New Orleans-born singer Mike “Soulman” Baptiste can boast impressive musical influences that helped nurture his singing talent. Now, after a corporate career away from the stage, he’s found his voice again – something he and his many contemporary fans are certainly grateful for…
As the lyrics of the old Irving Berlin song put it: “There’s no business, like show business” but in singer Mike Baptiste’s case, music had to take a back seat while he focused on making a living by a more commercial and secure route. Born and raised in the New Orleans neighbourhood of Treme, regarded as the oldest African-American neighbourhood in the US and an important centre of Creole culture to this day, Mike studied sales and marketing at the prestigious Xavier University in the city before starting out as a door-to door salesman for a cable company. It was a world away from his childhood that was dominated by music and the early influence of a genuine star.
A Musical Godmother
Mike’s godmother was none other than Shirley Goodman, one half of the legendary R&B duo Shirley and Lee, made famous through such well-known hits such as ‘Come on baby, let the good times roll’ and ‘Shame, shame, shame, shame on you, if you can’t dance too’: “She would always hold me as a kid and sing to me and the vibrations of her high-pitched voice stuck with me,” says Mike, “I started at age 12 singing professionally in clubs and other local venues.”
The early years
Local gigs led to performances at talent shows where he’d hook up with some other high school kids to form The New Orleans Mystics and, despite the intervening years that followed when he worked as a cable salesman and later as regional vice president for the company, Mike still performs with the band to this day. But if not converting such early promise into something bigger sounds like a wasted opportunity, that’s not how Mike sees it. In fact, being successful in business brought its own rewards, challenges, and transferable skills.
“I was blessed at an early age to be introduced to music, but equally as fortunate to be given an opportunity in business. I spent 23 years in a corporate environment where I learned how to interact with people who didn’t always have my interests in mind, and strive anyway. Thriving in that corporate environment was challenging.”
Being in business taught him that talent alone isn’t always enough: “You have to be good, you have to develop the relationships, but you have to go through the door when the door is open – and make the best of it as well! Life isn’t fair, but it still grants you opportunities to make something out of nothing.”
What’s in a name?
The opportunity to get back into performing when he returned to New Orleans after so many years away, wasn’t one he could resist. Before he knew it, Mike was back playing live gigs and touring with The New Orleans Mystics and the Real Soul Band. In the meantime, he also acquired a stage name. “… I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know who came up with the name, Michael Soulman Baptiste, but that title has stuck ever since. So that’s what I call myself now.”
With a name like that, it’s not surprising to learn his songs spring from a deep source. “Most of my songs have a story to tell, a message to deliver, whether it’s old New Orleans folk songs or it’s something by Otis Redding or James Brown – it’s always something I sing from my heart.”
Since embarking on his second singing career as Michael Soulman Baptiste, he has performed at venues such as the House of Blues, New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest, October Fest throughout Europe, Africa and Bahamas, as well as at corporate and private events. With the New Orleans Mystics, they opt for a Motown-inspired and well-choreographed performance, doing Temptations and Four Tops’ covers. As a solo artist, Mike favours Otis Redding, James Brown, Bobby Womack and Sam Cooke-style songs, adding his own interpretation.
Change of style
Influenced by his godmother, Shirley Goodman, for most of his career, Mike sang in a falsetto until a few years ago when he developed a condition that required an operation. Unsure whether he’d be able to sing again, Mike said he: “Made a deal” with God. “If he allowed me to sing again, I would sing every song as if it was the last time. And so, with that in mind, I have a lot of favourites. But the ones that seem to become signature songs for me was ‘Try A Little Tenderness’ by Otis Redding, and ‘This Is a Man’s World’ by James Brown. Another is ‘Hairy Hippie’ by Bobby Womack. Those are songs that everyone requests everywhere I go.”
Great songs all of them, but do they have any special significance? “Try a Little Tenderness is a message song about how you should treat a woman; A Change is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke, is one that resonates with the time I grew up and the civil rights struggle. It was about trying to get independence for people who had suffered at the hand of the system. I try to make sure that every time I sing, the people I’m singing for get the message and are happy they’ve taken their time to spend it with me.”
The Soulman can reflect on a career that has spanned nearly fifty years, albeit with a lengthy break from the stage, but what about the future, what does he still wish for? “I would wish that we all can back up for a minute, and realise that the time we spend here is so short. That if we take our time and spread love, that there would be no time for war. There would be no time for us to hate one another. There would be so much happiness. I also wish that to give back the blessings of having a voice, ministering to people through song, until my dying day.”
He also has a message-cum-wish for the Creole youth out there: “Take time to listen, the answer is in the listening. As the passage in the Bible says: ‘Be still, and know that I am God.’”