dope. And they're really happy for me and what I'm doing."
Helen doesn't just want to share about her new life with her old friends. Her dream (well, besides the dream to record a duet with Gladys Knight) is to work closely with troubled teens. "God didn't put me here to make the Christians feel wonderful," emphasises Helen. "So many Christian artists write about the streets and sing about the streets. We need to get back to the streets. I want to tell the kids, 'Look at me. If he can do this for me, he can do it for you.'"
'Look A Little Closer' also produced crossover interest particularly with Helen's cover of a Roberta Flack song "Oasis". In Britain the 12 inch version of "Oasis" even made number one on Echoes Sweet Rhythms chart. Now Expansion Records have leased the soulful "More Than A Friend" ballad from 'Start All Over'. It's already creating a buzz among Britain's R&B cognoscente. Is Helen Baylor about to break into Britain's pop charts? Stranger things have happened.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.