Born in 1954. Started singing as a child in L.A. nightclubs. Opened for Stevie Wonder and became backup for B.B. King and Aretha Franklin. Toured with the musical Hair. Recommitted her life to God in early 1980s. Launched music career after being discovered by Word Records. Addresses: Record company--Word Records, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022- 3211.
According to an contributor to USA Today, Helen Baylor is the "Gladys Knight of Gospel ~she could slip onto a Top 40 radio playlist with the ease of a Bobby Brown. Baylor has a deep, throaty voice that rides the rock beat like a jockey." She is part of the mix of rap music, the strong street born rhymes that was the start of Rhythm and Blues, and gospel music. This new brand of music is called urban/contemporary gospel. Early in her career, she became successful in the "secular" music world, but fell on hard times in her personal world. Only after much heartache, soul searching, and praying was she able to leave behind a life of drugs and secular singing to record some of the best urban gospel of the 1990s. Additionally, one of her proudest goals was being ordained in the ministry in January 1995.
Her music career started when she sang in Los Angeles clubs as a child, growing up in the inner-city without much self esteem. She then went on to open for Stevie Wonder, and also opened and became a backup for B.B. King and Aretha Franklin. She toured with the musical Hair, where she said she started to falter spiritually. She reached success as a session singer in L.A., but the fast life style that came with it led her to what she calls a path of self- destruction, doing the "whole secular route as an unwed mother." She lived together with her husband who was a drug dealer, and she supported her habit off of his earnings. She credits "the grace of God" for giving them the maturity to marry and raise three children in the church. She then went on to turn her life around and recommitted her life to God in the early 1980s.
Baylor studied the bible for four years and joined a local church. She sang in the church choir before she started to sing solo again. From the encouragement and financial support of many church members, Baylor produced a record that received local praise and that also gained the attention of Word Records. She then relaunched her singing career in her mid-30s with a renewed sense of self that was centered around serving God.
Gospel music has grown more than 20 percent a year every year since 1991, according to the Gospel Music Association. As reported in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, African American churches often have their choirs produce their own recordings for fund-raisers and attention getters. Detroit and Chicago are two of the gospel leading cities in the nation. Artists like Baylor who are part of the contemporary gospel movement have helped lead this surge in popularity. Producer/director Andre Lee Ellis stated, "Contemporary gospel makes you move. Traditional gospel makes you think about what grandma's been through."
Churches like the Emmanuel AME Church and the Mount Moriah Baptist Church in Charleston, South Carolina have popularized Baylor's music for its "Gospelcize" sessions. Upbeat contemporary Christian songs help get older women from these churches to "move to the beat" to improve their physical and spiritual selves. Sessions open with a prayer, and often end with leg kicking and marching in place to step aerobics and gospel music.
Urban/contemporary gospel uses inspirational or religious lyrics that are sung over strong rhythmic beats. In August of 1990, this new category of music gained its first kick start as a legitimate brand of music with The Gospel Music Workshop of America award ceremony. Baylor was one of the featured artists, and she soon became a household name in this new and fast growing music genre. The Gospel Workshop's Al Hobbs stated, "It's not primarily to be used in worship, nothing you would play Sunday morning. It's for the concert halls, electronic media and radio. Gospel columnist Lisa Collins stated in Billboard, "Gospel groups are retargeting their audience ... more are reaching out to young people in the world, going after the same crowd as R&B people." M.C. Hammer has even entered this new brand of gospel with a rap tune called "Pray." The music is influenced more by pop-music than by the contemporary Christian music that was popularized by artists such as Andrae Crouch and Amy Grant.
Baylor has been with Word Records for eight years, starting with her record-breaking sales album Highly Recommended in 1989. The album was recorded at her home church, the Crenshaw Christian Center, pastored by Dr. Fred Price. She was so successful that her album jumped ahead of the Mississippi Mass Choir and Kirk Franklin in a short two months to command the No. 1 Top Gospel Billboard chart. She soon followed up with a strong selling second album Look A Little Closer. In 1994, Word Record executives decided to give Baylor new producers and additional commitment to her record label with renewed marketing. This was welcome news to Baylor. She told Billboard in January of 1994, "I felt that if they had given me just a little more thrust and emphasis on marketing and getting me into places where I needed to be, that we could do even better. Now they're doing a great job, and it's really working out very well."
When talking about her album, Starting All Over to Billboard, Baylor stated, "It's risky, it's R&B, it's funky, its contemporary, and it's relevant ... my roots are straight-out R&B ... that's what's in me, so that's what comes out. When they hear the music, they sense I'm different ... still I'm saying the name of Jesus, and I'm cut and dried about my stand."
Baylor states on her web page, "The success of 'The Live Experience' doubled, and even tripled the size of our audiences, but that just made me want to seek to do an even better job of what I do ... to really reach those people and let them know all that God has brought me through and hope that might help them in their own lives. I'm all for good, wholesome, Christian entertainment, but I've got a calling on my life to go further--to reach into people's hearts and touch and be touched by who and where they are. That's just the minister in me."
Baylor received production help by long-time collaborator Bill Maxwell on her album Love Brought Me Back. The album features the sounds of Billy Preston, Andrae Crouch, and Paul Jackson, Jr., and is considered on the cutting edge of urban and new traditional Gospel.
One of Baylor's consistent themes in her music is that of recognizing pain and the need for hope and support in life. Baylor was one of 40 Christian artists that included Sandi Patti, Vestal Goodman, Delores and Vickie Winans, and Ashley Cleveland, that produced, Sisters: Songs of Friendship, Joy and Encouragement for Women. Baylor, along with many of the other artists from soul, pop, jazz, R&B, southern gospel, and country backgrounds, sang about issues of violence, divorce, rejection, and depression. The production was the brainchild of two women: record producer Gail Hamilton and annual Christian Artists Seminar coordinator Janice Chaffee. The president of Warner Alliance Records, Neal Joseph, was approached by the women, who convinced him that there was a need to address these issues through music. As Gail Hamilton told The Plain Dealer, "This didn't need to be a record of women singing pretty songs~it needed to be an issue-oriented project." The message of the album was to encourage all Sisters, or women, to seek help toward healing. Efforts were underway to get the album to many 12- step groups and other similar women's groups.
Baylor also uses her tours and awards to help create a heightened awareness of charitable Christian causes. She has let the American Bible Society use her name to endorse their efforts, especially after concerts like the 1995 Southern Bible Institute concert.
Baylor told Billboard's Lisa Collins that the reason people buy her records is because, "I try to be for real ... to expose everything about me and my past." Her songs often address the past mistakes she has made in life. Baylor's quote on her web page sums up her achievements: "I thank God for the favor He shows, but Scripture says that we should never become respecters of persons, and I never want people looking at me like I'm any different. I have the same weaknesses and go through the same trials they do, and I depend on the same God. We're in this altogether. For all the success, I'm still just Helen."
by Bill Bennett
Helen Baylor's Career
One of the hottest Urban/Contemporary Gospel artists today. Often sings themes from her personal experiences of earlier difficult times. Uses her tours and awards to help create a heightened awareness of charitable Christian causes like the American Bible Society.
- Selective Works
- Highly Recommended, Word, 1991.
- Look A Little Closer, Word, 1991.
- Start All Over, Word, 1993.
- The Live Experience, Word, 1994.
- Love Brought Me Back, Word, 1996.
- Billboard, January 8, 1994; November 12, 1994.
- Business Daily, April 8, 1997.
- Dallas Morning News, February 25, 1995.
- Orlando Sentinel, December 29, 1995.
- Plain Dealer, August 2, 1994.
- Post and Courier, November 12, 1995.
- Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, April 5, 1996.
- USA Today, August 7, 1990.
- Online http://mb1.musicblvd.com/cgi-bin/tw.