The Rhythm of Life

updated 09/13/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/13/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Anita Baker, describing the thrill of releasing her first album in a decade, My Everything, unintentionally evokes the title of her classic 1986 hit "Sweet Love." "It's like if you like cheesecake and you haven't had any in 10 years," says Baker, 46. "When you finally get a piece, you're gonna like rub it all over your face."

So why did she have to deny herself—and her fans—for so long? After savoring fame as the R&B star with the smooth, lusty voice on albums like Rapture and Rhythm of Love, the eight-time Grammy winner eased into retirement as a result of some major life changes: the birth of her children and the death of her parents. "I had these two little critters," Baker says of Eddie, now 10, and Walter, 11, her sons with her husband of nearly 15 years, Detroit real estate developer Walter Bridgeforth, 46. And she was determined to be a stay-at-home mom. "My grandmother gave up my mother, and my mother gave me up," says Baker, the child of a troubled woman who was a drug addict. "I just wanted to stop any hint of that cycle." By the mid-'90s, in between "getting up at 7 and making breakfast and going to PTA meetings and the dentist," she built a recording studio at her French-style mansion in Grosse Pointe, Mich., and began squeezing in time to work on songs. "Things were starting to get comfortable."

But then, within a few years, she lost both Walter and Lois Landry, the couple who raised her after her mother left. Walter died of bone cancer and Lois, the woman Baker refers to as her "earth mother," was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. "I went through a phase of, 'I've got money. I can get more doctors.' But it doesn't fix it. You just learn to walk through it."

Meanwhile, she and her husband almost walked away from each other. Staying home to care for her parents and kids produced unexpected strains. "We'd never spent every day together in our entire marriage," she says. They even considered divorce before seeking marriage counseling. This past Mother's Day Walter presented her with a new wedding ring. Now, she says, "whenever we argue or things get tight, I look at this and I touch it and I get on the phone to him."

After Lois Landry died in 2002, says Baker, "I got this urge to just live." With this reenergized Baker, says her friend, recording studio owner Atanas Ilitch, "the light is bright, there's daisies and flowers, and the whole psychology of coming through that [tragedy] and being alive and inspired and warm—I can't say enough about that." She gave her first real concert in eight years that Christmas and was stunned when audiences responded as if she'd never left—or let her figure go over the years, indulging in the kitchen to cope with unhappiness. "You'd have thought I had the body of Iman," she says with a laugh. At one point, her 4'11" frame was carrying 150 lbs.; these days a trainer has gotten her back down to a size 8. "I do what he says, and before I knew it, I could do push-ups. It hurt, but I do 'em."

She's hoping to get in tip-top shape for her tour (see album review on page 45), which she insisted on pushing off until next summer, when the kids are out of school. Family remains her everything: Baker has learned that the music can always be put on hold for real life. "I can wait for it. But boy when it comes—have mercy!"

Tom Gliatto. Mark Dagostino in New York City

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