Anyone with a pulse has heard the voice of Paulette McWilliams. Those inclined to inspect liner notes have certainly seen her name. Over the last four decades, she’s emerged as the consummate vocalist, equally at home in rock, R&B, jazz, house, Broadway, and jingles, with hundreds of local and national commercials to her credit.
However, McWilliams’ story may not be as widely known as her voice. Her professional singing career traces back to Chicago where she held the lead spot in Rufus before enlisting her friend Chaka Khan. Quincy Jones then introduced McWilliams and the Brothers Johnson on his Mellow Madness (1975) album. McWilliams soon became a mainstay in both the New York and Los Angeles studio scenes, and dueted with icons like Johnny Mathis and Marvin Gaye. All throughout, she won the admiration of musicians and fellow vocalists. “Her intonation is impeccable and her melodic interpretation is not only creative and interesting, but warmly inviting”, says Terri Lynne Carrington. “The vocal jazz tradition has been authentically passed down to Paulette from her stellar predecessors.” Indeed, McWilliams can turn a jazz phrase with the best of them. She once traded verses on Benard Ighner’s “Everything Must Change” with no less a legend than Sarah Vaughan.
Given her illustrious albeit largely unsung career, McWilliams readily identified with many of the stories in 20 Feet from Stardom (2013). In fact, she’s a common thread between many of the singers documented in Morgan Neville’s Oscar-winning film. For more than 20 years, she recorded and toured with Luther Vandross, sharing background vocals with Lisa Fischer and Cindy Mizelle. Both McWilliams and Darlene Love sang on the Vandross-produced Jump to It (1982) by Aretha Franklin. When Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” rocketed to number one in 1979, it was McWilliams shadowing Jackson’s voice on the hook, while she and Patti Austin sang (uncredited) on “Rock With You”. Like Charlo Crossley, McWilliams also had a memorable stint as one of Bette Midler’s Harlettes and appeared in both the Broadway production and touring company of Divine Madness. Mirroring many of the interview subjects in 20 Feet, McWilliams has also struggled to achieve success a solo artist. Thirty years passed before McWilliams recorded a follow-up to her solo debut Never Been Here Before (1977). Released in Japan, the independent Flow (2007) was followed by her album-length collaboration with Tom Scott, Telling Stories (2012).
As McWilliams attests in this career-spanning interview with PopMatters, it’s never too late for a breakthrough. In January, she and the Nat Adderley Trio headlined at Joe’s Pub in New York. Later this year, she’ll appear at the Baltic Jazz Festival and will also help launch the U.K.-based Jazz and Blues TV. In the midst of it all, she’s preparing material for her fourth solo album. Two-thousand fourteen just might be her best year yet.
Paulette, I’m so glad we’re taking some to revisit your career. There’s a lot of ground that I want to cover with you. First, let’s go back to the beginning — Chicago. Is that where you grew up?
Yes I grew up on the south side of Chicago, 60th and Peoria. Those were my stomping grounds. I was born Paulette Johnson. I started singing before I could really talk. I would watch all the musicals and wish I was in them. When the family would get together on holidays, my uncles would give me money, a couple of dollars, and I would just sing songs. “Sing baby, sing this!” I saw that they were paying me for it so I really liked it then. [laughs]
Were there any specific musicals that captured your imagination?
Oh my gosh. To name one would be to name a lot! Singin’ in the Rain (1952) with Gene Kelly. Judy Garland musicals. Doris Day musicals. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Bill Robinson and Shirley Temple. Sammy Davis, Jr. Any movie that had any music and any performing in it I’d watch over and over again. My mother couldn’t turn me away.
Then there was the music that came on the radio that my mom would listen to. Blues and jazz. Those were the first things that I was introduced to because my mom would sing that. She had a beautiful voice. She’d always sing Dinah Washington songs. She also liked Dakota Staton, Ella Fitzgerald. She loved Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight. My mother liked the guys: Joe Williams, Billy Eckstine, Brook Benton, Harry Belafonte, Johnnie Taylor. She would sing all their songs. Then on Sunday she’d listen to Mahalia Jackson. Growing up as a teenager, I listened to the Marvelettes, the Supremes, all of Motown, the Beatles, everything everyone else listened to.
Did your mom want to pursue singing at all?
Yes, she said that if she had had an opportunity, she would have wanted to pursue singing. The kind of life that she had was a life filled with oppression. She had to drop out of school in eighth grade because her mom died and her father married again. They made her the babysitter. Her cousins were all going to school, going to college, and pursuing careers. My mom never had that opportunity. It was very hard for her.
Yes, I can imagine that would have been difficult but it’s great that she helped nurture your talent. At what point did you begin to pursue singing professionally?
I never knew anything else. It was my only focus all my life. I think some people choose it because it looks glamorous. I chose it because it really elevates my soul. I really do feel my soul lifted every time I sing. I’ve sung every single genre there is, except for opera. I don’t feel I’m an opera singer, but if you came to me and gave me a piece and said, “Approach this as a contralto”, I would make an attempt. I’d go and find out exactly how I would approach it in a way that would be professional and that would give that particular genre the respect it deserves. I loved when Aretha Franklin sang “Nessum Dorma” at the Grammy Awards. I thought, I don’t know how technically correct she is, but I do know that she invoked feeling. To me, that result is the most important thing. When you make people feel something, I don’t care what genre you’re singing, then you’ve done something.
Delving a little more into styles, tell me what was happening, musically, in Chicago during your teenage years.
R&B and group-singing. I had my own group, Paulette & the Cupids. There was a girl named Diandra. Another girls’s name was Eleanor. They were friends of mine. We went to school together. We choreographed steps together. We’d do songs by groups like the Shirelles and the Marvelettes. We’d do songs like “Don’t Mess With Bill”. When I was 15, I wrote a song. There was a station in Chicago. It’s still there I think, WVON. Herb Kent the Cool Gent and E. Rodney Jones played my record. My manager was the same manager who managed Jan Bradley (“Mama Didn’t Lie”). His name was Don Talty. Jan introduced me to Phil Upchurch. Phil and I became friends.
Wow! So your history with Phil Upchurch goes way back! How did young Paulette Johnson get from Paulette & the Cupids to Ask Rufus?
I went to a Catholic school until my senior year. My senior year, I was in Harlan High School. I graduated and was working at the phone company. I had an opportunity for a scholarship at Roosevelt but I got pregnant at 19, so I stayed at the phone company. I married my childhood sweetheart at 19 — his last name was McWilliams. We broke up while I was pregnant. I had my daughter and I knew I needed to make more money than what the phone company was paying. I went and lived with my mom and worked at the post office. I kept my married name because I wanted my daughter and I to have the same last name. When my daughter was just a few months old, Phil Upchurch told me about an audition for a group called the American Breed. There was an open audition. He gave me a phone number to call. He said, “Go and audition.” I think they wanted two black girls. There were about 100-something of us all down in Chuck Colbert’s basement! Chuck was one of the founding members of the American Breed. Light-skinned black guy with a handlebar mustache. I sang “Fascinating Rhythm”, which I heard Morgana King sing, and won that audition! [laughs]
By the time I auditioned, they had the other singers sing with me in order to see if they could harmonize with me. They didn’t hear anyone else that they liked and then somebody brought this girl, I think she was from Alabama. They ended up wanting one girl and they chose me. They thought I was really cool because they could see that I was passionate about being there. Around the same time they got me in the group, they got this real funky organist by the name of Kevin Murphy. Then they got this other funky guy named Ron Stockert. We started doing college gigs all over the Midwest, the South, parts of the East Coast, all college towns. My mom and dad were okay with watching my daughter when I would go out. They saw the kind of money I was making. In one weekend I’d make $500 or $600. They thought, there’s no job that’s going to pay her like this. The post office didn’t pay like this!
I can imagine! I didn’t realize you were with the band when it was still called the American Breed. Why did the group change its name to Ask Rufus?
Well, the reason they wanted to get the girls in the group was because American Breed wanted to move from their bubblegum image and start competing with the likes of Sly & the Family Stone. Our managers were Bob Monaco and Jim Golden. Their company was Ashley Famous. They told us that we had to change our name. The first name we came up with was Smoke. We had the name Smoke for about three weeks. Then we found out that there was some group who had the name already. We were really pissed because we loved the name Smoke. Then we were in Minnesota somewhere. Jimmy Stella was reading Popular Mechanics. He said, “I know what our name should be. Ask Rufus!” We looked at each other like, What? There was a column called Ask Rufus. That’s where it came from. It was out of nowhere and made no sense at all — that’s why he thought it was cool. Everybody ended up loving it.
What was the band’s repertoire like at the time? What songs would the band have been doing in concert?
Al Ciner the guitar player had written some songs. Charlie had some ideas. So did Gary Loizzo. We did some of the songs that they had been doing as the American Breed, but we tried to hip them up a little bit. Charles Colbert, myself, and Jimmy Stella were the three front-people. We were doing stuff like “We Can Work It Out” but funkier, “If I Were a Carpenter” — Charlie and I did that as a duet. Then we did a song called “Follow the Lamb”. I’d say if you listened to the songs now, they sound like rock and roll. Some of them have a little bit of a country flair and some of them are funky. We were black and white. You couldn’t put a label on what we were. We were traveling all over. We went to the south of France. Everywhere we played, we sold out. We were playing all the hippest clubs in Chicago: Rush Up, Rush Over, Mother’s. You could not get in unless you got there early. Odetta would come and see us, so would Baby Huey and the Babysitters, Joyce Kennedy. The 5th Dimension were friends with Charlie. They would jump onstage with us. That’s how big we were. Hair was playing at the Shubert. Members of the cast would come all the time after the play and sometimes get onstage with us.
I love your vocals on “Brand New Day”, which Epic released as a single in the early ’70s. By that time, Ask Rufus trimmed the name to just Rufus. At what point in the timeline did you meet Chaka?
My husband Howard, who I married when my daughter was three, was best friends with Hassan Khan, Chaka’s husband. They were saying to Chaka, “You got to meet Paulette. She’s great!” Chaka came downtown. She and I met. We were like two peas in a pod. We were best friends. We went everywhere together. I introduced her to her first wig and her first leather jeans. The first time I heard her sing, I almost ran into a street pole! She was in the back of my Dodge Dart and she started singing Stevie Wonder. I thought, Whoa, what was that? I always thought she was genius. I felt like it was my duty to help her. I got her her first commercial. There was a group called Life that was started by a guy named Cash McCall. He called me up and said, “Paulette, I got this group I want you to be part of.” I said, “Cash, I can’t. I’m in Ask Rufus.” We were hot. I said, “One of my best friends is an amazing singer. Her name is Chaka Khan.” I got her that gig. This is what truly, honestly happened.
When did Chaka end up joining the group?
We got Andre Fischer and Willie Weeks into Rufus after we got back from the south of France. The members were changing and the energy was changing. My daughter was getting older. I missed my time with my daughter and I felt like I needed to be around her. I decided to leave Rufus. The group was still popular and people were still coming to see us everywhere we played but I was ready to go. They were really upset with me. They said, “Who are we supposed to get to take your place? Will you help us find someone to take your place?” I said, “Well I have someone in mind.” This was the gist of the conversation. I told them Chaka. They said, “Who’s Chaka?” They didn’t know anything about Chaka except for the fact that she was my friend. They had not seen Cash McCall’s group. I said, “You’ve seen my friend around.” “Can she sing?” “She’s great.” “Okay, well, can you be onstage with her for a few weeks until she learns all the songs?” I said, “Absolutely. I’ll do all of that.” That’s what I did. She and I were onstage. We even did some college gigs together.
After you left, Rufus released that first album with Chaka in 1973. What happened between your leaving Rufus and joining Quincy Jones’ Body Heat tour?
I started doing lots of commercials and jingles. I was making money and taking care of my daughter, hoping to get a record deal. I was doing some gigs with some of the guys that had left Rufus. I jammed at Ratso’s, which was a club in Chicago. I would go there and hang out with Upchurch. Tennyson Stevens and Donny Hathaway had become friends of mine. I had a really crazy manager by the name of Barry Fox. Donny and myself and Upchurch were up in his suite. Donny was playing this song. Upchurch and I went into the studio and did this song that Donny and Tennyson wrote called “Tally Rand”. I recorded it and Phil sent it to Quincy Jones.
Quincy called me not even a week later! I was at my mama’s house on the South Side, cooking greens, singing songs, and I get a call saying, “Hello? Is this Paulette McWilliams?” “It is.” “Paulette, this is Quincy Jones.” I said, “Huh?” I started laughing. “No baby, this is Quincy Jones. My friends call me Q. I’m doing a tour and need a lead singer. I want it to be you.” I hung up the phone and I screamed. My mother said, “What’s wrong with you girl?” I screamed, “Quincy Jones wants me to come to LA! He wants me to do a tour!” He flew me out business class and I stayed at this hotel called The Players. It was the first time I’d traveled like that by myself. After I got in my room and put my stuff down, I hear knock-knock-knock. “Who is it?” “It’s Cannonball. Q told me to come and make sure you’re okay.” I opened up the door. Standing there was this big guy who looked like a bigger version of my friend Nat Adderley, Jr. — though I didn’t know Nat then. He said, “I’m Cannonball Adderley.” He shook my hand and sat down in the chair across from me. He just started talking. We talked for two-and-a-half hours. He said, “You’re getting ready to have a life.”
And from what I understand, that tour was something else! That’s when you met one of your idols …
I have to tell you this story! Quincy called me “Baby Girl” and said, “You remind me of Sassy.” He would tell me stories about him and Sassy (Sarah Vaughan) and Ray Charles. We toured the states and when we got to Tokyo, he surprised me. While I was singing “Everything Must Change” and getting ready to go into the second verse, Sarah started singing, “The young become old and mysteries do unfold …” I turned around. Q’s conducting the orchestra and he’s got tears in his eyes. He’s looking at me and I’m looking at him and all I could think of was, “Oh my God. I’m singing onstage with Sarah Vaughan!” The moment was captured. I got a picture of it and there’s a recording of it somewhere. The sound was phenomenal. That night, she and I hung out. The bodyguards took us to the grocery store. The guys played cards in Quincy’s suite while Sassy and I made greens. We had a ball. We were up till daylight.
Wow! That is once-in-a-lifetime. I assume that right after the tour is when you wrote and recorded “Mellow Madness” with Quincy?
Yes. Quincy told me we were going to write and do this song. I didn’t have that kind of experience. I just went in and went for it. We went into the studio and I basically ad-libbed on top of the tracks. “So insane the tender pain.” That’s how that all came about but at the time, I was never confident about being a quote-unquote “R&B singer”. I still considered myself a jazz singer.
Well, the results speak for themselves. I also love the arrangement of “My Cherie Amour” on that album. I know you, Leon Ware, and Minnie Riperton all sang on that. Had you known Minnie in Chicago when she was a member of Rotary Connection?
Well yes! American Breed and Rotary Connection were all out of the same booking agency. Rose Mann, also a friend, who now owns the Record Plant, was working with Jim Golden and Bob Monaco as a booking agent. We did many gigs together. I thought Minnie was brilliant. She was soft and sweet. Her notes? Oh my God. They were in the stratosphere.
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.