Biography

Biography

If you count the Muzak at St.Mary’s Hospital in Troy, New York, I’ve been surrounded by music since the day I was born. Everyone in the family either sang or played a musical instrument. My father and grandfather sang; my grandfather’s sister was a brilliant musician who improvised at the piano for the silent movies; my brothers and sisters and I-seven of us all together-grew up playing the piano. There was a lot of competition for the keyboard because nearly everyone played, including cousins and aunts and uncles-and everyone wanted to sing, so we all learned how to harmonize.

Mom had a beautiful voice too, but she was too shy to sing above a whisper. But she knew all the songs of the Great American Song Book, and between her and my father, they taught them all to us. Mom always had a radio going in the kitchen. She was a well-rounded listener, although her favorite music to listen to was swing, jazz and classical.

When Daddy got a job at a radio station, he started bringing home record albums which we played till I knew them by heart. My favorites were “Hugh Masakela: Live at the Whisky A Go Go” and Miriam Makeba’s incomparable “Pata Pata.” Of course there was the little red 45 of Robert Merrill singing “The Black & White Pigeon with the Eight Red Toes” which was a family favorite. We all pretended to be opera singers prancing around the house like pigeons.

Then one day Daddy brought home a guitar. I was never great shakes at the piano because I had a hard time transmitting what was on the page to my fingers, but I took to the guitar like a duck to water. I started out learning to play and sing Celtic and Appalachian folk songs. Then I started buying old-time blues records by (among others) Big Bill Broonzy, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Bessie Smith and started singing their song too. Those were the days of coffee house and folk festival gigs that helped pay my way through college.

The more I listened to jazz, the more I fell in love with it. I listened to all the great jazz singers: Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae, Johnny Hartman, and Nat King Cole among others. I learned all the songs they sang and I was able to book gigs that helped pay for a master’s degree in acting from Temple University.

The siren song of Broadway got me. I moved to New York and started a career in theatre. I appeared on Broadway and in the national tours of “Titanic,” “Les Miserables,” “Jekyll and Hyde,” “Tommy,” and “Black Patent Leather Shoes.” I’ve also been in scores of off-Broadway, off-off-Broadway, and regional theatre productions across the country.

I’ve sung background vocals for a wide variety of wonderful singers-Evelyn Champagne King, Patti LaBelle, Vanessa Williams, Stephanie Mills, Vivian Reed, Andre De Shields, and Clay Aikin, among others-and performed as lead singer for bands all over the east coast and on cruise ships in the Caribbean. I was lucky enough to land a gig singing with a Big Band in Morocco at one of the royal palaces for the king’s New Year’s Eve party. Best. New Year’s Eve Gig. Ever.

What has given me the most artistic and soul satisfaction has been singing with the Broadway Inspirational Voices. For the past 17 years, I’ve been a soloist with BIV, a gospel choir comprised of Broadway singers and recording artists who give their time and talent to raise money for such worthy organizations as Broadway Cares, Equity Fights AIDS, Ronald McDonald House, and the Trevor Project. We’ve released three CDs and have a fourth coming out around Christmas. Check out our website, www.broadwayinspirationalvoices.org where you can listen to some of the tracks and buy CDs.

My debut CD “Movin’ On” has been a long time in the making. I started it thirty years ago, when I was studying jazz improvisation with the late, great John Hicks. After coming off a national road tour, I had a pocketful of money which I immediately spent on the first six songs. John put together an awesome band of musicians. We had the late Walter Booker playing bass, Billy Hart on drums, my friend Sundar Viswanathan on sax and my brother Jimmy on percussion. Jazz drummer Horaace Arnold came on board as producer after the first sessions and helped guide me through the mixing process.

Years later, thanks to another pocket full of money from a national tour, I was able to go back into the studio to do more recording. I’d fallen in love with Brazilian jazz music and was able to put together a brilliant ensemble of Brazilian players. We had Dom Salvador on piano and accordion, Guilherme Montiero on guitar, Café on percussion, and Sergio Brandau on bass-what you might call a Brazilian all-star lineup. I added three Brazilian songs, two of which I sing in Portuguese, and the third composed by an American composer and given a Brazilian arrangement.

I was recently able to go back into the studio to finish up the project with four more songs. Thanks to my dear old friend, executive producer, S. Epatha Merkerson, I was also able to re-record all of the vocal tracks except “Lonely House,” the only vocal track I was still happy with after so many years. For these sessions, I started working with producer Colon Haywood, Jr., a gifted composer, arranger, keyboardist, and recording artist. Colon and I are currently collaborating on the next CD which will be gospel music of our own composition.

It was a great loss, and one which I felt very personally, when John Hicks passed away. The world also lost another great musician when brilliant bassist Walter Booker passed. To have these two great musicians giving life to the music on “Movin On” is a gift I now get to give to the world.

I would like to dedicate this CD in loving memory of Walter Booker and John Hicks. I bet there’s a great band in Heaven.

 

-Bertilla Baker