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She weaved a legacy as hair expert, singer
By ANDREW MEACHAM, Times Staff Writer
Published October 23, 2007
Darneatha "Tootsie" Baker enjoyed a reputation as the first to offer hair weaves in Tampa Bay.
TAMPA - Kay's Boutique, a hair salon offering flexibility and convenience for African-American women, opened quietly in 1974 on Seventh Avenue in Ybor City, near a cigar shop and the Columbia restaurant.
But soon people were talking. Owner Darneatha "Tootsie" Baker, they said, could give you straight hair without burning you with curling irons, perms or chemicals.
She attached real human hair, top quality, of any length, color, or thickness, to braided rows on the scalp. Her "hair weaves," a technique she learned from her aunt, became all the rage.
Ms. Baker enjoyed a reputation as the first to offer it in the Tampa Bay area, and the best.
"Everybody was scrambling, trying to learn the process from her," said friend Doris Cannon, 64.
Backup singers to James Brown and B.B. King called on her when they came to town. Sometimes she flew to them in New York.
A singer herself, Ms. Baker also anchored the gospel group Tootsie and the Spiritual Highlights.
"She could take it up a notch, like Aretha," said her brother, Otis Hilery, 58
Ms. Baker died Wednesday, a result of diabetes. She was 70.
As a child, she learned survival, waiting in line with her mother to cash in food vouchers. The first song she sang for an audience, at age 12, was a blues number.
She later turned heads singing at the Florida State Fairgrounds for Harlem in Review, a group organized by one of Tampa's first black millionaires, Leon Claxton.
After graduating from Plant City High, Ms. Baker worked for National Wigs on Highland Avenue, then opened Kay's Boutique. Compared with the sometimes harsh and less effective hair treatments available, Ms. Baker's weave - a technique known as "tracking" - seemed like a godsend for many.
Ms. Baker set up booths in hair shows in New York, Atlanta, San Francisco and Los Angeles. She was a master at blending hair.
"People were hysterical," said Bettye Jordan, 60, who traveled as Ms. Baker's model. "They could not believe it was not my hair. People were following me around."
Kay's Boutique also became the place to go for Tampa Bay black professionals whose numbers were growing.
"That was where you got the scoop you didn't get in the paper," said her friend Cannon.
In 1980, Ms. Baker moved the business to her Tampa home and renamed it Tootsie's Hair Emporium and Boutique. She reduced her customers but still worked six days a week, her family said.
Former employees tested her patience by quitting and competing against her. But none of the renegades lasted, said Cannon, a Hillsborough County transportation supervisor.
"Customers knew that even though they tried to copy her technique, they just didn't have it like Tootsie had it."
Friends called Ms. Baker loyal, a confidante who could listen to a customer's secrets, and keep them. "They enjoyed it," said her daughter, Sheria Baker, 36. "It was like they said, 'I'm going to hang out with Tootsie for a while.'"
Ms. Baker married twice, the second time to Charles Baker, a UPS driver. The marriage lasted seven years, but the couple remained close. Ms. Baker fixed lunch for Charles every day for years, and cared for him in her home before he died in 2001.
Guests to her home called her Mama Toot. She cooked lavish Thanksgiving dinners, and was known for her duck and sweet potato pie.
In 1982, Ms. Baker turned once again to music. Tootsie and the Spiritual Highlights performed for churches in Florida and Georgia, producing a driving, powerful sound.
The eight-member group released a CD, Come Back to Jesus. In one of her final performances in the early 1990s, Ms. Baker and her fellow singers returned to the fairgrounds to open for country singer Billy Ray Cyrus.
For all Ms. Baker's talents, there was one that made her friends uncomfortable: She saw too much, knew too much. She belonged to an organization of psychics, her family said.
One day, while weaving Cannon's hair in her salon, Ms. Baker quietly told her, "Someone in your family is sick."
Soon after, Cannon learned that a cousin had ovarian cancer. The cousin died six months later.
Two weeks before she died, Ms. Baker hinted from her hospital bed that her time was short.
"She said, 'We've been friends a long time. But I've been sick a long time. Too long,'" recalled Cannon. "I changed the conversation. It was scaring me."
Her friend's death leaves "a really large hole," Cannon said. "There was something calming about her presence."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at (813) 661-2431.
Darneatha 'Tootsie' Baker
Born: May 9, 1937.
Died: Oct. 17, 2007.
Survivors: mother, Viola Hilery; daughters, Janeatha Mickles, Patricia Bolden, Rosita Beckford and Sheria Baker; son, Jackie Coakley; brothers, Otis, Sam, Darrie, Robert and Sterling Hilery; sisters, Verdine Fenner, Vera Lee.
Services: Viewing from 6 to 8 p.m. on Friday, Northside Missionary Baptist Church, 5706 40th St. N, Tampa. Service 11 a.m. Saturday, St. Luke Missionary Baptist Church, 108 S Warnell St., Plant City.