Rolling Stone interview series Unknown Legends features long-form conversations between senior writer Andy Greene and veteran musicians who have toured and recorded alongside icons for years, if not decades. All are renowned in the business, but some are less well known to the general public. Here, these artists tell their complete stories, giving an up-close look at life on music’s A list. This edition features backup vocalist Paulette McWilliams.
Forty-nine years ago, vocalist Paulette McWilliams decided to leave the Chicago-based funk band Rufus after a two-year stint. They had a huge regional following and were on the brink of blowing up all over the world, but McWilliams was exhausted by the endless travel and yearned to spend time at home with her young daughter. Besides, she was best friends with an unknown singer named Chaka Khan who was looking for work.
Khan, of course, rode Rufus to incredible fame and fortune. But it was also the start of an amazing journey for McWilliams. After joining up with Quincy Jones a couple years later, she became one of the most in-demand background vocalists in the industry, working with everyone from Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye to Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, David Bowie, Luther Vandross, Steely Dan, and way too many others to mention. She has also sung on well over 500 radio and television jingles.
McWilliams may not have the same recognition as her old friend Chaka, but it’s hard to scroll through the SiriusXM lineup at any given moment and not come across her voice — and she’s still going strong. We phoned her up at her Los Angeles home to hear about her earliest days as a singer, teaming up with Quincy Jones, recording with Michael Jackson on “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” David Bowie on “Cat People,” and Billy Idol on “Mony Mony,” and her tours with Marvin Gaye, Steely Dan, Aretha Franklin, Mary J. Blige, and Jennifer Lopez.
How are you doing today?
I am doing wonderful. I have a little teacup poodle named Sadie and she’s so adorable. She’s a puppy, so she’s just learned how to go on her puppy pads. Small joys, you know?
How has your pandemic year been?
Some of it has been a rude awakening. And some of it has been just recognizing all of my blessings. A lot of it has been incredibly sad. Overall, it has been a year of incredible creativity, and just moving into another place and recognizing this is a new normal. It’ll never be what it was, but we’re recognizing how incredible we can be when we put our hearts into something.
I want to go back here and talk about your life. Tell me your first memory of hearing music as a child that really reached and connected with you.
Wow. I had to be so young because I started singing before I could speak in full sentences. When I hear music, I just feel a smile coming to my face. That’s any kind of music, from Sammy Davis Jr. to you name it.
My mother and father both loved music. They weren’t musicians professionally, but they loved music because it was part of our heritage as black people. We loved music. We made music to bring forth joy. When we felt oppressed, we would sing. That’s always been our go-to memory. More than anything, it was to sing.
And so I say my sisters like Cindy Mizelle and many others, we were the first musicians because we carry our instruments with us everywhere we go. It’s within us. I’ve always been a singer. I’ve also sung from as far back as I can recall.
Who were some of your favorite artists as a child?
I loved listening to and watching Sammy Davis Jr. I loved listening to Sarah Vaughan. I loved listening to Aretha Franklin. I loved listening to Dinah Washington with my mother. And both my parents had beautiful voices. They didn’t sing professionally, but my mother sounded somewhat like Mahalia Jackson and my dad sounded somewhat like Joe Williams.
Luther Vandross was my brother for over 20 years. We were very close, and he nicknamed me Lettie. He’d go, “Lettie, you have more resonance in your voice than any woman I’ve ever heard.” He always complimented me. He’d say, “Where did that come from?'” And I’d say, “Both my mom and dad could sing.”
In your childhood and teenage years, did you see any live concerts that really blew your mind?
Oh, yes! I grew up in the South Side of Chicago and I went to see the Motown Revue. I saw live music in clubs a lot with my two older sisters. I would hang on to them and we’d go to block parties and see live music, really great music.
We’d listen to the Shirelles and Patti [LaBelle] and the Bluebelles and all the groups back then. We listened to all of those doo-wop groups like Frankie Valli. I would listen to Chuck Jackson and Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions and Jerry Butler. It was just a plethora of amazing songs and incredible groups.
Chicago was such a hotspot for music back then, with Chess and all the blues artists.
Exactly. That’s what we would listen to. And on Sundays when my mother was home from work, she’d be cooking and I’d be listening, or I’d jump in and sing with her. We had little things that we’d do together. She would sing, [begins singing “Whatcha Know Joe” by Jo Stafford] “Whatcha know, Joe?” And I’d sing, “I don’t know nothing. Whatcha know, Joe? Please tell me something. Whatcha know, Joe? I ain’t fooling, I need schooling.” We’d do that kind of stuff. It was great.
How old were you when you knew you wanted this to be your career?
I think I was maybe three or four when I knew that all I ever wanted to do was sing. I told my mom, “I don’t want to do anything else, Mama. I only want to sing.” That’s all I ever did. All through school, I got in so much trouble. I had notes sent home. “She doesn’t do anything. All she does is sing.”
For the holidays, all of my relatives, my uncles and aunts, would come over and they’d have me singing all the time. “Paulette, come here and sing.” And they’d give me silver dollars and I just loved it so much. I was so shy and it was my way of coming out without having to do anything else. I’d just let them hear me sing.
What were some of your first professional opportunities?
When I was eleven, I sang on a show called Little Stars, and it was a reality show, in essence. It was like American Idol on a much smaller scale. The week that I sang, Sammy Davis Jr. guest-starred on that show. I came in second place. And he came over to me and told me I had a beautiful voice. I sang “Catch a Falling Star” by Perry Como. He gave me a card and told me to look him up. And I cherished that card until I was at least in my twenties.
Where did things go from there?
When I was 12, I looked in the Yellow Pages and found a manager named Don Talty. He was managing a woman named Jan Bradley. She had some regional hits like “Mama Didn’t Lie.” And I called Don Talty and said, “I’m a singer. I would like for you to manage me.”
I don’t know what I said word-for-word verbatim, but I sang for him on the phone. In the following few weeks, he and Jan Bradley came to my house and they met my mom and dad. That’s how it started professionally. I ended up doing a record. Jan Bradley wrote the song on the A side. There was a teenage drop-out campaign going on. I wrote the B side called “He’s Nothing but a Teenage Dropout.”
They were playing it on WVON radio in Chicago with Herb Kent the Cool Gent and E. Rodney Jones. They were very famous disc jockeys throughout the Midwest region.
Hearing your song on the radio when you were that young must have been crazy.
[Laughs] It freaked me out! By the time the song came out, I was 13 going on 14. I was getting ready to go into high school. I wound up forming a group called Paulette and the Cupids and that’s how the record came out. That was my first thing, the first professional thing that happened.
Of course, after that, going through high school, I didn’t do much because I was in an all-girl Catholic high school called Loretto Academy. For the last year of high school, I transferred and went to a school on the south side of Chicago called Harlan High School.
In the last year of high school, I was working in the phone company just to pay for my clothes and extra stuff that I still wanted. I babysat a lot and I had a boyfriend. Long story short, about a year later, I ended up pregnant with my daughter.
How did your Rufus period start?
I auditioned for a group called the American Breed. They had a huge hit out called “Bend Me, Shape Me.” I auditioned for them and won the audition. There was over 150 girls auditioning. I went and I sang a jazz song [“Fascinating Rhythm”]. “Fascinating rhythm, you got me on the go.” I sang that a cappella and won the audition.
We were touring on the weekends, doing college dates all over, mostly in the Midwest and the East Coast and the South. They were seen as a bubblegum group, but because Sly and the Family Stone had come out, the American Breed decided they wanted to change their name to leave the bubblegum image.
That’s why they ended up bringing me in, in the first place. And so we changed from the American Breed to Smoke. We found out a few months later there was a group already out there with that name, and then we were in Minneapolis where we met [bassist] Willie Weeks, who has been a dear friend for all these years. We was on the road playing with [jazz pianist] Bobby Lyle. We then put Willie Weeks in the group and we renamed the group Ask Rufus.
That was the start of a very big thing.
Yeah. A very big thing. And when we played in Chicago, we had lines outside of the clubs we played. We were always, always sold out. We had different acts that would come and sit in with us, from Marilyn McCoo to Billy Davis to Baby Huey and the Babysitters, and of course, the cast from Hair would come onstage with us. Joyce Kennedy, Bonnie Raitt would come in and see. We had all these people that would come see us all the time.
I was introduced by my boyfriend, soon to be my husband, to his best friend, Hassan. He was Chaka Khan’s husband. She and I became the best of friends. Meanwhile, I was in the midst of doing lots of jingles because performing in downtown Chicago, there were a lot of different advertising agencies that would come in after work and hear the group. They fell in love with me. I got so many cards. I was always doing commercials.
Tell me about recording “Brand New Day” with Ask Rufus.
We did a whole album. Sandy Linzer was the executive producer. He signed us to Epic. We did “Brand New Day.” We put [singer] Jimmy Stella in the group. We had Willie Weeks on bass. We ended up getting Andre Fischer on drums.
And Chaka was coming to see us all the time. Basically, she was kind of known on the South Side, but no one knew who she was on the North Side. And she and I became such great friends that I did her first commercial when I put her in a Sears commercial with me.
Before that, I took her home one night in my Dodge Dart and I heard her sing. She started singing to Stevie Wonder. True story. I literally almost drove into a post. She was so great and I just wanted to help her since I’m a few years older than she is. I just started adding her in wherever I could. I just had to do that because she was so good.
I remember once [blues guitarist] Cash McCall, who was with Chess and very well known, called me up and wanted me to leave Rufus since he was forming a group called Lyfe. I told him I couldn’t do it, but I had a friend named Chaka that could do it. That’s when I introduced Chaka to the North Side of Chicago, which literally changed her life.
How did she wind up joining Rufus?
What happened is we went to the South of France for about three months. This is after about a year and a half of touring, and we’re totally huge in the Midwest and all over the college towns and the South. We went to the South of France and performed there. But when we got back, so many attitudes had changed. So much was different. I was so upset about leaving my daughter for that length of time. I decided that the jingles were so lucrative that the best thing for me was going to be to leave the group. I just didn’t want to leave my daughter so much.
I told the guys I was going to have to leave the group. I was so sad about it, but at the same time, I felt like Chaka was an incredible replacement. They didn’t know who she was, really. They told me, “If you want her in the group, you’re going to have to stay on the stage with her for the next two weeks and show her everything.” And I did. That’s how that happened.
How did you feel in the coming years when they became huge? Did you have any regrets?
Well, I did. Of course, there were regrets. I was too young to realize it was just part of my journey. I just felt like, “Wow, maybe I shouldn’t have left.” You know how hindsight is 20/20. But at the same time, I knew I did what was great for my daughter. She was devastated that I left so much because her dad was an absentee father.
I felt like the best thing for her, and for me, was for me to stay in Chicago. And I formed a group there. We had some of the guys from Ask Rufus or the American Breed. Lee Graziano was on drums. We played the hotel circuit and did pretty well doing that kind of stuff. But in the daytime, I was singing jingles. I was doing sessions three, four, five times a week. Every jingle.
Are you still close with Chaka?
Yes! We love each other very much. She named me in her book. And for her 60th birthday, we were together. They had a beautiful party for her at a restaurant in Hollywood. Quincy came. He was my first real mentor. He came and Anita Baker was there, Natalie Cole, Don Was … so many incredible people.
Chaka stood at a microphone and said, “I would not be here if it wasn’t for this woman right here.” It was very, very sweet. We’ve re-connected and lost touch and re-connected. But overall, we’ve never, ever let go of the fact that we know that we’re sisters and we love each other. And to this day, she tells everyone what I did for her. I don’t look at it like that. I don’t think that I was responsible, but I do think that I was a channel for helping her.
Tell me about the life you had making the jingles. Did you show up and not know if it would be Budweiser or KFC or Coors?
No. I didn’t. I did, [sings] “When you say Bud, you say a lot of things nobody else can say. When you say Budweiser, you say it all.” I did that! [Laughs] I did United Airlines. I did Continental. I did Coors. My first onscreen commercial was done with Tom Selleck. He lifts his glasses and does this cheers motion to me and I’m on the stage singing, “Coors is a beer, made the way you really like to drink beer.” I’m doing that and he’s teasing me. That was my first spot onscreen.
I did, [sings] “Weekends Were Made for Michelob … ” I did so many commercials that I can’t even name them. I did 600, at least.
How did it feel hearing your voice on the radio singing all these jingles?
It was incredible because you never knew when they’d come on. They’d pop up at the funniest times and I’d go, “That’s me! That’s me!” and people would look at me like I was crazy. It was just so surreal hearing me on national spots for Kentucky Fried Chicken or Coca-Cola. I did Pepsi. I did Master Charge. I did Mastercard, Cadillac. I did the United Airlines campaign of, [sings] “Have you seen the other side of where you live?” I did that whole campaign. It was always so surreal to hear myself on these commercials.
Tell me how you met Quincy Jones.
After Rufus, I connected with Phil Upchurch. He was this incredible guitar player that everybody knew. He was on the top 10 jazz poll in Ebony magazine 10 years running. He was one of the top guitarists in the world. He took an interest in me and we became friends even though he’s like 10 or 15 years older than me. But he took an interest in me as a teenager and always wanted to know what I was doing. He would come see me with Ask Rufus and he would always let me know that he was my friend and vice versa.
And then he said, “You aren’t on the road with Ask Rufus anymore. You’re just doing jingles. Why don’t we do a demo and I can send it to Q?” He was very good friends with Quincy. And I said, “OK.”
Also, in the interim, I would go and jam with Donny Hathaway, who Phil Upchurch introduced me to. We recorded a song called “Chasing the Sun.” Donny wrote the music and Tennyson Stephens wrote the lyrics. They sent this song, along with a couple of other songs that I recorded, to Quincy.
He called me the following week. I don’t know if Phil even knew this, but he was looking for a vocalist for his Body Heat tour. And that’s how that began for me. That’s how things really began for me.
Where did it go from there?
Quincy sent for me and I came to L.A. The first person I met that knocked on my motel room door was Cannonball Adderley. He knocked on the door and I said, “Who is it?” He said, [gruff voice] “Cannonball.” I didn’t know who that was. I kind of knew, but wasn’t really sure. I didn’t want to take any chances since I was young. I didn’t want to open the door for anyone. And then he said, “Q told me to come see how you’re doing. He said to make sure you were OK.”
I opened the door and there he was, Cannonball Adderley standing at my door. He walked in and we sat up and he told me stories and we stayed up and laughed for at least two or three hours. He just put my whole mind at ease with me out there by myself.
How was the tour?
I traveled the world with Q. We traveled all over the States. We did Canada and then 27 cities in Japan. Talk about being green, first of all. Also talk about being overwhelmed with so many incredible experiences all in one shot.
First of all, Q had me sing solo for him. I sang “Everything Must Change.” We sang on all the songs that were on that album [Body Heat]. We sang “If I Ever Lose This Heaven” by Leon Ware. I sang that with a Brazilian singer. We all sang those songs together, but “Everything Must Change,” I sang alone. Then I sang solo step-up parts on all of the other parts he had recorded with Minnie Riperton.
Minnie Riperton and I weren’t at all in the same range. She had an amazing, amazing five-octane range and I’m a contralto with a four-octave range. But I sang all those songs and Quincy used to always tell the audiences, “She is incredible. She reminds me of Aretha and Sarah Vaughan put together. And I plan on producing her.”
I was always hanging with Q and he’d tell me stories. He was my mentor and he called me his baby girl. Whenever we moved and went somewhere, I was right under him. He would tell me stories about his life in Chicago.
During the tour, we had Wah Wah Watson on guitar and Ray Brown was acting like our manager. He’s a famous upright bass player. Sahib Shihab was on bari sax. We had [trombonist] Frank Rosolino. These are famous jazz guys. We had such incredible musicianship. And that was the orchestra. We all traveled together. And I was the only young black girl. It was so incredible.
Q would conduct the orchestra every night. And the last night, we were in Tokyo, Japan. I started singing “Everything Must Change.” When I get ready to go into the second verse, all of a sudden I hear another singer. And it was Sarah! It was Sarah Vaughan. We sang a duet. Imagine the sound. Japan, for me, was so much further ahead, to me, as far as the sound in the amphitheaters.
Oh, my God, you could hear a pin drop. It was the most incredible experience. I was shaking. Quincy had planned the whole thing as a surprise for me because he knew how much I loved her. She’s going into the second verse and I turn around and look at Quincy and he has tears in his eyes as he’s conducting the orchestra.
We sang the whole rest of the duet together. That’s a moment in my life that I’ll never forget. And the applause was insane. I wonder if somewhere in the archives he has that because he taped everything. I have pictures from that night of us singing together. She signed one and gave one to me. We have of all of us backstage, talking and laughing. That night after the show, Sarah and I hung out together with Q in his hotel suite. They were playing cards.
Q had his driver take Sarah and I to the supermarket and we made greens. [Laughs] We made collard greens. We hung out until dawn. I was the youngest one there and they made me feel so special.
You came back and recorded Mellow Madness.
Yeah. We were at the Greek Theatre and Quincy was getting ready to do The Wiz with Michael Jackson. I didn’t know better back then, but I basically kept getting pushed back and pushed back. It wasn’t because he wanted to, but he had commitments.
And I wound up going to New York because Ralph MacDonald, who played with us at the Greek Theatre, came to me and he wanted me to come to New York. He said he’d square everything with Q, but he wanted me to come to New York. He had a production company called Antisia Music. He wanted me to come to New York. He’d put me up in a nice hotel and pay for the whole trip, and he did.
I met Bill Eaton, Patti Austin, Bill Salter. They were all writers for Antisia Music and Ralph MacDonald. … That’s when I first met Patti Austin, who is also Quincy Jones’ goddaughter.
Then in 1977, you made Feel Good All Over, your own record. How was that experience?
I always knew I could sing, but I felt like I was so green as far as my experience of the studio. I just always felt somewhat insecure. Unlike people in my age group, my peers, I didn’t go to college. My mother would always say, “You have a beautiful voice, but you need college.” I had tremendous insecurities.
I felt like I wasn’t prepared, like I was faking it all the time, even when I went into the studio and Q said, “Go ahead, baby girl. Do what you do.” And I knew I could go in there and sing, but I didn’t feel like I reached my niche until I was in my fifties.
I did that album back then, but I never felt proud of it. This record I have out now [A Woman’s Story], I feel grateful and I feel proud that I actually sang it from my gut. Back then, I didn’t feel like I knew who I was vocally. I just knew I could sing.
When Chaka sang, Chaka was always Chaka. She didn’t let up. She never changed. She was authentic. For me, my authenticity was there was far as I could sing, but as far as feeling the things that I was singing? No. I knew I could sing technically, but I didn’t feel like I really had it. I just didn’t.
How did you wind up singing those duets on TV with Johnny Mathis?
I don’t know what had happened, but Deniece Williams and Jonny Mathis had done some work together. Jack Gold was producing their next record and his people called me and said, “Jack Gold wants you to come in and sing a duet with Johnny.”
I said, “Oh?” I was surprised. I heard it wasn’t happening [with Deniece Williams], but her key is much higher than what my key would have been. But I sang those duets anyway. And because I have such a wide range, I sang them in a higher register. And I was happy to do. I love Johnny. He was so sweet and so kind.
And then I heard they wanted us to do TV shows. We did Merv Griffin. We did Mike Douglas. We did Johnny Carson. It was amazing.
Those are huge platforms. The entire country watched those shows.
You know what? I didn’t know that because I didn’t have any management. I did everything on my own. I took the phone calls. I didn’t know half the time. If a job called, I just went and I did it. Without any management or any representation, I just did things. And until this day, that’s a huge reason it didn’t go any further.
And of course, Quincy would call me too. That’s me on “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.”
Let’s move on to that. How did that come about?
Well, he called me. We hadn’t done anything since Mellow Madness since Q was very, very busy. And quite frankly, I think he was a bit disappointed that I went to New York with Ralph MacDonald and didn’t just wait for him. At the time, I didn’t think I did anything wrong. I thought I was just biding my time and waiting for Q. I think he basically took that as somewhat of an insult.
I was devastated that he thought that. At the same time, when he called me for the Michael Jackson stuff, he said, “Don’t pay that any mind. That’s nothing.” He just wanted me to sing on this stuff.
Was Michael there when you recorded your parts?
Yes, he was!
Tell me about that.
Meeting Michael Jackson was like meeting a prince. He was Michael Jackson! He was so kind and sweet and just a lovely, lovely young man. He was so sweet and caring. “Thank you, Paulette.” He’d give you a little hug. These are things that stay in your memory forever. It was just a beautiful experience.
I sang there with Patti Austin, Phil Ingram, James Ingram. It was all of us doing the session for Michael. It was just, “What?!” I didn’t even realize at the time how incredibly grand that whole situation was.
“Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” is one of the defining songs of his career. Did it strike you as important when you made it?
Yes! It did! Whenever I heard a hit record by whomever, I always realized it was a hit record, long before it became Number One. When I heard that song, and also “Rock With You,” which I’m also singing on, though they didn’t give me credit — I’m singing on that middle part “I wanna rock with you. I wanna groove with you.” I’m on that, but they didn’t give me the credit. I didn’t mind so much at the time. I just let it go and I never got credit for it.
But being there and being on those songs, especially with hindsight being 20/20, while I was there, I felt, “My God, this music is incredible!” I said to Quincy, “This is life-changing music.”
How did your Bette Midler chapter start?
Right around the same time as the Johnny Mathis stuff, I went out and auditioned because I’d heard about an audition. It took place at a house. The other two Harlettes were there and Bette was there. There was also Bruce Vilanch, who was one of her writers, and another writer and director named Bill Hennessy. I have a great memory for these things. They were there and I auditioned. We had to know some of the songs and I had prepared by listening to them. And I got the part. They said, “You’re our third Harlette.”
I was so happy. And we traveled all over for our promotional tour for The Divine Miss M. We traveled and we did eight weeks on Broadway. It was phenomenal. Of course, traveling all over Europe with her is when I first met Luther Vandross.
Bette is such an amazing performer.
Oh, my God! She introduced me to a whole new world, things I never knew. It’s like God had listened to me and wanted me to get everything I can get to get me where I am now. I watched her work with her director and the writers and they came up with these incredible ideas. She wasn’t afraid. She taught me to not be afraid to say what it is that you wanted to see.
I’m sure she taught that to Luther because he saw the same things that I did. He watched her very closely. I think it gave him the idea to be as visual as he was. She was all about the visual as well as the feeling. She always wanted to incorporate the visuals. That is why people loved her. Her shows were magnificent. Magnificent!
I have a video of all the little things that we did as Harlettes. You’ll see me in the middle with my short, little Afro haircut. I was between Franny [Eisenberg] and Linda Hart. We were doing “In the Mood” and “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” When she did Delores De Lago, we were the sailors. We’d do the wedding during “Chapel of Love.”
We have to make quick backstage changes. And Luther and I, of course, were all over the vocals because he and I met on that level. He knew I knew Quincy, and it was just an incredible vocal thing. Luther was all about vocals. He was in love with the Supremes and all the vocalists. On our plane rides, we always talked about vocalists. That’s how he and I befriended each other. We both love vocalists so much.
Tell me about the Billy Idol session where you sang on “Mony Mony.”
Oh, yes. I got a call from my good friend [singer] Stefanie Spruill for that session and we did that at night. Billy showed up and I thought he was just so cute — oh, my God. He was unique in his style and his presence and how presented himself. I just knew he was a star. We did “Mony Mony” and we did “Hot in the City.”
You’re on David Bowie’s “Cat People.”
Yep. I sing on “putting out the fire with gasooooliiiine.“
Was David there?
No. He was not there for that particular session. We worked with Giorgio Moroder. I did meet David briefly at some point, but I can’t quite remember it.
Tell me about working with Aretha Franklin.
Luther introduced me to her. I sang on some of her stuff before Jump to It. And I’m on that album as well. But when I met her, I was nervous. Her singing capacity and what she did and how she brought everything … no matter what she sang, she just made you feel. I carried that with me every time I sang. Q said I reminded him of her, and I sang a lot of her things when I was younger.
But Aretha Franklin was royalty to me. When I met her, I was shaking and in awe. I remember I got up the nerve to tell her how much I loved her. I said something like, “Aretha, I would kiss your shoes. That’s how great you are.” She looked at me and said, “You ain’t so bad yourself.” I thought I would die!
You toured with her, too.
Yeah. We played on weekends for a couple of months. Arsenio Hall opened up for her.
Was she demanding as a boss?
She was so kind and so loving. It was like having your big sister as a boss. She was so loving towards me. I just felt like I was coddled. She looked at me like a little sister and her other singers were so sweet to me. She had her cousin Brenda [Franklin-Corbett] and another singer. They were all so sweet and kind to me. I think it’s because Aretha showed a lot of kindness and respect to me, and because I came from Luther. I think that had a lot to do with it. It was just a wonderful tour.
On that tour, you’re doing some of the great soul and R&B songs of all time.
Yes. All of that. We sang all of that. It was incredible. From singing with Bette Midler to singing with Aretha on the road, I learned they were equally as great in their own right. They just blew me away. I can’t even tell you. I felt like God was moving me. I really did.
How did you get the job on the Marvin Gaye tour?
This woman who was the production coordinator for Marvin Gaye, Kitty Spears, found me. She came up to me and said, “Marvin would love you. I want to introduce you.” I was like, “Marvin Gaye?” [Laughs] She ended up driving me to Palm Springs. He had a house there. I don’t know if maybe he was renting it.
He was in his robe when I got there. Kitty goes, “Marvin, this is Paulette. This is the girl I was telling you about.” He was so cool, just sitting back and relaxing. “Hey, how are you doing?” I was so shy and so excited to meet someone like that, of that caliber. I was so nervous, but trying to be cool. I was not confident, but I sang for him anyway. He said, “OK, baby. You want to come on the road?” I said, “Sure.”
He put me in charge of finding other singers. There was a huge audition since it was on the radio. I also did the Grammys with him that year. It was myself and my good friend Myrnra [Smith] Schilling. We did the “get up, wake up” [part] on “Sexual Healing.”
It was a pretty amazing time for Marvin. He hadn’t had a big hit in a while, and then suddenly comes this giant one that nobody saw coming with “Sexual Healing.”
Yes. We did the Sexual Healing tour. I hired Lynn Davis, who is still my friend to this day. I love her so much. I hired another singer named Cydney Davis, who has since sung with Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis. I hired another woman named Frieda Woody. The four of us were his background singers. I did the choreography, the outfits. And Marvin and Kitty gave me approval for everything I did. And Marvin wanted me to sing the duets with him, and I did. I practiced and I practiced.
How did it feel to stand onstage next to Marvin Gaye and sing Tammi Terrell’s parts on songs like “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”?
The first night, I felt like I was going to have a heart attack. I was so very, very nervous. At the same time, I realized I had to do it. I also had the confidence to know I could do what I had to do. I just didn’t know if I liked everything I was doing. But I did it.
Getting past that first night was huge. Sheila E. was part of the orchestra. McKinley Jackson was the orchestra leader. Wah Wah Watson was on that tour as well. I knew I had to step up.
And Marvin made me feel so incredible. He was like, “Are you kidding, baby? You’re great.” Marvin Gaye calling me “great” gave me confidence. It made me feel like I could do whatever. And it was a strenuous tour. We were out, off and on, for six months. But we had so much fun. We did Radio City and the Greek. We did all the big venues anywhere.
He was a guy with more great songs than you can fit into one show. There are hits in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Not a lot of people have that.
Yes! We did “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” and a lot of songs from the What’s Going On album. We did the duets. We did ” ‘Til Tomorrow.” We did “Let’s Get It On.” We did all of that. And I sang double parts with him all the time. It wasn’t just the Tammi Terrell duets, but also double parts on the low things he’d do. I was doing all those low parts with him, by myself.
Were you aware that he was going through a hard time in his personal life?
You know, he treated me like a little sister. I think he was an incredibly classy gentleman. He never made me feel any pressure in any way or put anything on me that he felt would be too much for me to handle or worry about. He always made me feel comfortable. I really felt like I was his kid sister.
Hindsight being 20/20, he was going through a lot. But he told me, “I’m going to produce a record for you. I want to produce you.” We were going to do a record together. He told me he was finishing up a project he was doing and then we’d start. And of course, you know what happened.
We have a much better understanding of drug addiction now than we did back then. It’s a disease, and he didn’t get the help that he needed.
Yes. He didn’t. I was young and had no idea he was struggling the way he was struggling.
It’s so awful.
The fact that his dad … I can’t. I cried so hard when I heard the news of what happened.
And during the whole Marvin tour, Luther called me every day because he was out on the road, opening up for the Commodores. I started recording with Luther in 1980. We did Forever, for Always, for Love and the Busy Body record. He was always calling me to tell me about the vocals and the people he had employed and what was happening on the road.
He’d always ask me how everything was on the road with Marvin. I told him, “I love being on the road. I love singing the duets with Marvin.” And after Marvin was killed in 1984 — I hate saying that. It hurts so bad. It still hurts so bad. But after that, Luther called and said, “Lettie, do you want to go on the road with me?” That’s how that came about.
How was that experience?
Oh, my God. How much time do you have? [Laughs] Well, let’s face it … I started on the road with Luther in 1984. I started recording with him in 1980. Keep in mind, I’m doing jingles the whole time. I did jingles in Chicago, New York, and L.A. And I’m always getting called for sessions with people like Anastacia, Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Harvey Mason, Jody Watley, Whitney Houston, Patti LaBelle, Diana Ross. Luther called me for the Brecker Brothers. I sang with Irene Cara.
And while I was on the road with Luther, we did all kinds of things. We did sessions. It was such a learning experience to see how Luther took what he learned from Bette and doing Sesame Street with Listen My Brother and seeing all these visual things. … He was just a consummate artist. There was no one like him. No one.
He took what he saw and realized that nobody in the R&B world did shows like that. He set a precedent. He brought what he learned to the table and said, “This is going to happen.”
When he put that staircase stage set … and I thought I was going to be on the stage, but because I’m so short, I’m 5’3″ and Lisa Fischer and Ava Cherry are, like, 5’8″, he wanted them onstage. It didn’t work for me to be onstage. He put me in the pit and basically had me hold down the vocals down there. He would put my mic up the loudest since he said I had the “blending voice” and he said my voice was the most like his.
He got certain outfits for me in the pit, but I never got the ballgowns or anything because people didn’t see me. For four years, until Cindy Mizelle came, I was holding down in the pit. And I did double parts with him on songs like “Wait for Love,” “Any Love,” and “Stop to Love.” When you hear those double parts, that’s usually me. On “Til My Baby Comes Home” I sang all the double parts with him, the harmony parts. That’s me.
In the Nineties, he got even more popular. All those years of work paid off with Power of Love.
Yes. He had two core groups he used in the studio and I was part of both of them. The first core group was from about 1980 to 1988. That was myself, Cissy Houston, Brenda-White King, Tawatha Agee, and Fonzi Thornton. Whenever he did a record, we were there. He wouldn’t list it like that on the albums, but everyone that knows, knows that that is the truth.
The second core group was Cindy Mizelle, Brenda-White King, Tawatha Agee, myself and Fonzi Thornton. And the choral group for Power of Love and other choral things was Lisa Fischer, Kevin Owens and sometimes he’d add in Ava Cherry or Robin Clark. But it was often the five of us. I was the only one that sang in both the core group and toured with him at the same time. That was a blessing. He told me, “Lettie, you’re my song. You can’t go work anywhere else.” [Laughs.]
I spoke with other singers who told me that the Nineties were a hard time for them, since there wasn’t as much session work or demand for them on the road. Did you experience that at all?
No. We were touring every year. I toured with Luther from 1984 to 2000. Every year. We didn’t miss a year. Some years, we’d do just four months. But we were touring every year.
Watching his health struggles at the end must have been difficult.
Yeah. It was unbelievable. It was so sad. When he had the stroke, his personal assistant was a young man named Max Szadek. He became Luther’s assistant a few years before the stroke. Afterwards, Max tried to help him come back. He said, “Let’s talk about singers.” And Luther said, “Paulette.” [Laughs.]
Max said to me, “I just want you to know that your name was the first name to come out of his mouth.” It was unbelievably sad. We were all devastated. It was heart-wrenching to see him in a way that he couldn’t express himself the way we knew he could.
He was funny. He had an incredible sense of humor. He lived his life with a lot of joy. We were always enjoying life as a family of singers. We were Luther’s chosen family. And we had such an incredible time on the road with him. Cindy was our baby. She was a baby girl. To this day, she’s truly my best friend. I love her so much.
We had so much fun. We had so much fun on the road. We went to Europe. And Luther loved me so much that when my daughter, Brigette McWilliams, released a record on Virgin, he allowed her to open up for us. She opened up for Luther all through Europe. it was so incredible.
How was your Mary J. Blige experience?
Well, my good friend Kirk Burrowes, who was a part of the Puff Daddy organization, he was the one that introduced me to Mary J. Blige and wanted me to meet her. She was very respectful. She wanted me to contract for her.
She was a real sister. She was that girl that grew up next door that could sing, that really was just a get-down girl and just full of street sense. She knew exactly how the street worked and she didn’t take any stuff. At the same time, she was very kind. But when she spoke to people, she didn’t have any reserve. She would say exactly what she felt. And I saw her as a little sister.
Tell me about your time with Jennifer Lopez.
She was so sweet and so kind. I met P. Diddy again since they were dating at the time. We did the Oprah Winfrey show. I met Ricky Martin and he was so lovely. J.Lo was so sweet. I would work with her again, even now.
I didn’t record with her, but I did a lot of the live stuff. We went to Florida and did a gig with Sheila E. Also, you gotta remember, in the interim I’m still pursuing my own career and doing my solo stuff. And I was doing jingles. I’ve had a very busy life. [Laughs.]
How was your time in Steely Dan?
Oh, my God. First of all, Cindy called and asked if I wanted to do it. She said to them they should check me out. And Walter [Becker] said he had checked out everything and he loved my singing. It was because of Cindy. It was incredible. I was just there to sub for the girl that is usually there, La Tanya [Hall]. She had committed to going on the road with Rob Thomas.
And being on the road again and doing vocals again with Cindy, in a whole other setting, was so incredible. We had so much fun together. We laughed. She said to me, “Lettie, just learn the parts.” And I got all the alto parts from La Tanya. I got this booklet and I did all the work. Of course, I’ve always done my homework. I’ve always been disciplined that way. Growing up in Catholic school taught me the discipline of always doing my homework.
And Donald [Fagen] loved the vocals. He complimented me. Walter complimented me. All of the crew guys were saying, “Wow.” They gave incredible compliments. Cindy and I together have a blend like nobody’s business. And Luther loved, loved us together because she’s kind of like the top of my bottom and vice versa. She has an incredibly wide range and so do I. We love to sing together.
Those Steely Dan songs have amazing background vocals on the original recordings and they need to be done in a very precise manner.
Exactly. There’s a little snippet of a video of us on YouTube at the Hollywood Bowl. We have on red outfits and we’re singing “Dirty Work.” You hear me do my step-out on, [sings] “Light the candle … ” And Cindy was so complementary.
What are your thoughts on the movie 20 Feet From Stardom?
Well, this is a funny story I’m going to tell because I think I have to tell you the truth and I want to tell you the truth. Here’s what happened. I was going on the road in Russia for almost six weeks. Before that happened, I was in London and my daughter became very close friends with neighbors that lived down the street. One of them was Jason Isaacs. He’s an actor that was in Harry Potter [as Lucius Malfoy] and he lived down the street.
He and my daughter and his wife were good friends. I was often in London and he knew about my work. We were often out for dinner and in each other’s homes. I was there a lot because my grandchildren were there. I’d go over for months to help with them. And my son-in-law [Mark Romanek] was a director and was doing a movie with Keira Knightley called Never Let Me Go.
[Jason] said to me one night, “I have a really good friend who is a producer. Can I give her your number to call you, because they’re talking about doing a documentary on background vocalists?” I said, “Absolutely.”
By the time she called me, I had gone back to the States. She called me and told me they were doing a documentary on background vocalists and she wanted me to be a part of it. She asked me for names. Of course, I gave her the Luther Vandross singers first. I gave her Cindy Mizelle, Lisa Fischer, and Tawatha Agee. Those were the phone numbers that I gave her.
I said to her, “I just want to be a part of it, so please reach out. Let me know. I’m going away. I’ll be away for a little over six weeks.” She said, “I don’t know how this is going to work.” They were getting ready to do stuff almost immediately.
When I got back, I didn’t hear any more about it. And I didn’t think any more about it until it came out. I was like, “Oh, wow. This is the movie.” I reached out to Jason and he said, “Yeah, this is the movie. This is it.” And I said, “Wow, how did I get left out completely?”
I had done, pretty much, more than all those other singers put together. When you think about the duets. None of them could say that they did duets with Johnny Mathis or Sarah Vaughan or Marvin Gaye. But yet, I was left out.
It broke my heart. I was like, “I couldn’t believe I was left out.” I tried to get information, but none of that was available. And, by the way, they didn’t even have Cindy listed with Luther. That blew me away.
Some singers said to me that the movie created the impression that backup vocalists are unhappy with their roles and wish they were in front.
That’s not true. I know many background singers are fine doing background. It doesn’t mean that they are background; it means they are great singers that have chosen this as their career. It just means that is who they are. Their names are listed on every album. I know that I was listed as one of the A singers and I just felt like, “That’s not all of the story.” I mean, Lynn Davis and Tawatha Agee … No disrespect to Ava Cherry, but she’s not a background singer. I mean no disrespect. But I was like, “How did that happen?” It wasn’t the truth.
Tell me about your recent solo record A Woman’s Story.
When I was on the road with Steely Dan, I met Brian Michel Bacchus, who was one of Gregory Porter’s producers. And through him, Kamau Kenyatta. He’s a producer that won Grammys for Gregory Porter and has been friends with him for a very long time. Well, I love the Gregory Porter records that he produced, especially Liquid Spirit. That is one of my favorite albums of all time.
To make a long story short, I wound up making my record with Kamau. I called it A Woman’s Story because it is all about my life and the experiences I had gone through. Some of the songs were soundtracks to my life and how I had lived my life, as well as just songs that really meant a lot to me.
One of the songs I sing on it is “Ruby” by Janis Ian. It’s a song about a prostitute. I remember living on the South Side of Chicago where I grew up. Right around the corner, on 63rd and Halsted, that area was full of prostitutes. I remember driving by and thinking about those women, what they felt, and how they lived, and what really meant something to them. It wasn’t just them selling their bodies. They have deep backstories. And when Janis Ian sent me “Ruby,” all I could think about was those women. I related to them so deeply because I saw them as a little girl.
I related to them because there by the grace of God could be any other woman that walks the planet. And what their backstories are and where they are now and how they got to this moment means so much to me that I love that song. A lot of radio stations are playing that song.
You end the album on “Both Sides Now.”
Oh, my God. How much do I love Joni Mitchell? Chaka and I always talk about it. And at Christmas when I went to Chaka’s house, I played her “Both Sides Now” and she was listening to it with headphones on with tears going down her face. She was going, “I never cry. I never cry. There’s only three times I’ve cried and this is one of them. Girl, I’m going to play this for Joni.” They’re good friends.
They are playing it on SiriusXM and iHeart. I’m trying to get a gig on Tiny Desk on NPR. I’m trying to figure out how to go about it, but I have no clue. That’s because people have no clue who you are until you introduce yourself. But they are playing my friend Catherine Russell. I figured that maybe I’d get on there if I put it out now into the world. Hey, NPR, start playing my music!
I’ll wrap in a second here, but it occurs to me that had you stayed in Rufus, you would have had a very different life and probably wouldn’t have done so many of the amazing things that you’ve gotten to do.
Absolutely. I totally agree. And I probably have the relationship with my daughter that I have today. My daughter is a very well-known interior designer. She has her own company and has been in Architectural Digest for at least four different articles. She was in Harper’s Bazaar. Her clients read like a who’s who, even Beyoncé. She’s on the cover of Architectural Digest with Misty Copeland. My daughter is so incredible and I’ve told her her whole life how magical she is. Everything she does seems to turn to magic. She’s so creative and people love her.
Her name is Brigette Romanek. She is absolutely a phenomenal woman. And I have two beautiful granddaughters. None of this probably would have happened had I not done what I did.
At one point, I felt sad that I left Q and I left Rufus. But when I look at it now, I’m grateful for every move that I made.