Her Best Is Yet to Come

An Interview with Paulette McWilliams

by Christian John Wikane

30 April 2014


Where Her Solo Career Really Began...

It seems that your solo career really began shortly thereafter with a single called “Dancin’”…

Yes, that was with Fantasy Records, but this is what really happened. Quincy was going to do something with me but Ralph MacDonald had asked me to work with him on Antisia Music. Quincy got so busy with The Wiz that I went to New York. I was so young. I didn’t know anything about business. I didn’t know I could go to Quincy and say, “Ralph wants me to go with him to New York and do some stuff with him. I know you’re going to be working on The Wiz right now but I want to continue working and singing.” I didn’t ask him if it was okay. I just said, “I’m going to do this.” I should have stayed with Quincy. I didn’t know the gift that I was being given. I actually thought that gift was just going to be there. I didn’t know he would take that personally. Everything I learned, I learned the hard way but, later, Quincy allowed me to come back and continue to work for him on the sessions for Michael Jackson (Off the Wall, 1979). Right after Ralph MacDonald, I ended up with some of the guys that had left Rufus. Fantasy Records wanted to give me a deal and these guys wanted to produce it. I went with them but it wasn’t right. “Dancin’” wasn’t really me. They had me singing it at the top of my range. It’s a great song but it’s not me. Did you hear “Never Been Here Before”?

Yes, I did. There are some great songs on your first solo album (Never Been Here Before, 1977).

I love “Never Been Here Before”. To this day, I would love to do a jazz interpretation of that song.

Actually, I was going to ask you about this. There’s some great stuff on there like Brenda Russell’s “Don’t Let Love Go”. Would you want to revisit any of the songs from your solo debut, like placing them in a jazz context or approaching them differently?

Yes, I love Brenda Russell and I loved “Don’t Let Love Go”. I would also revisit “Just Another Love Story” (2007) that I wrote. There are some songs that were never put out. There’s one called “Looks Like I’m Falling Again”, which I love. I’ve written a lot of songs. I would go to that pile, take a look at those songs, and see if I can put those together in a way that would be interesting. I’ve been working with this piano player named John Beasley and I really want to see if he and I can work on that music.

Why didn’t the solo album do as well as it should have?

No PR. My whole career has been about trial and error. I was naive coming out of the gate. I made mistakes everywhere I turned. I wish I’d had someone before me, but I was the forerunner in my family so I had to learn everything on my own. I think one of my biggest mistakes was not believing in myself enough and recognizing where I was, in the moment. When things were happening, I made decisions based on what I thought I should do instead of what my gut told me to. I thought I would have those same opportunities over and over again. For the solo album, I had people that believed in me, but unfortunately I didn’t have the people that had the money. [laughs].

After the solo record, I went and auditioned for Bette Midler because she was putting the Harlettes together. She took me right away. She said, “You gotta stay!” I was with her for about two years and it was first-class all over Europe. Man, pictures were on the front page of different papers! Doing eight weeks on Broadway (Divine Madness) and just being onstage in a wild production was incredible. That was a real highlight for me. The glamor, the outfits … it was just phenomenal.

What did the experience with Bette Midler teach you?

She taught me so much about showmanship. I learned about how she prepared for a show, what she goes through, the ups and the downs. She’s an incredible artist. I don’t know how she felt about me but I know she knew I could sing. I was hired because I could sing. Before me, she had Charlo Crossley and Sharon Redd and Ula Hedwig, great singers and performers. They were very different, unique-looking ladies with wonderful personalities. I looked good and fit in with the two other Harlettes that were there at the time. Linda Hart was/is an actress-singer. Frannie Eisenberg-McCartney was kind of a comedian-singer-actress. And of course Luther was there.

Ah, so you were a Harlette at the same time that Luther Vandross sang background for Bette Midler.

Yes, that’s how he and I met. When I got on the gig, I had no idea that he was part of it until we started rehearsing. There he was. He would be behind the curtain while we were dancing and singing onstage.

One of the experiences that I’m really excited to speak with you about is you singing with Johnny Mathis on his Different Kinda Different (1980) album. I recently watched that clip of you and Johnny on The Tonight Show, dueting on “Different Kinda Different” and “I’ll Do It All for You”. You looked like you were on cloud nine!

I was! He was so sweet to me. What happened was “Different Kinda Different” and “I’ll Do It All for You” had already been cut with Denice Williams but there was a falling out somewhere. She’s a soprano and I’m an alto. They told me, “The track has been cut. Can you sing it in this key?” I wanted the opportunity. Without any management, I said, “Yes, absolutely.” Had I had management, had I been a star of the same caliber as Denice Williams, I would have said, recut the track and make it in my key. Columbia claimed they loved the songs but they did no PR. They felt they didn’t have to. Because they did nothing, the songs did nothing.


Oh, but they’re such great tracks! You can’t go wrong with Johnny. How is he different from other artists you’ve worked with in the industry?

He’s such a gentleman. So kind and loving. A classy, classy guy. Out of all the celebrities I’ve worked with and I’ve sung solos with, Johnny Mathis and Marvin Gaye treated me the best. Quincy mentored me and also treated me wonderful, but as far as singing onstage with someone, both Johnny and Marvin treated me like royalty. Johnny and I were there in the studio together when we did our duets. Jack Gold who’d produced Barbra Streisand and everyone else, was so complimentary. He said he wanted to do other stuff with me.

You got a gig to tour with Marvin on what would be his last tour. This was the Midnight Love (1982) era.

Yes, I was recording with Luther but I was on the road with Marvin. A woman by the name of Kitty Sears, who was at CBS Records, got in touch with me. She had heard about me and said Marvin was looking for singers. She said, “Marvin will love you.” A few weeks after that, she drove me down to Palm Springs to Marvin’s house. He was in his robe on a sofa. I’ll never forget it. She said, “Who do you have that you can get to sing this with so you guys can do the Grammy show? Then, we’re going to do a tour. You’re gonna hire the background singers …” She’s a fast talker so my head was spinning, but I was just in heaven! Marvin Gaye was someone I grew up loving and I’m about to become his lead contractor for vocals! At the time, I didn’t even know that I was going to do the duets with him. I sang something for him at his house. Kitty called me the next day and said, “Oh he loves you. Get ready. Learn those Tammi Terrell duets.” I did. We had McKinley Jackson who was the orchestra conductor/brilliant musician who was married to one of the Jones Girls. We had Wah Wah Watson and we had the amazing Sheila E.

We held a special audition. I put the word out. I think they even announced on the radio that there was an audition for Marvin Gaye’s background singers. I conducted the whole thing. I ended up hiring Lynn Davis, Cydney Davis, and Freida Woody. We were the four background singers. I choreographed it. I rehearsed them. I helped design the outfits. Of course Marvin’s people paid for all this stuff. Marvin and I started rehearsing the duets. Not only was I going to be doing “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”, where I was still standing with the background singers and they just put a spotlight on me, but then Marvin said, “Paulette baby, I want you to come on down front.” He had me come down front to sing “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You”. He got on his knee and sang to me! We went to Radio City Music Hall, the Greek Theater, Chicago’s McCormick Place. Every major venue in every major city. Everybody talked about Marvin and me. The press notices were phenomenal. It was like a six-month tour. He wanted to produce me, but I knew everything he came up with took him a few years. At the time, I didn’t even know what I wanted for myself, but I feel so blessed to have worked with him. He was really good to me.

So you sang on Luther’s albums but didn’t join Luther on the road until after the tour with Marvin. How did your relationship evolve from the two of you singing with Bette Midler to you singing on his albums and on the road?

From the very moment we met when I was a Harlette, we became singing buddies. When Frannie Eisenberg got married, we went to her wedding. Luther and I sang “Just the Way You Are” as a duet. He was like “Your voice is as buttery as mine!” We loved singing together. He nicknamed me Letty. He said, “You gotta come on the road with me. I’ll let you sing. I’ll let you dance.” Once I got on the road with him in 1984, he did not let me dance — he put me in the pit by myself until 1988. Then he put Cindy Mizelle in the pit with me. You know what’s funny is Luther told all of the other background singers when we were on the road, “Letty sounds the most like me in a female.” The fact that he said that made me feel so good. He wouldn’t give it up like that unless he felt that way. Luther was complimenting the resonance in my voice and it’s all because both my parents had a deep, thick resonance in their voices.

Sadly, both Luther and Marvin died far too young. You also worked with Noel Pointer on his last album, Never Lose Your Heart (1993) before he passed. Did you have a history with him?

No, but once he met me and heard my singing, he hired me to sing “Back to Paradise”. He wanted to do more things with me. I love “Back to Paradise” because I’m singing in my really low register. It’s more my signature. I’m also reaching up to my high register so I’m really using my range, which I love because I don’t get to use my range a lot. Now that I’m singing jazz, of course, I get to use my whole range.

In 2007, you released an album called Flow. From what I understand that was a Japan-only release. How did that project come together?

I wanted to put a record out. I was in Japan doing another kind of a job. I took my music over there with me. I saw this woman over in Japan, an engineer friend of mine who told me to look her up while I was over there. She said, “We’d like to sign you.” It happened that fast. I didn’t have any management. I wrote a lot of songs. I wrote with a writing partner, Anne Herring. I came up with most of the concepts for the songs. She came up the concept for “The Gift” and she and I wrote it together, along with eight other songs.

Tom Scott worked with you on your next solo album, Telling Stories (2012). How long have you known Tom? I know you sang on one of LA Express’ albums (Shadow Play) back in the ‘70s.

I didn’t know Tom at that time. John Guerin called me. He was the drummer for LA Express and he was dating Joni Mitchell. He called me because he loved my voice. Tom and I met after that. He took me to a party for the Blues Brothers. He was a lot of fun back then. The reason we came back together again is I came back to LA at the end of 2006. He reached out to me because I was doing my jazz at a club called the Vic. That’s how we met up again. It turned into something where he wanted to help me with my jazz career.

You did a couple of duets with Will Downing (“Too Hot”) and Bobby Caldwell (“You Go to My Head”) on Telling Stories. What facilitated their involvement?

I was looking for someone to do a duet with me. Someone suggested Will. I think it was Cliff Gorov, who’s a radio guy. He said, “Why don’t you do ‘Too Hot’?” I thought it would be unique to do a duet with “Too Hot”. My friend David Wilkes was really trying to help me. He was Vice President of KOCH Records. He told me he knew Will Downing. I told him that Will and his wife Audrey Wheeler are friends of mine. David asked Will if he would do a duet with me and he said absolutely. Will was so sweet. I just love our voices together because they’re both so thick. I’m so grateful to him. The executive producer of Telling Stories, Dennis D’Amico, is another person who did everything he could to make that record happen. He knew Bobby Caldwell and he was the one who spoke to Bobby Caldwell. Bobby heard my voice and said, “Absolutely!” That was amazing. He’s so funky and so talented. I love his voice.

One song on the album that is a really intriguing choice for a cover is Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Bille Joe”. What does that song mean to you?

I love that song because I recognize the characters. “Papa said to Mama as he passed around the black-eyed peas”. It’s got that country vibe but at the same time, it’s so bluesy. It’s a good story. If I wasn’t a jazz artist, I’d be a country artist. If “Ode to Bille Joe” hit big, I swear I would do a country record in a heartbeat. A lot of the country songs have great stories.

Yes, and the song definitely fits into the whole Telling Stories album concept. Tell me about writing “Life Is the Fountain” with Tom Harrell. That’s definitely a standout on the album.

I love Tom Harrell and his beautiful mind. When I see him play, I’m so drawn into him because, to me, that’s where his power is. He’s just brilliant. I asked his wife if he had any tracks. The way he plays music and the way he approaches it is just so melodic and beautiful. I just wanted to write something, I knew that. I wasn’t even sure if I’d be able to. She sent “Fountain” with some other tracks. I thought, “This is the one.” I came up with the melody. He had the chords. Everything was right there. It just flowed out of me. I sat in my living room chair and grabbed my tape recorder. Then I grabbed my pad of paper and the lyrics just started flowing from me. Within 15 minutes, the song was written. I kept singing it over and over. I put it on a tape for Tom. I sent it to him and then he called me up, which is not something he usually does because his wife takes all the calls. He called me up, “Paulette. This is Tom. I love what you did with my song.” I’m telling you, the rush of tears that come to your eyes when you know something has touched someone … It came from nowhere. It’s so unexpected. He told me he loved it. I can’t wait to make that song as big as I can make it. It went over really well at Joe’s Pub. I was so pleased.

What I also loved about the Joe’s Pub show was watching your rapport with Nat Adderley, Jr. You play off each other so well. When did you meet?

My relationship with Nat goes as far back as Luther. I met Nat because he was Luther’s Musical Director. When Luther had me do my first session with him, Nat was there. That’s when we first met. We’ve been friends ever since. We’re like sister and brother. I love him so much. When he gets to the stage he lets everybody know, “That’s my sister right there!”

I thought it was very significant that you did the show at Joe’s Pub on January 3, because that’s the beginning of a new year, which is full of new possibilities. What do you envision for 2014?

I’m claiming it — and I’m trying to not have the fear when I claim it — that this is my year. Two plus zero plus one plus four adds up to seven, and my favorite number has always been seven, so I feel like this year will be the year that turns the tide of my life. Whether it be through default or ignorance, my life has been a life of so much struggle, of trying to get somewhere. This year I realize that I’m already there. I’m already who I am. It’s just time and I’m grateful.

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