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 Cindy Mizelle.
Mariah Carey praises a lot of singers in her new memoir The Meaning of Mariah Carey, but she’s particularly effusive about veteran background vocalist Cindy Mizelle. “To me, she was one of the absolute greatest,” writes Carey. “Cindy Mizelle was the background singer. She sang with the most gifted vocalists of all time — Barbra Streisand, Whitney Houston, Luther Vandross, and the Rolling Stones. She was a real singer’s singer. Cindy was that girl to me. I looked up to her so much.”
The list of Cindy Mizelle credits that Carey laid out is indeed impressive, but it leaves out Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Steely Dan, Dave Matthews Band, Duran Duran, Alicia Keys, and many, many others. She also found time to raise two sons, Devin Fuller and Jordan Fuller, who played in the NFL. (Jordan is currently a free safety for the Los Angeles Rams, and Devin was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in 2016 and is now a free agent.)
The pandemic has allowed the singer to spend the year at home with her college-age daughter Jasmine and try her hand at new recipes she’s picking up via the Food Network. “This year has been a very different kind of thing for me,” she says. “Thank God we have a porch.”
She phoned up Rolling Stone to tell stories from her amazing career.
What’s the first music that you recall loving as a child?
When I was a little child, I’d visit my Uncle Al [Alphonso Mizell, half of production team the Mizell Brothers] and Aunt Ruby’s house. He worked for the Corporation. They did the Jackson Five records [including “I Want You Back” and “ABC”] and stuff like that.
They lived down the street from my parents’ home and I’d look at their gold and platinum albums. I was like, “How did you get those? Can you play those on a record player?” I was so young; I didn’t know those weren’t things you really would play. But I said, “Oh, my gosh. That’s what I want to do!”
And then there was my other cousins, the Ronettes. I looked them up and was like, “Oh, my gosh!” That was my motivation there. I’d play their records and figure out what they did. I started singing in the basement and in bands after that.
The musical gene is really strong in your family. That’s just incredible.
I can’t make this up! And I just loved the fact that we all had this bond. Everyone has their own careers, but it propelled us forward to be bigger and better. Ronnie Spector always supported me. The Mizell Brothers were there too. [Ed. note: They spell their last name without the “e” at the end.]
How old were you when you discovered you could sing?
That was 10 years old. I started recording myself in my bedroom with a Panasonic recorder and I’d use another recording to record another voice to create harmonies. I didn’t know what I was doing. It was destiny for me to sing harmonies with myself.
Did you start thinking about singing as a career?
I just said, “I know how to do this.” I played the flute, too, and I knew scales. Everything was a musical thing for me. And once I found that power, I was like, “I’m going!”
I got involved with all these recordings like Freddie Jackson and Alicia Keys doing “Fallin’.” The whole last piece of “Fallin'” is me. [Sings] “I keep on fallin’ in love with you. …”
What was your first big job as a background singer?
It was me with the Sugar Hill folks. I was in Sylvia Robinson‘s office and I was singing on different songs for everybody out of Sugar Hill! Everybody. That’s how I started at 16. I started touring at 17.
How did you learn the art of singing background vocals? Who taught you?
One person really took me under his wing, Craig Derry. He’s done a lot of vocals for a lot of people. He would always call me “Butter.” He’d say, “Butter, come on over here.” I was like, “Butter?” Then I got to know him. The sound of my voice is what he was referring to. He was key in really being there for this young girl in Englewood, New Jersey. He’d be like, “Sing this; sing that.” And he made me feel so comfortable. He was a wonderful brother to me.
I’m looking at your list of credits here and it’s just overwhelming. Let’s talk about a few of them, though. What do you remember about singing with Billy Ocean on Suddenly?
Lord Jesus! I’m going to tell you. He was everything to me. I don’t even know how old I was then, but he always was such a daddy. He was wonderful. I worked with him just last October with his daughter and his other background singer.
Keith Diamond was a producer that believed in me as well. I was singing in a club in New York called the Cellar. I was there one night and said, “We have this session going on. Do you want to sing on Saturday?” I said, “Of course.” It was the Suddenly album.
That was a huge album.
It was huge. And that’s how things happen. People meet each other and you get along. Billy Ocean was the start of a years-long thing for me.
How about Carly Simon’s Spoiled Girl?
A lot of times, I didn’t know who I was singing for or what I was singing. The producer is the conduit. They’ll go, “This is for so-and so. This is for Carly Simon.” You’re like, “Oh? OK!” You don’t know what you’re going to be called for. You come in and hear the voice and go, “Oh!” Then you do the job you need to do.
How did you get the job on the Rolling Stones’ Steel Wheels tour? Prior to that, they’d never used backing vocalists on the road.
I believe what happened is someone gave them my name and I came in to perform. It was hilarious. I said, “What do you want me to do?” They said, “We want you to sing this Tina Turner song.” I sang that Tina Turner song and pranced around. I was the skinniest that I’ve ever been in my life. [Laughs] It was so funny. That was actually the week that, I believe, I came off this 15-day fast. I looked so small. It enhanced my chances, that’s what I mean.
But bless them. I love them. They were so beautiful to me and to all the musicians. We had to travel together on the planes. It was me, Lisa Fischer, and Bernard Fowler. We had such a good time together.
The person I always hung out with was the bass player, Bill Wyman. He was wonderful. He taught me Cockney [accents]. That was our thing. It was so funny to me. There were so many things he’d talk about. He was my friend and just wonderful.
And Keith Richards! One time, I told him I was getting married. He goes, “What!” I told him I was going to Negril [Jamaica] for the honeymoon. He said, “You have to go to Ochi.” I said, “Alright, thank you.” I didn’t really know that he was serious. But then his manager came to me and said, “You know he’s serious. You have to go to the house in Ochi.” So they booked me there and I stayed at his house.
What was it like to walk onstage when that tour began and see an ocean of 80,000 people?
That’s the energy that I hope we get to go back to. It’s electric. It’s magical. The energy that comes forth to someone, it’s rewarding because when you give, you get. It’s a beautiful, electric thing that permeates your soul. That’s what is rewarding for all artists to feel when they’re out onstage. It’s not the ticket money, even though the ticket money makes it really good, but the feeling of that connection is enormous. It’s beautiful.
You watched Mick Jagger up close on that tour for months on end. What did you learn about performing from seeing someone as masterful as him?
Of course, he’s the quintessential performer. How many hours, I don’t know, that he has spent running up and down stages. We’re not talking about just for a tour. This is a lifetime of work. I was lucky that I was a part of it for even a minute. It wasn’t just his vocals, but his stamina and the wonderful thing that he wanted to give to people every night.
Holding the attention of 80,000 people in a stadium for two hours is not easy. He’s one of the best of all time at doing it.
He’s very, very good at it and it’s been something that can’t be really explained, but it’s brilliant. I’m sure there are things he’s learned from so many different other artists, older artists than him.
Sure. James Brown …
And King Curtis, any one of them. But he cultivated it and brought it into the Eighties, Nineties, 2000s. It’s kind of crazy how he was able to bridge his knowledge and that beautiful talent into where we are now.
When the Steel Wheels tour went to Europe for the final leg, they brought in two different backup singers. What happened?
Well, Cindy Mizelle decided she wanted to have kids. [Laughs] As beautiful as the Rolling Stones are, it wasn’t a real thing for me to have a pregnant belly with them. But with Luther [Vandross], he was very forgiving. He was just like, “OK, we can do this.” And I thought I was going to be fired everywhere. I knew how much the Rolling Stones loved me, but I didn’t think they would really go for a pregnant belly. [Laughs]
But Luther was like, “Let’s do it. Cindy Birdsong [of the Supremes] did it. Aretha Franklin did it. We can do this.” We just went on with it. It was his thing. He was soulful and grateful and he had sisters. It was just beautiful.
Tell me about Luther and what you learned from working with him.
Family. When I was with him, I loved everything about him. I could relax and be myself and he was so supportive. When it came down to my kids, he got them their first shoes. He supplied us with all these different things that we normally wouldn’t go for. I was walking on Fifth Avenue and buying this and buying that. He was like, “You gotta get this.” It was always such a pleasure. He had an eye for those things and he loved our families, not just us. That was paramount.
When it came down to going to shows, he was like, “Where are the kids?” I’d bring my sisters. It was always family time. That was wonderful. That’s why I always went back.
What was it like working with Mariah Carey?
Oh, my God. That woman right there … She always finds a way to touch my heart. I’m getting emotional now just talking about it. I don’t even know how old I was, but I was in a session with her when she was about 17. The microphone was on and I heard her stomach growling. I was like, “Is that your stomach? What the heck is that?” And she was like, “Yeah.”
I said, “Do you want something to eat?” I didn’t know her from Adam. I was like, “Wait a minute? Is she hungry? What the heck is this?” And then her shoes were, like, exploding near the top. She would ask me in later years, “Cindy, tell everyone about the time we met in the studio and my shoes.” I said, “Oh, my God.”
She was at the beginning of her career and trying to make it. I was just kind of trying to be that singer friend that could be there for her. She was like, “I’m OK! I’m alright! I got this!” I was like, ‘”But your shoes are busted and your stomach is growling.” She said, “But not by choice.” I wondered why that was. “Maybe she’s on a diet. Don’t think about it. She’s doing what she needs to do and she’s beautiful.”
She was very, very nice to me. After that, she’d be even nicer to me. We’d go out nights where we would go eat dinner. She’d be like, “Can Cindy come?” And we’d be out together. I’m on her Christmas album, Emotions and Music Box.
How about Whitney Houston?
She was so brilliant! So brilliant! All you knew was that you just wanted to be with her. I got with her in 1999. I just looked at her in awe. I was like, “Mmm-hmmm. This is everything.” We’re pretty much the same age. I understood her and knew I had to support her and do what I needed to do. I always wanted her to feel comfortable.
I think everyone loved her and wanted her to do really well, but I just think that that maybe she couldn’t … But she did so many wonderful things. I don’t care if she’s singing [super high and cheery], “La la la la!” or [super deep and serious], “La la la la.”
She had such phrasing and such a wonderful way of finding where she wanted to land. That’s what an artist does. You may not have the full facility, but my God. That woman could sing anything. It just became a thing where she’d be singing and you’d be like, “Oh, my gosh! She found it!”
When did you tour with her?
We toured in 1999, some other gigs and then the last, final tour in 2010.
That was a famously difficult tour. Was it hard to watch her struggle onstage?
I’ll say that it was hard for her to struggle, but everything she’d put out would be like, “Oh, my gosh.” She had this incredible sense of where she was. That made it beautiful. That was what I concentrated on. I did not concentrate on anything that was going to be bad. I was such a fan of her to where I was looking for all the good. I wasn’t going to focus on what she couldn’t do. It was just the beauty of this beautiful woman. That was it.
Going back a bit, tell me about your experience with the Dave Matthews Band.
That was so wonderful. Tawatha Agee called me for a session [on 1998’s Before These Crowded Streets], and I was seven months pregnant with Jordan. They were like, “Do you want to go on tour?” It was so beautiful how they said it.
Let my digress and say that when we were in the studio with them, it was the first time they ever used background vocals. I said, “Oh, my God. Incredible. They’re watching me with my pregnant belly and they’re very genuine and wonderful.” They released the album and said, “Are you ready to go on tour?”
We went out on tour and then a couple of other tours. There was another one I couldn’t go on because I was pregnant with Jasmine. Me and my motherly things.
The Dave shows must have been fun since they improvise a lot. That’s very different than a Stones show.
Dave was like, “What do you hear here?” We were making up parts and just being present. We were called the Lovely Ladies. We’d get together before we would go out with them and figure out things on our own to so we’d be a little more prepared for what they wanted, which helped since we already had something. We never knew what song they were going to do, but we were prepared.
How did your Springsteen chapter start with the Sessions Band in 2006?
I got a call. “Can you come down and audition?'” I was like, “OK.” I then got a CD of Sam Cooke music sent to me. I said, “Oh, my God. These are my father’s favorite songs.” And he was in a coma. I said, “I guess this gig is mine anyway. There’s too many connection dots here.”
I didn’t claim it because there are so many good singers, but I felt cleaved to it for some reason. And then when I got there, Bruce said, “That’s the sound! That’s the sound!” And then Patti [Scialfa] was like, “Yeah, I like it.” I was like, “Well, if both of them like it …”
The Seeger Sessions Band was everything I grew up on. It was everything that my dad played at home with the Soul Stirrers and everything. It was gospel and what I sang in church. I said, “Oh, my God.” It just seemed right.
It was a pretty bold show. A lot of fans come to Bruce shows to hear “Born to Run” and “Dancing in the Dark,” and here you are playing “Erie Canal” and “Old Dan Tucker.”
That was very bold. I applauded him for taking the chance on us, and on his credibility, to get out there and do something different than what he’s always done. That’s what artistry is. You take those bold chances and you want to use it. You want to definitely challenge yourself with what you’re saying. I feel that’s what he was doing. He wanted to sing “Old Dan Tucker” even though it was totally off the charts of what anyone ever would ever think of him singing.
That’s the unique thing about Bruce. It’s a never-ending well of unexpected songs. Even when he was with the E Street Band and he integrated [backup singer] Curtis [King] and I, he definitely would pull signs from the audience and it was like “Stump the Band.” We never knew what we were doing.
I’ve seen amazing videos of shows on the Sessions Band tour in Europe where the entire venue is singing along to these old folk songs. It created this magical feeling in the air.
Come on! Yep! It was spiritual. That’s what music is trying to sell. It’s not necessarily, “I’m going to sell you my story.” No. It’s a feeling. Then you get all those people together that are talking, “That show last night!” They go home with a feeling.
It’s people of different ages, races, political beliefs, ethnic backgrounds, and they’re all singing the same song and smiling.
Yes! And he doesn’t stop! He’s like, “Do I have you? Maybe I don’t have you after two hours. Let me give you another two.” [Laughs] The energy that that man has is un-be-lievable. I mean, there’s no shame in his game, at all. He could be like, “I don’t feel well” and you see him walking on the plane and he’s like [sounding gruff and tired], “Hey, hey …” Then all of a sudden he walks onstage and he’s like, “Pow!” I’m like, “Who is that? Oh, my God!”
And you have to go with him. He’s like, “Come on, Cindy! Get up!” I’m like, “OK!” You find it and you pull it out from yourself. He’s leading and you better go.
The E Street Band didn’t really have outside backup singers before you and Curtis joined in 2009. How did that happen?
I think when he did certain songs, he wanted to venture out and see what he could do. Bruce has always had different singers. I didn’t know that until later, but I wasn’t the first one to come. He always integrated different sounds. That’s what is clever about him. It’s Bruce Springsteen, and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, and then the Sessions Band. He keeps going. There’s so many factions to say all the things he wants to say.
The 2009 tour was the last tour with Clarence Clemons. Tell me what it was like to work with him.
I loved my Clarence. I don’t even know what to say about him. Sometimes he’d want me to help him and sometimes he wouldn’t. I’d go over there with him and I’d help him onto the stage. Sometimes he’d say, “I don’t need no help today.” [Laughs] I just loved his soul. I really felt really good with him and the band. It was always so cohesive. It was like, “Oh, my God! I’m so glad to witness this whole thing.” He was so wonderful.
He was in rough physical shape on that tour and you could tell he was hurting, but his spirit was still there. He didn’t miss a single gig. He was determined to be a part of that band until his body just gave out.
It was inspiring. I’d always try and be a shoulder for him to walk on when I saw that he was struggling. When you talk about harmony and love, people come together. That’s it. It has nothing to do with egos. If you don’t need me, it’s alright. But after a while, there was a hydraulic lift on the stage [to help Clarence get off and on]. Bruce was like, “OK, how we going to do this?”
I loved that feeling. Bruce was like, “I want to be there for you. I don’t want anybody else doing anything.” That man loved him so much that he wanted to be there for him.
In 2012, it was a different band with a horn section and Jake.
That’s what Bruce is. Bruce recreates himself all the time. You just have your part of the journey, that’s it.
He gave you a great spotlight moment during “Shackled and Drawn” every night.
When that happened, it was such a pleasure. When we did it in the studio, it was a very small part. It was just the beginning of the song where I went, “I want everyone to stand up and be counted tonight.” That was it. But as the tour went on, it grew and it grew and it grew. I was like, “What? OK!” It became something else and I never knew what it was going to be. That’s the creative mind of Bruce. He was a person that always wanted to challenge people around him, challenge himself. He was always pushing forward and I was glad to be part of that push.
The band was about 17 people near the end of that tour …
You mean 18!
You’re right! That’s a lot of people, but you really locked together as one. It just created an incredible atmosphere.
I had too much fun. Bruce and I would often just laugh together onstage. At some point, Patti would grace us with her time and we loved to have her there. I was always like, “Oh, my gosh, this is so much fun.” And how they shared it. It was wonderful.
To move on here, tell me about Steely Dan. That’s a very different kind of band since they’re so precise onstage.
That’s the wonderful thing about Steely Dan. I love to do different things. And when I’m singing with Steely Dan, it’s not singing very wide. It requires more brains to do that and it really challenges you as a singer.
You’re recreating the sounds from these perfect records.
I love the recordings. When I hear, [sings] “Babylon sisters, shake it!” it’s authentic. It’s singers like Valerie Simpson and I want to honor them. That really meant a lot to me. There’s something authentic there that I want to maintain.
The club tour you did with Nils Lofgren last year must have been a lot of fun.
Believe me, I love Nils. Amy [Lofgren] and Nils mean so much to me. They are really wonderful people that care about me and so much else in this world. I had such a wonderful time with them. They really care and they love deeply.
Do you think the movie 20 Feet From Stardom changed the public’s perceptions of background singers?
You’re coming in on some sensitive territory. But I’ll say this … I don’t know what people think, but I know what our story is. I feel that it’s an ongoing story since there’s so many singers. I’m glad that we had a chance to express ourselves in that movie. It really did enlighten people of where we come from.
I’m glad that people know a little bit more about what it is and where we come from. And dear God, we’re always one job away from not doing it. [Laughs]
It’s a difficult gig. All tours end. Songs are recorded in a matter of days. It’s just forever leaping from one job to another.
The one thing that I want to really interject is that when you’re a professional singer, the thing is that you do studio work, you do live work, and you do whatever work there is. That keeps you prevalent. There’s a lot of singers that are just always in survival mode. Some don’t survive. Others do jingles or whatever they can. That’s a survival mechanism.
When you’re doing 20 Feet From Stardom, it’s not just “I sang background for Steely Dan” or “I sang background for Luther Vandross.” No. You’ve been singing for everybody for a long time. I don’t think that was really conveyed in the movie.
I’m looking at your credits here. It’s quite staggering. You played with so many people and we only got to a few of them. You’re the only person on earth who’s been with the Stones and the E Street Band. I think they’re the two best live acts of all time.
I’m telling you! But I’m always just looking for the next thing. You never know where you’ll be. I’ve been very graced with having worked over the years. It’s served me and my family. I’m so thankful for that.
Speaking of your family, raising two kids who entered the NFL is a pretty amazing accomplishment. Not many people can claim that, either.
That’s another thing! As I was doing this, I was doing that. For some single-minded people who don’t have children, it can be difficult for them to understand.
It’s one thing to be a working parent. It’s another thing to be a working parent who has to go on long European and Australian tours as part of their job.
It was very difficult at times. The longest I was ever away was seven weeks. Sometimes it was easy. Sometimes it wasn’t so easy. But thank God, there was Bart Fuller. He’s their dad and he has been the guy that would pick them up and take them to school. He didn’t live with them, but he took them to school. And then I had nannies in the house and stuff like that. I was like, “OK, I’ll be back on Sunday.”
Your son is probably playing at some of the football stadiums that you sang in with Bruce and the Stones.
I just can’t even believe that!