Duluth Central grad, Houston’s music director: 'She's at peace'The Grammy Awards paid tribute to Whitney Houston, and Jennifer Hudson sang "I Will Always Love You" on Sunday. Meanwhile, Michael Baker, a 1975 Duluth Central High School graduate who went on to become a drummer to some of pop’s biggest stars and Houston’s music director, shared his own memories.
By: Robin Washington and Christa Lawler, Duluth News Tribune
Michael Baker, a 1975 Duluth Central High School graduate who went on to become a drummer to some of pop’s biggest stars and Whitney Houston’s music director for two decades until her death Saturday, doesn’t talk much about the adversity in her life.
In an interview last May, he said simply that he’d “seen it all” during every stage in her career.
On Sunday, he again accentuated the positive and concentrated on the joy that Houston brought to millions, calling her a sweet person who brought beauty to the world.
“She was really, really a wonderful person,” Baker, who has a home in Woodbury, Minn., told the News Tribune in a phone interview from Los Angeles, where he arrived Sunday afternoon. “I would just say that she was someone who brought something incredibly special to the world.”
Baker said he found out about Houston’s death in a call from his mother, former Duluth School Board member Lurline Baker-Kent.
“I tried to get in touch with him. He was downstairs in his basement practicing his drums,” Baker-Kent said from her home in Florida.
Through her son, Baker-Kent met Houston several times — as well as her mother, Cissy Houston, and ex-husband Bobby Brown. She called Houston “a sweet girl” not always reflected in her public persona, who allowed Baker’s young daughter to travel on the tour bus.
“It was really a shocker,” she said. “He loved her so much and he respected her so much. He was totally loyal to Whitney. He was taken aback but then he said, ‘She’s at peace, Mom.’ ”
While Baker and Houston had been in contact, it had been about a year since he last saw her, when they finished the “Nothing But Love” world tour.
That tour ended poorly, marred by postponed concerts due to Houston’s respiratory illness, as well as complaints that she wasn’t hitting the high notes for which she was famous. Fans walked out on a performance in Denmark.
Yet the tour followed the successful release of “I Look to You,” an album that sold more than 300,000 copies in its first week and signaled one of the many comebacks in her career.
A decade earlier, Baker was instrumental in another, with the Orange County Register praising a 1999 performance “with much credit due new musical director Michael Baker.”
Baker, whose career launched after meeting jazzman Clark Terry in a performance at Duluth Central, became Houston’s drummer in the early 1990s, about the time she was filming the movie “The Bodyguard.” He later added the role of music director.
But he wasn’t a fan of hers at first. During a visit to Duluth last May to perform in honor of his late music teacher, Baker recalled first being asked to audition for Houston, saying that his then-wife was more excited about the prospect than he was.
“I think we were arguing about how much she liked Whitney. I said how much I liked Mariah Carey. I said, ‘I hate that kind of music. I’d much rather play Guns N’ Roses,’ ” he said.
But his appreciation for her changed.
“A year later, I’m in her band. Seven years later, I’m her music director. I’ve been with her 18 years,” he said in May. “I’ve seen it all. I’ve been there at every stage in her career.”
Yesterday, he elaborated on that, calling their longtime collaboration “a good working relationship.”
“I did my part; she did her part. We respected each other and enjoyed each other. We kept it quite simple between us. It was not a complicated kind of relationship, and that’s why it lasted so long,” he said.
And her part affected millions.
“A lot of people got married and fell in love to her music, and that’s the responsibility of musicians and artists; to bring their beauty to the world. She more than did her job,” he said. “She should be remembered for the beauty she brought to the world.”