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 Tawatha Agee.
Tawatha Agee always keeps a suitcase packed and ready to go at her home in Orange, New Jersey. That’s because the veteran backup singer never knows when an urgent call will send her rushing out the door, whether it’s to a one-off gig with Stevie Wonder or Roger Waters, a world tour with Bryan Ferry, a quick stint on Saturday Night Live, or even the occasional TV special like Bill Murray’s Very Murray Christmas.
This has been Agee’s life for the past 45 years, during which time she’s worked with everyone from Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen to Luther Vandross, Aretha Franklin, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, Don Henley, Teddy Pendergrass, Roxy Music, Diana Ross, and too many others to mention. She also sings lead on the 1983 Mtume classic “Juicy Fruit,” one of the most sampled songs in hip-hop history, used most famously by the Notorious B.I.G. on “Juicy.”
The huge success of “Juicy Fruit” gave her a brief taste of fame, and she did release a solo LP in 1987, but Agee says she’s always preferred life away from spotlight. “Whether I worked with Lenny [Kravitz] or Steely Dan or Dave Matthews, David Bowie, whoever, I just loved being in the background,” she says. “That’s just my personality. I like making sure the section is right, that the notes are right. I make sure that we are supporting whoever the artist is. For me, that’s major.”
We phoned up Agee to hear how she went from singing in her New Jersey church to recording studios, stadiums, and arenas all over the globe.
How was your pandemic year?
My pandemic year was quiet, awkward, just too distant from everyone else. I’m glad we’re coming out of it. I wish I could say, “Oh, it was such a productive year and I did this, that, and the third.” But I did one major, major job, which was really cool, but I can’t even talk about. But that was it. It was a time of introspective soul-searching and “What am I going to do?” and “What’s the next thing going to be?” and “Will I ever get out of this?”
For 45 years, your life has really been about singing to live audiences.
Yes. And traveling and doing records and jingles and TV shows and tours. Then, all of a sudden, all that got shut down. I was like, “OK, let’s think about what my next phase of my life is going to be now that everything stopped.” But it didn’t just stop for me. It stopped for everyone.
We do seem to be at the end of it now.
Yeah. Thank goodness for that.
I want to go back and talk about your life. Tell me your first memory of hearing music as a child that really reached you.
Oh, my goodness. Music was always playing in my house. It must have been some sort of gospel song or another. We were always attending church. I was there singing. I don’t know what I was singing, but I was singing. And then I sang with my father as a youngster. It had to be some sort of gospel music.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Newark, New Jersey.
Tell me your first memory of hearing pop music that you really dug.
Since I was an avid listener of the radio, I would listen to Cousin Brucie, who was on WABC in New York. Then I would listen to WNEW. They would play Tony Bennett and Anthony Newley and Frank Sinatra. I really liked Anthony Newley for some reason. [Laughs] On the other side, I knew all the R&B songs. All the songs on the radio, I knew. I was constantly listening. That was probably Aretha since that was more church-like to my ear. I would say it would definitely be Aretha or Gladys [Knight].
Did you see any concerts as a youngster that really reached you?
We didn’t go out much; we only went to church. But the first concert I went to, I saw the original Temptations in Cherry Hill. I mean, the original. I mean, oh, my goodness. It was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen since I had never seen a live performance with a full band and the choreography and the harmonies.
We’re talking David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks and …
Yes. And Paul Williams was there. This was the original Temptations. They’re the only group [that] whenever they change the singer, whoever succeeded whoever left was just as good. Only in the Temptations!
That’s right. I’d never thought of it like that, but Paul Williams to David Ruffin to Dennis Edwards …
Yeah. There’s also Ali-Ollie Woodson.
When did you start singing yourself?
I’ve been singing since I was about three years old. That’s because there was always singing around. My parents were listening to the Ink Spots or Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls and their gospel groups. Music was always around. Always.
When did you start realizing you had talent?
That was in church since I eventually started playing the piano for the junior choir, the children’s choir. I did that and that got me a little change. I did that and still listened to all the gospel, all the music, all the Tony Bennetts and the Cousin Brucies and the R&B stuff. I listened to all that and tried to incorporate that into what I was doing with the kids.
I know you met Cissy Houston later, but did you know the Houston family growing up?
Cissy Houston gave me my first voice lesson. I was in elementary school and I told the high school principal that I was going to audition for this show called The Ted Mack Amateur Hour, which was sort of like American Idol, but a local thing. Gladys Knight had been on that show as a little girl. It had been around a long time.
The principal suggested I see the woman down the street who sang. It just so happened to be Cissy Houston. She gave me some tips on how to audition for the TV show. It just so happened that years later, I would meet her working with Luther on sessions.
Did you know Whitney as a child?
No. I did not know Whitney. A couple of times we did sessions and Whitney would come to the studio to meet her mother. She was modeling at the time. After the session, she’d come to the studio. We met her and it was like, “Hey, everyone, this is Nippy.” We were like, “Hey, Nippy!” And then we went on singing.
Did your parents encourage you as a singer? I’m sure they realized it wasn’t the easiest way to make money.
No. That wasn’t the way to earn money. The way to earn money was to earn your education and become a teacher. [Laughs] I was like, “OK, I’ll do that.” And it just so happened that I went to Howard University in the College of Fine Arts. I got my degree in education and then I met James Mtume. He and his partner were looking for a group to produce. One of our instructors at Howard introduced us. Angela Winbush was in group then and Richard Smallwood, who is a very famous gospel artist now. And there was Shelton Becton, who is Audra McDonald’s music director.
We had a group. And Mtume and Reggie [Lucas] came down to listen. They liked us and we did some demos for CBS. That didn’t turn out to be anything, but I stayed in touch with Mtume since we happened to live in the same town. He said, “When you come home from school, call me.” And I did. He said, “I’m going to put a group together. Would you like to be part of the group?”
I was like, “I’ve never done that before.” And even though I liked music, it wasn’t like I went to concerts or went to shows to see people, but I knew I loved music. I said, “Yeah.” And it was the first group I’d ever worked with, professionally. That was Mtume.
The first Mtume record is pretty incredible. There’s soul and funk and disco and everything in between.
Yeah. The Mtume band was Miles Davis’ band. That was also the band for Roberta Flack. When they did the Mtume band record, you had all these great musicians. That’s why there’s such a great combination of music on that first album.
Tell me about singing “The Closer I Get to You.” It was already a hit for Roberta Flack when your version came out.
Yeah. That was one of my favorites. I was like, “I get a chance to sing this song that Roberta Flack has sung. Oh, my God — this is great.” But we did it our way. It was slightly different. I enjoyed doing that.
I don’t know if you know this, but with Mtume/Lucas productions, they got a production deal and were producing a lot of people. I had to do the reference vocals for a lot of artists. I would sing the song so they could hear what the song would sound like. That was a lot of fun. I just pretended it was my record before I did this.
Tell me about the band’s live show. It was must have been incredible.
You would not believe how amazing that show was. First of all, the costuming was amazing. The band members were all stellar. This was before Facebook and before social media. Someone would just have to be there with a camera. There’s no documentation of that. But the band performances were stellar. It was so amazing and so colorful. And the music … we’d always have the people on their feet. It was amazing.
What we did, which I thought every band did, was this … Everyone had a jazz background, and so everything was improvisational. We knew what the song would be, the basic formula of it, but the intro would be different every night. You really had to be on your toes. And it always went to another groove. We’d sing the basic song, but then it went into another groove and everyone would be on their feet. It was amazing.
When I went to work with other people, I was like, “You sing the same songs every night and you sing the same way?” I didn’t understand that since I came from something else.
Why did you think the band didn’t get bigger? There was so much talent there and a band like Chic was doing something pretty similar and having huge success in that time.
Well, you know what? It just wasn’t supposed to be. But the band was successful and everyone in it did something else. It wasn’t like the band broke up. We had a few successful albums. And we had successful tours. But everybody was doing their own thing. The band was just one vehicle, an outlet. Each production that was done was just a project. And Mtume/Lucas would say, “OK, this record is coming up. We need material.” And everyone would submit material and it got very competitive. The best songs would go on the project coming up. It was very interesting.
By the second record, it was a different lineup.
That’s because Mtume would always say, “When the music changes, you have to change the band.” Everybody didn’t stay. People went on. The sound was becoming different and and he wanted different players for different sounds. The only person consistently there was me.
How did you start working as a background singer in this time?
Well, I did the work with Mtume/Lucas productions. They had me hire all the singers for all the albums. I was called a contractor. I would call Luther Vandross and Gwen Guthrie to come and sing on the records. It was like, “Who is this kid calling up and asking if I’m available for a job?” I was a new girl on the job.
I got to do that, and people loved that sound that Mtume got for the production. And so other people wanted a similar sound on their projects, so they’d call me. That’s how I got jobs as a background singer.
Tell me about learning how to sing backup. It’s a different skill set than learning to sing lead in a group like Mtume.
Well, I always wanted to do background vocals. Always, always. That’s all I wanted to do. I never wanted to be out front because I like the support effect. I was always in the band and the band was there as support for me, and I wanted to be that for other people. And when projects came up, I’d have ideas for what the background vocals should sound like. And Mtume/Lucas let me try out whatever I wanted to do. And more than half the time, it worked. [Laughs.]
Since I was the only real singer with Mtume/Lucas, I got a chance to hire the people that I wanted to hear on the records. I was always listening to music. I read liner notes all the time, so I knew who was singing on what. I was like, “I can get these people to sing with us. That’ll be great.”
Tell me about first meeting Luther Vandross.
The first meeting with Luther, I hired him to sing on a session for Mtume/Lucas. And we got along famously. He said, “If I have some jobs coming up, I’ll call you.” That’s what he did. And he also called me to sing on his demo for his first album on Epic, Never Too Much. I sang the demo on that, Phillip Ballou and myself. And he liked it so much he kept it on “Never Too Much,” “Don’t You Know That,” and “You Stopped Loving Me.” He kept the demo vocals from those three songs and put them on the album.
He had such an inherent sense of harmony and vocal blend.
He was the master. He was the master at that because he knew exactly what he wanted to hear and who could do it. He would call the people he thought could do the job. And fortunately, I was there a good 80 to 85 percent of the time. The only album I didn’t sing on for Luther was when “Juicy Fruit” came out and I had to tour with Mtume.
Tell me about Luther. I know he was very private about his personal life, but it seems like his band and background singers became a family of sorts for him.
Absolutely. That was family for all of us. We got the call for a record, which was usually the beginning of a year, it was like, “OK, we’re getting ready for Luther.” It was more fun than it was work. It just turned out to be so great. Who knew it would stand the test of time? He was so much fun to work with. We did more laughing than singing, but it always came out great. I miss Luther terribly. I just wonder what his career would be like today.
That’s partially because of his showmanship! In addition to his talent, his showmanship was amazing. Nobody has done that since. No one has replaced Teddy Pendergrass. Nobody has replaced Luther.
I want to talk about a few records you made in the early days. Do you recall working on the J. Geils Band record Freeze Frame?
Yes. As a matter of fact, Luther called me for that. And Cissy too. We sang on that. That was great. As a matter of fact, I ran into them many years later on the Letterman show. I think the lead singer was there, Peter Wolf. I was like, “Wait a minute, I know you.” And he was like, “I remember you, Tawatha.”
How did you wind up on the Roxy Music tour in 1982?
Fonzi Thornton called me. He was singing with Bryan and he said, “Fonzi, we need a couple of girls.” And so Fonzi called Michelle Cobbs and myself.
How much did you know about Roxy Music before that?
When I first met Bryan Ferry, I knew absolutely nothing about Roxy Music. All I knew is that when we traveled with them, everyone in the audience had on the same thing that Bryan had on. I was like, “He must be really popular.” But the show was King Crimson, Roxy Music, and Adrian Belew. It was like, “Oh, my God!” And I didn’t know who anybody was! [Laughs] They didn’t play that on WABC.
You’re suddenly, out of nowhere, in this world of British prog and glam.
Oh, my God. Let me tell you. He had us dressing up like Marilyn Monroe. He had the fans and the dresses would blow up like she when she was over the subway grate. That’s a major production, and that was my first tour.
What’s it like to suddenly be on private jets and playing arenas?
Listen, this is the running joke with Fonzi and myself. When I got to the hotel room, I called Fonzi and said, “I think they gave me Bryan’s room.” It was larger than my apartment in East Jersey. He said, “No, everyone’s room is like that.” He was the professional and I was the newbie. I was like, “OK, I can really get used to this.”
I love the version of “Like a Hurricane” you did on that tour.
Oh, yeah. The show was amazing. In the early days, Andy Newmark was the drummer, Jimmy Maelen was percussionist. The music was so amazing and so different that I just soaked it all up.
To go back a bit, tell me about singing “So Close” with Diana Ross.
With Diana Ross, that was the session that Cissy was on. I think that Nile [Rodgers] and Bernard [Edwards] did that. And meeting Miss Ross was like meeting Aretha Franklin, Miss Franklin. It was like, “Miss Franklin, nice to meet you. Let’s go sing and do what we have to do.”
And tell me about meeting Aretha Franklin when you sang on Jump to It.
The queen! The queen! The queen! First off, Luther did the track, and so we were on it. We didn’t see Aretha. She wasn’t there for that. I met her later, and she wanted the same singers that were on the Luther track to work for her. That’s what we did. And so I worked with Aretha for about 10 years.
Tell me about that.
The queen. Let me tell you, she earned that title. She really was a queen. To work with her, just to be standing near the piano, was amazing. I had posters of Aretha on my wall when I was in college. To realize that I’m standing five feet from her, was like, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe I’m here with my queen. I’m standing here with my idol.” And of course you want to do the best you can. It’s like, she’s the queen. And if you don’t do it, you’ll get replaced.
She was known for being particular about the sounds she wanted, but she certainly earned that right.
Absolutely. She was very particular. Sometimes she would sing me to tears. I’d be listening to her and tears would be running down my eyes. She sounded so amazing and she played so beautifully. I couldn’t ask for anything more. I was like, “How is it possible that the woman on the walls of my dorm room is so close to me right now?” That was an amazing thing.
But she wanted what she wanted and we gave her what she wanted. The thing with Aretha was that she didn’t just have one set of singers. She had sets of singers from different places. She had her Chicago singers, her L.A. singers. I was part of her New York singers. And so whenever she was on the East Coast, she’d call her New York singers.
To jump ahead a bit, you recorded “Juicy Fruit” on the Roxy Music tour, right?
You’re exactly right. I was on tour with Roxy Music and Mtume called me and said, “We’ve got one more song to do.” I had some time off and I came back to New Jersey from England, and did “Juicy Fruit.” And then I went back to England and Mtume would tell me how the record was doing. He was first like, “It’s at Number 70 on the Billboard 100.” I was like, “Oh, wow.” And then it was 50, 20, 10. Then he goes, “You’re not going to believe this, but the song is Number One.” I was like, “Oh, my God.”
We were still on tour with Roxy Music. They were playing at Radio City [in March 1983] and they would play “Juicy Fruit” during the intermission. I was like, “These are the nicest people ever.” They played it over and over and over again. [Laughs.]
How did it feel to have a Number One hit on the R&B chart? That’s a pretty amazing thing.
Like I said, Mtume was the only band I was ever in. I knew our music would be recognized eventually, and finally it was. And for it to be Number One for so long … it was like eight weeks at Number One. I couldn’t go outside. Everyone knew I was in Mtume. They’d see the bus pull up to the house after we would do a gig. I’m coming out with my bags and be like, “Hey!” People would call me “Juicy.” When it was playing on the radio, they’d turn it up real loud. “Juicy Fruit” was the people’s song since the record company didn’t want it to be a single.
The group broke up just three years later.
I wouldn’t say that the group broke up. I would say that the group faded away because everyone started doing something else. Hubert Eaves was with D-Train. And Basil [Fearrington] did his jazz. Everybody had other projects that they wanted to do. Music was changing. The beat was changing. It was just the time. And all that time, I’m still working. I’m doing record dates and I’m starting to do the jingles since they wanted to hear a more “urban” sound in their work and they’d go, “Call that girl that sang ‘Juicy.'” And so they’d call me. I couldn’t turn that down!
I’m sure it was good money.
Absolutely. As a matter of fact, Luther asked me to go on tour with him. I was like, “Luther, I can’t do it because the jingles are too …” I was doing too many jingles. I was doing spots that went on the air and stayed on the air. But he came from jingles too. He understood.
Let’s talk about some of the jingles. I was just watching the Burger King one with Shaq.
[Laughs] Oh, my God, you saw that? The Burger King one with Shaq! There was also Dunkin’ Donuts and Maybelline and Kentucky Fried Chicken … Everything. Soda, Coca-Cola, cat chow. That’s when airlines had jingles. I did a lot of those. It was really good. [Laughs] That’s all I can say … shampoos, Pepto-Bismol, coffee …
Was it weird to watch TV and suddenly hear yourself singing about cat food?
Yeah. It’s like you can’t turn to someone and say, “Oh, my God, I’m singing.” They’ll look at you like you’re crazy. You couldn’t even say anything. But I had a Weight Watchers campaign. They played that thing so much. I was like, “Oh, my gosh, that’s me.” You can’t say that to people that don’t do that kind of work. It’s like a little quiet secret that you keep to yourself.
In 1987, you made Welcome to My Dream, your solo record.
Right. Now, the solo record, which I think sold five copies, and it was all to people in my family, that was just another project. That’s what we did. We did projects. It was a production project. And when we did that, I was still working with other people. It’s like, “You want to do a solo project? Fine.” If it had something, fine. If not, I’m going to the next job. That’s how I handled that. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I want to be a star now.”
But did you like the experience of having an album where it was just you? Was it weird?
Ummm … No. It wasn’t weird. It was just another project. I’m so used to singing reference vocals for everybody else. I was like, “OK, this time it’s for me.” And I did get an opportunity to sing those songs recently. You see these shows where there are like 20 people on the show and you see Niecy Williams, Evelyn “Champagne” King, the Delfonics … I was on a couple of those shows back in maybe 2018. And that was interesting, but it was like, “OK, that’s cool.” And all you needed was a track. You didn’t even need a band. It was a big track date in an arena, and they were always sold out. I did get a chance to sing a couple of songs from my solo record, but people just wanted to hear “Juicy Fruit.” [Laughs.]
You worked with Eric Clapton on his Journeyman album.
Oh, yes. The producer on that was Russ Titelman. Great guy. He was like, “Want to sing on this record?” I was like, “Sure, who is it?” “Eric Clapton.” “Are you kidding me?” It was fun. Great memories.
You’re on the song “Breaking Point.”
Yeah. Great memories. I also worked with Scritti Politti and this group Chromeo from Canada. I loved it. I love what I do because I can still do it.
And then you were with Cinderella on “Sick for the Cure.” That’s your one hair-metal credit that I see.
That was different. [Laughs] You want to get a chance to do a lot of different things, and that was one of them. That was one of them. [Laughs.]
Then you were with David Bowie on Black Tie White Noise.
Oh, my God! David Bowie! Such a gentleman! Oh, my God. I loved working with him. We did his promotional tour for that. He was just a lovely man, and his wife Iman would come and give us all these fattening foods. She said, “Oh, no, I can’t eat that. You can.” They were so sweet.
He’s like Luther in some ways. He had so much presence when he walked into a room, and he really understood how to do a stage show.
I wish that would have done something more so I could have been out with him. I did perform with him and it was great. He went all the way. He didn’t do anything halfway.
It must have been great to see him work with Nile Rodgers. They were an amazing team.
With Nile, I had done quite a bit with him. I did Stevie Ray Vaughan with him and Ric Ocasek. He was married to Paulina Porizkova. I was like, “Is that the model?” [Laughs] I was like, “Oh, my God!” We did that at Skyline Studios in New York City.
Tell me about Stevie Ray Vaughan.
It was he and his brother. The record was called Family Style. When the record came out, that’s when the helicopter crash had happened. The record company made him do an album right away, sort of like to capitalize on his brother’s death. We were there singing and we did the video. It was really sad. I know business is business, but that was not cool at all. The brother was like, “Oh, man. I don’t believe I’ve got to do this.”
How about Celine Dion on her song “I Don’t Know”?
That was something she had done with R. Kelly. Was it a Christmas song? I remember there was a big group of people. I remember this combo because the union … I’m really big with AFTRA. They were like, “You can only get paid for one artist.” You couldn’t get paid for both artists. I was like, “What kind of sense does that make?” And so it was like, “No, no, no.” But she was lovely. Was R. Kelly there? I don’t even remember.
You’re also on Bob Dylan’s cover of “Ring of Fire.”
You’re bringing back memories! I think that was with Arif Mardin. He was like, “This is Bob.” And he was so quiet. He didn’t say a word. [Laughs] He didn’t say one word. I was like, “OK …” I guess all that music was floating around in his head. He couldn’t speak, or something. But we’re there to work. We weren’t there to chit-chat.
Let’s get to Dave Matthews Band’s Before These Crowded Streets.
Love, love, love, love them. If you want to work with a band, that’s the band to work with, outside of Mtume, of course. They are my number two. Working with them was like being on a spa vacation. I really love them because they were very improvisational too. They had the violin player, which was really odd to have in a pop band. The combination of instruments that they used, I really loved. Everyone was really, really nice.
Dave is one of the coolest guys on the planet. He gave me the liberty to do vocal arrangements on his songs. It was like, “Oh, thank you, Dave.” We worked together as a team since they never had singers before. They always just sang themselves, so they were trying something new. We came out to sing on the song “Stay.” It was just one song. They were performing at the Meadowlands at the time. We did one song. We had a bus by ourselves. It was like, “Why can’t we just be on the bus with the other people?” But we had our own bus for one song.
I told Dave, “You know we can do more than one song.” And then it turned into two and three, and then two years’ worth of touring. And then maybe 10 years later, he calls me back. “Tawatha, can you get some girls together? We’re going to get the Lovely Ladies back together.” I was like, “OK!” And for two more summers, I did Dave Matthews again.
There’s so much love in the audience at those shows. The crowd knows every single song.
In 1999 and 2000, you would see families out there. By the time I saw him 10 years later, you saw grandparents and the grandkids out there, being fans, all together, screaming for Dave Matthews. It was amazing.
Most background singers don’t have the freedom he gave you.
That’s true. He let us go. Of course, if it was going in the wrong direction, he’d be like, “No, go down the other street. You’re going down the wrong street.”
But the whole band, Dave, Carter [Beauford], Stefan [Lessard] … all of them, great, great guys. And they gave us whatever we wanted, whatever we needed. We had the private chef. We had the trainer. We had our own bus. It was like, “My God, what is this?” It was a spa vacation, and you’re singing songs you like. In fact, when I was there, the Roots were the opening band. He would come out every night and introduce the Roots. He said, “This group is going to be huge.” And they were.
Tell me about singing with Beyoncé.
She sang with Luther on “The Closer I Get to You.” I sang on that.
That was right before his stroke. That must have been devastating.
Oh, my God, yes. We were working like the week before. As a matter of fact, the day he get the stroke, Fonzi and I were working Letterman, and he got the call that Luther was in the hospital. It was devastating to everybody. I just miss him so much. I always wonder what his career would be like now. Would he be the superstar that he was, or would fans forget about him?
I think he’d be out there and playing places like Radio City.
He’d always be able to work. He’d have a residency in Vegas or something like that. People still want to see that glamour in a show, as opposed to having 10,000 dancers and a marching band. They want that glamour.
Tell me about hooking up with Steely Dan and making Everything Must Go.
When I was coming up, I loved “Aja” and “Peg” and “Deacon Blues” since I’d heard them on the radio. I was like, “One day, I’m going to sing with those people.” I never told anyone that, but one day, all of a sudden, I got a call from Cindy Mizelle, who was working with them, and one of the girls was getting married. They needed someone to fill in for her, so I filled in for Carolyn Leonhart. I stayed there for, like, two tours. And then I sang on Walter’s album [Circus Money] and did a couple more tours.
It’s a very different experience than singing with Dave Matthews. They’re very particular about the vocals.
With Steely Dan, it had to be absolutely … there were no liberties. Everything was like it was supposed to be. But if you’re a fan of Steely Dan, you understand that. I’d have my ear to the speaker of the radio just trying to get the parts before I even worked with them.
A song like “My Old School” was perfect on the record. You just want to recreate that as closely as you can.
Oh, yeah. You know what? That’s an art within itself, especially with Steely Dan. You can’t go outside of the line with Steely Dan. Those charts are to be followed.
You’re on three songs on Everything Must Go. I imagine the same thing is true in the studio and they’re very clear on exactly what they want.
Very clear. They didn’t do vocals like everyone else where everyone goes up to the mic and sings. It was like, “One note at a time. One phrase at a time.” They wanted it like they wanted it. Scritti Politti was actually like that too. It was like, “Why can’t we just go in here and sing and be in and out?” But no. It was one person at a time, one phrase at a time. And then they’d put it all together.
You’re on Bruce Springsteen’s song “Heaven’s Wall.” Tell me about that.
That was another one of those, “Don’t tell anyone you got the call.” [Laughs] It was real hush-hush. I was like, “What’s the big deal?” [Laughs] For me, it was just another job. You go and do your job and go home. But it was like, “Sign a waiver and don’t mention this.” I was like, “OK, OK.” You know what? I never even heard the finished product. What’s it called again?
“Heaven’s Wall.” You sing “Raise your hand, raise your hand, raise your hand …”
Right. I’ll need to check that out.
Tell me about touring with Lenny Kravitz.
Lenny! Lenny! I love Lenny. How did I get that job? Uh … I can’t remember if it was a tour. … I think it was a record date. All I know is I did these tours with Lenny and it was so different, but everybody was super cool. Of course, he was. He didn’t have his dreads anymore. He had another hairstyle. It was straightened. He had a woman doing his hair.
He was surrounded by beauty, I’ll put it like that. He was always surrounded by beautiful women. But when it came time to play, it was like, “OK, let’s do this.” The man works like there’s no tomorrow. You gotta rehearse, you gotta be on time, and just know the parts. I was like, “OK!” And you wear these crazy costumes. I was like, “I can do this, Lenny. This is cool.”
He knew my music history because he knew about Mtume and “Juicy Fruit” and my work with Luther. He’s a music aficionado. He knows all that stuff. He knew my history when I got there. I was like, “OK, you’re trying to do something different now.” His vocals were never quite that choral when I got there. I knew “American Woman” and “Thinking of You.” But Lenny was totally cool. As a matter of fact, I sang on his album with the red cover where it looks like he’s in a tub of blood [Baptism].
He had another idea for some vocals for another project, so he had us go to his place in the Bahamas and we stayed there for a week and did another album down there. I don’t know if he ever used any of those songs, but it was fun working with Lenny. That was something else.
And you sang with Roger Waters at the 12/12/12 concert.
Oh, my God, that was amazing. Eddie Vedder was there. His voice was so amazing. I just couldn’t believe how beautiful his voice was. And I had heard … I knew who Roger Waters was and I knew Eddie Vedder, but to actually know that you sang with them was another story. That was a great thing for me.
The concert was a fundraising event and Springsteen was there and Kanye West was there. Everybody had their bands. And Kanye West came out with just a DJ and him onstage. He had on a kilt, or something. It was like, “OK, Kanye. That’s cool.” But the 12/12/12 concert, it was just an honor to participate in that. It’s Roger Waters, man. Oh, my God. It was amazing.
You were part of Bill Murray’s Very Murray Christmas special.
My first film! That was fun. The film thing is … wow, that’s a lot. It’s a lot of “Hurry up and wait” and “Sit and wait.” I was like, “I’d rather do records.” That’s because of the time thing. I’m not used to sitting there and waiting. But Mr. Murray was very nice. The cast and everyone was nice. We were at this great hotel. It was cool. And I got a chance to see it. I was like, “Oh, my God, look at me.” I was a waitress in a bar or something. It was interesting.
For SNL performances, how far in advance do you get booked for that?
For SNL, they always know who is going to be there. You might get a call on Tuesday. If they have to rehearse or they’re doing skits or something, you may have to come in on a Thursday. But on Saturday, you’re there all day. It’s like 10:30 a.m. to 1:00 a.m.
What’s that like?
I loved it. After a while, they would always call us if there was a choral thing to do. You just need robes and you go in and sing the part. But it came to the point where I became a booth singer, which meant I would be supporting part of a group of singers in a booth, supporting whatever the skits were. Sometimes you hear the characters singing and we’d be supporting the characters in a particular skit. I really liked that. I prefer that. We did Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jennifer Lopez. We did Taraji P. Henson, but that was on camera. But most of them were off-camera. I prefer that since you don’t have to go into hair and makeup. You could go in with your pajamas and nobody would ever notice.
Was it the same deal with Letterman?
For that, Paul Shaffer would call a day or two in advance. Early on, they’d call and send me a cassette of whatever the person was singing. After a while, they’d just send MP3s.
Is it right that you wound up on the recent Bryan Ferry tour after bumping into him at Letterman?
Yeah. I hadn’t seen him in years. I don’t know if Paul knew that Fonzi and I had sung with Bryan before or if it was a surprise, but he didn’t say anything like that. We just ran into Bryan in the hallway and he was like, “Fonzi! Tawatha!” And then after that, he goes, “We’re doing these dates in the U.S. Can you do these dates?” We were like, “Sure!” Then he goes, “I’m doing this other world thing.”
My life has been … I’ve never had a business card or a business manager. My work was always from word of mouth. If I ever had to leave a place, I always left so I could come back. I always leave on friendly terms with whoever I work with. It’s a business. It’s a straight-up business.
The Bryan Ferry tour must have been a weird déjà vu for you. You’re doing these same Avalon songs, but it’s all these years later.
The same songs from 1981, I was singing in 2019. I was like, “Wow!” But the audience is still there. The audience loves him. He’s very theatrical with that glam-rock thing. It was like David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, that kind of thing. It was always the glam and the drama of the whole thing. People love it. They ate that stuff up.
Going through Europe must have been fun.
I love that. I love to travel. It was like my first tour all over again, but this time I knew I’d get a big room. [Laughs.]
And you got another chance to sing with Roxy Music when they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
I was honored to have that opportunity. I got a standing ovation for doing the “Avalon” solo. I was like, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe this. This is crazy.” It was 40 years later and in the same key, oh my God. [Laughs.]
You also sang with Aretha Franklin in the final years of her life.
We did the last performance. She did Elton John’s AIDS benefit and I knew it was going to be the last one. She could still sing, but she was very frail. The voice was still there. I couldn’t understand how the voice was still there. She was very frail, but she came out and did what she had to do.
It’s amazing that she never acknowledged she had cancer or was really even sick. She figured it was nobody’s business.
That’s it. That’s the way it was. She never said anything to anybody that she was sick, but you could see the gradual progression of whatever it was. When I first started with her, she was a very, very … uh … hefty woman. By the last show, it was like, “Oh … there won’t be many shows after this.” It was something to watch. On the last show, her music director said, “We know you haven’t seen her in a while. Don’t be shocked when you see her.” It was like, “Oh, my God, what is he talking about?”
And then you could see how frail she was. But she was still dressed to the nines. She had on her heels. Her hair was done. She was ready for the show. And she still sounded amazing. But she was very frail.
And we sang at the homegoing service. We were there for 12 hours. There were a lot of performers there, but she wanted her singers there and we were all there.
What were your last projects before the pandemic hit?
My last thing was coming off the road from the Bryan Ferry tour. That was 2019. I had one project in 2020, but I’m not supposed to speak about it and it hasn’t come out yet. I don’t know if it’s going to be released in theaters or on streaming services. It’s a soundtrack. But I have done this thing called Pass the Mic with DJ Cassidy. That came out on Mother’s Day.
And in June, I’m being honored by the Women Songwriters Hall of Fame. I’m receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award in music. That’s a nice topper.
Any plans for next year?
Mtume and I are working on some music. I want to put an EP out. It’s music that I want to sing. It’s not necessarily commercial. And wait a minute, I did something a year or so ago with a DJ called Aeroplane. He had a song out called “Love on Hold” that I sang on. It did very well. He’s an international DJ. I might do a few more things like that, but for right now, Mtume and I are going to go into the studio and do a few songs for an EP.
It’s amazing that you’re still close with him all these years later.
Oh, yeah. This is a person that I’ve spoken to just about every day since 1976. [Laughs] We’re really good friends after all these years.
Who haven’t you sung with that you want to?
I would love to sing something with Bonnie Raitt, but she doesn’t use females. I would love to do something with Kendrick Lamar. To Pimp a Butterfly was so amazing. He used so many types of people on the project. But oh, my God, if he could just do that again, give me a call. [Laughs.]
How do you feel about all the “Juicy Fruit” samples that have turned up everywhere?
You know what? I absolutely love it. They need to get permission to use it, that’s all. Go through the proper channels, don’t just take it. Because in the beginning, people would just take samples. You can’t do that. Let’s be very business-like. You have to ask permission and you work out whatever deal. That’s because “Juicy Fruit” is one of the most sampled songs in hip-hop.
The Notorious B.I.G. brought it to a whole new audience.
Exactly. That was 10 years later, so an entirely new generation of people are hearing it. And then other people are sampling it, so new people are hearing it all the time. It’s a song that will never, ever die.
Do you see yourself ever retiring, or are you going to just sing until your voice gives out?
Well, I say that I’m retired now, but I keep singing. I think I’ll just keep singing until I can’t sing anymore. [Laughs] Until someone tells me, “You need to sit down. You don’t have it anymore.”
I’m sure that’s years away.
So far, so good. That’s all I can say. I’ve been enjoying the ride, and I plan on continuing to enjoy it. As long as I can, I will sing.