Gold turns into platinum whenever the Waters sing. For six decades, they’ve adorned an untold number of million-selling albums and singles for artists, songwriters, producers, and film composers. On the evening of 20 February 2014, however, it was their turn to win an award. Gathered onstage at the 21st Annual Ella Awards, singing siblings Julia Waters, Maxine Waters, Dr. Luther Waters, and Oren Waters were honored with the Society of Singers’ prestigious VOICE Award for their unparalleled vocal brilliance.
“We’re four, but we can come together in a oneness that’s amazing,” says Luther Waters. Families who sing are a unique faction in the music industry, their shared DNA creating a singular kind of harmony. Still, only the Waters have the distinction of singing on the world’s best-selling album (Michael Jackson’s Thriller), the most successful film soundtrack of all time (The Bodyguard), Motown’s biggest-selling domestic single (the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There”), and the theme to one of television’s longest-running sitcoms (The Jeffersons). They also sang on the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”, which held a 22-year reign as the most-performed song in BMI’s repertoire with more than 14 million radio spins to date, and contributed vocals to Avatar (2009), previously the highest-grossing movie in Hollywood history.
“When I went into the business, my mother used to tell me all the time, ‘All of y’all can sing. You need to work them in,'” recalls Julia Waters. Beginning in the mid-1960s, Julia and her three siblings could be found at Gold Star Studios, singing on Phil Spector classics. As Motown moved west from Detroit, the Waters became an integral part of the label’s biggest hits, whether it was Julia and Maxine singing on Diana Ross & the Supremes’ “Someday We’ll Be Together” or powering Thelma Houston’s GRAMMY-winning “Don’t Leave Me This Way”. Oren’s rich and robust tenor even backed Michael Jackson on several Jackson 5 hits, including “Who’s Lovin’ You” and “Never Can Say Goodbye”. Their names might have been missing from album credits, but producers and vocal contractors knew who to call.
After doing session work with jazz artists like Gene Harris, Chico Hamilton, and Bobby Hutcherson, the Waters became the first vocal group signed to Blue Note Records. Their debut album Waters (1975) emphasized the quartet’s versatility as songwriters and laid the foundation for a follow-up album on Warner Bros., also titled Waters (1977). Produced by Steve Barri and Michael Omartian, the latter set featured customarily stellar vocal performances on “The Other Side of Midnight” and “I Just Wanna Be the One (In Your Life)”, a song that ultimately secured the Waters an album deal with Arista Records where they released Watercolors (1980).
The Waters’ concerts only amplified their natural chemistry. “When our show hit the stage, it just exploded,” says Luther Waters. “People would not let us open for them. Some people would say, ‘We’d like for you guys to open for us at the Greek.’ They’d come and see our rehearsal. The next thing you knew, we didn’t have a job. It wasn’t that we were horrible. It’s that we were going to come out on the stage and it was going to explode.”
However, marquee acts sought the Waters for background vocals on the road. From the 1970s to the present day, they’ve been a mainstay in stadiums and concert halls across the globe. “We’ve been to every place but the Arctic,” Julia quips. Indeed, they toured Europe with Patti LaBelle on her first solo tour, joined Paul Simon for his historic 1991 concert in Central Park, sang background for Neil Diamond on several world tours, and even witnessed crowd hysteria when they accompanied the cast of Fame in the UK.
In between, they released their fourth album Welcome Home (1988) and continued their prolific studio work, individually and collectively, with icons like Ray Charles, Rod Stewart, Johnny Mathis, Natalie Cole, and Neil Young, plus newly established artists like Adele, Katy Perry, and Harry Styles. Currently primed to release a new song written and produced by Oren, “What You Give is What You’re Gonna Get Back”, the Waters capped 2019 singing the theme to Good Times with Patti LaBelle and Anthony Anderson on ABC’s Live in Front of a Studio Audience series, netting an audience of nearly six million television viewers.
Though a sliver of the Waters’ story was told in Morgan Neville’s Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom (2013), the magnitude of what they’ve accomplished over the past 60 years merits a full-length feature of its own. “When it comes to the Waters, our real story is so much bigger than the music,” says Oren Waters. “We grew up next to the railroad track. Most people are not able to sustain their livelihood for the number of decades that we have. I know a big part of that is because of the sacrifice that our father made, as far as giving his life in the Korean War — he was First Lieutenant— and the sacrifice our mother made, not knowing if my father was going to walk through the door. Our story is an American success story.”
The Waters’ story is still unfolding. On a recent sunny afternoon in Altadena, about 30 minutes north of downtown Los Angeles, PopMatters enjoyed a special opportunity to sit with all four Waters around Julia Waters’ dining room table. Laughter and quiet reflection embroidered their memories of making music … and making history.
Photo: Eric Page / Left to right: Luther Waters, Julia Waters, Maxine Waters, Oren Waters
Julia, thank you for welcoming all of us to your home. When we spoke a few years ago, I learned that you, Maxine, and Luther were born in Beaumont, Texas, and then moved to Kyoto, Japan, where Oren was born. Then you went back to Texas and relocated to Los Angeles, where you grew up. What are your earliest memories of Los Angeles?
Julia: Being reunited with our mother. When my mother and dad moved out here to find our home, she left Maxine and me with our grandparents in Texas. I believe it was about six months that we stayed back there before she was able to find a place for us to all reside. She’d brought Oren and Luther with her because they were younger. Oren was just a baby. I believe at that time. She lived with my uncle Glen — her brother — and his family. He helped them find a place to live. They found the home in South Los Angeles where we would be raised, 314 E. 115th Street
Oren: Speaking of 314 right quick, Colossians 3:14 says, “Above all, clothe yourself with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” That’s another thing about the number 314. I just thought about that when you said that.
“Perfect harmony” is the perfect phrase where the Waters are concerned!
Oren: Right, right Christian. Exactly!
Speaking of harmony, Luther, you once told me that if you sing alto, you sound like Maxine.
Luther: Right. There was a session we were doing, and I think Maxine had gotten hoarse, and we switched parts. Nothing sounded any different on the record. I’m really a lyric baritone. I’m somebody that sings naturally right up under a tenor, but then, in the Waters, my range goes from the last note on the piano down at the bottom way up into the alto section.
And Maxine, if you sing low you can sound like Oren …
Maxine: … Or if I sing high, I sound like Julia.
Oren: It’s a natural thing because of the physical characteristic of the voice box. Our voices are different, but it’s still the same vocal timbre. There are four voices that are basically the structure of a choir — the soprano, the alto, the tenor, and the bass. We have all four voices. We also have water, air, fire, and earth. Julia sings on the top, and she sings soprano, so she’s air. Maxine sings alto; she’s water. I sing tenor, so I’m fire, and Luther sings on the bottom, so he’s earth. There’s no way man could have planned it out. We have all four voices of a choir and the four elements, naturally.
Oren, you, Maxine, and Luther learned to play cello at a young age. What is the significance of the cello to you?
Oren: To begin with, the cello is the closest-sounding instrument to the voice. The cello taught us to have music appreciation. The cello, for the most part, is not a rock and roll instrument. You have to read music. You don’t just pick up the cello and start playing it. The contribution that it has made to us, musically, was very important and proved to be useful to this day.
Who were some of the vocalists that you heard growing up that inspired you or gave you a reference point for your potential as a singer?
Julia: Coming up, for me, my mother was trying to gear me towards opera, so that’s what I geared my vocal sound towards. When Maxine, Luther, and Oren were taking all of the cello lessons and the piano lessons, I was taking voice lessons. The teacher who taught them their instruments was a wonderful music teacher and she taught me voice. She used to have me watch different opera singers. She’d say, “They don’t look pretty when they sing because they’re shaping their tone from their mouths.” I think the Leontyne Price’s and the Mahalia Jackson’s that I listened to all contributed to my way of how I sang. Then I started listening to the R&B side of singing. As I got older, I became exposed to Chaka Khan. Chaka Khan, to me, was the epitome of that type of a singer. I always say she was my mentor without being a mentor!
Luther: For me, it was Nat “King” Cole. It was his enunciation and the way he pronounced his words. He had that smooth voice, and when he sang a song, you could hear his interpretation of the song. Those are the things I always understood about Nat “King” Cole.
Maxine: I don’t have a favorite or an influence. If the singer gets my heart, then I’m okay with it. I don’t like it when singers are out of tune — that’s from the cello and the classical training I’ve had. They’ve got to be in tune, and I’ve got to feel it. It could be anybody from Ray Charles, who didn’t have a great voice, but you could feel it, up to Leontyne Price, who was classical, or Nancy Wilson. My style of music is more smooth, like Sade. There’s country music, too. I love country music.
Oren: For me, of course, the Temptations — all of them — and the Isley Brothers. I always enjoyed not only their voices but the music too. We started to be around people like Lamont Dozier and Smokey Robinson and see the genius that they really possessed as far as being able to pull things out of the air.
Julia: Growing up, because our mother was into music like she was, we always had music in the house. When you think about it, it’s kind of a hard question to answer because you start thinking …
Oren: … and then you leave something out! We have a diverse approach, really, not only for R&B or country but also classical and even some rap. That’s how we grew up, and that’s how we still are to this day.
How did each of you develop an interest in writing songs?
Oren: That’s a big question. It’s something I’ve done my whole life because of our exposure to different types of music. It’s always been a means of expressing your inner creative force. It’s a legitimate response to what’s going on inside of you. You hear melodies in your head and you want to express them.
Maxine: I started playing piano at seven. I was always in the orchestra playing cello, from fifth grade all the way through high school. I was first chair cellist. In the talent shows at school, I played piano and sang. In high school, I had a couple of my friends who would back me up. There was one song called “Love’s Burning Fire”. Ooh! I would sing that song and play it. My two girlfriends would back me up. I didn’t start writing my own songs until I was about 20 years old. I’d get a melody in my head on the piano. Then I’d develop the lyric for the song and see what flowed out to go with the melody. I’m telling you, I could have been Alicia Keys before she was even born!
Luther: I would sit there and watch Maxine at the piano. It was a baby grand. We knew that was Maxine’s piano. She could play beautifully. Oren, Maxine, and I played the cello, but Maxine would spend hours on that piano. With my writing, melodies are always running through my head. I had a writing partner, Ernest Straughter. We were like Burt Bacharach and Hal David. We converted my living room into a recording studio. It was back in those days of four-track and eight-track. We would sit and write songs. I would start singing the melody or singing some words, and he would start playing the piano. We cut the demos right there in my living room.
Julia: When we got a chance to do albums if you notice, I mostly teamed up with Maxine. My interest was just wanting to sing and wanting to perform. I always felt like I could get into another person, what they call an alter-ego. The writing part of it just came from singing and listening to the radio and saying to somebody with an idea, “Oh, what about this, and what about that?”
Photo: Eric Page / Clockwise from top left: Luther Waters, Oren, Waters, Maxine Waters, Julia Waters
Take me back to the session for the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” (1964). That seems to be the first time all four of you sang together on a major session.
Oren: Julia and Maxine were on the session, and I just went with them. Luther was with me. I was just sitting there, listening to them sing. Then Phil Spector said, “Can you sing? I said, “Yeah!” He said, “Get out there and sing, then!” I went on out there and was fortunate enough through the grace of God to join them.
Luther: Oren, you’re right. Julia was driving, and we just got in the car. Wilbert Junior was there too. I just remember sitting there — Oren’s right — and Phil said, “Can’t you guys sing? Well, get up and sing. Get in there!” From then on? I remember making $10 an hour. The whole rest of the world was going to work, and they were making probably $1.25 an hour.
Julia: Maxine and I had been working with Phil Spector, going in and being part of that Wall of Sound. The Righteous Brothers were a part of who he was producing at that time. I had been working with people like Oma Drake, Clydie King, and Edna Wright. Jeannie King was there at Gold Star Studios all the time. She came from the Blossoms and was doing those Phil Spector sessions. She was a soprano and taught me a lot in the studio. Needless to say, we went on to do a couple of Tina Turner’s hits through that Wall of Sound, like “River Deep-Mountain High” (1966).
Did all of you sing on “River Deep-Mountain High”?
Luther: Phil had his formula. It didn’t matter who he brought in, they would come in, and they had to go in his Wall of Sound, which was unique for the industry. If you had come in there, it would have been “Christian and the Wall of Sound” … and it would have been poppin’!
Maxine: Ronnie [Spector] would be there. Sonny and Cher were there, but that was before they were “Sonny & Cher”. Sonny was bossing Cher around, do you remember? He was getting on my nerves! Sonny was very controlling. Cher was very beautiful and very subservient. It was the same kind of thing as Ike & Tina Turner, only Sonny was not as abusive as Ike was.
Julia: We did a couple of Ronettes sessions. Ronnie was begging for us to be her friend. When she moved out here, she left her family and friends behind, and she had no friends. Phil wouldn’t allow her to go out of the house or have friends.
Luther: Phil had a paranoia thing.
Maxine: He had a Napoleonic complex.
Oren: Phil was a little guy, but his bodyguards were as big as this doggone room. Me and Phil would go back and forth. I was always so “street”. I knew I could kick his ass if it came down to it! His bodyguards would come up. Maxine and Julia would jump up and say, “Man don’t be talking about my brother like that!” If you dish it out, like he would dish it out, you got to be able to take it.
Julia: He was very, very rich and very young. He was eccentric, so there’s that fine line between being a genius and a little “off”.
Oren: Phil had a guy who had a flashlight. We’d be in the studio and he’d say, “God said, Let there be light!” and the guy would get up and shine the light over Phil’s head. He would do stuff like that. He had guns and he would let you know that he had guns.
Luther: I never felt threatened by Phil. What would have helped Phil is if he’d spent three years on 115th Street. Then he would have learned about the real world.
Oren: But he was shielded from that because of his success.
In addition to Phil Spector, who were some of the first artists and producers you worked with around that time?
Julia: We worked with Richard Berry. I did his sessions — “Louie, Louie” was one of my first real sessions — and I traveled with him around LA. Johnny Rivers was the very first artist that I ever traveled with on tour. We started in New York, then went to Atlantic City, and then went to Las Vegas and Reno. There were three of us — me, Clydie King, and Doris Warner — and we traveled with him.
Maxine: We met Merry Clayton on Pacific Gas & Electric’s “Are You Ready?” (1970). She sang standing right next to me on that thing and we started being friends.
Luther: You guys also worked with Jimmy Holiday. Those were rough times.
Kim Carnes told me about the time the three of you worked with Jimmy Holiday. Maxine confronted him about getting paid. “Jimmy Holiday, you give us our money!”
Maxine: [laughs] That was me! That’s right! I called Kim in on that. It came time for us to get paid. We sat around there … and he was a mean man, too. Everybody was afraid of him. He was very intimidating. His wife had no teeth. He knocked his wife’s teeth out, remember Julia?
Julia: Yeah, and that was the scariest thing. That was in front of us. Maxine and I traveled around LA with him. When he was getting ready to fight, he’d send us into another room. Remember that, Maxine? One time he sent us to that room, but guess what? He knocked the guy that he was getting ready to fight all the way from his dressing room into our room. Bam!
Maxine: I said, “Come on Julia. We’re gonna get dressed, and we’re gonna go sit in the audience because if this guy comes back with a gun trying to get Jimmy …”
… You were thinking two steps ahead.
Maxine: Yeah. We’re not going to walk out of a job, but we’re going to sit with the audience! This is another thing that taught Julia and I about just being around men. This was so gross. If there wasn’t a bathroom, Jimmy would say, “Turn your backs!” and then he’d pee in something. Oh yeah, we learned a lot by being with Jimmy Holiday.
How did singing become a full-time pursuit for each of you?
Maxine: I had quite a career at the phone company. I worked for Pacific Telephone. I started as a file clerk. Every six months for five years, I got a promotion. I worked in the chief engineer’s department. I was an assistant engineer designing trunk cables. They were going to move me to HR instead of designing trunk cables because they said I talked so much! I’m more of a people person. Then, Dusty Springfield went on tour. Shelly Clark, who’s Verdine White’s wife now, and Alex Brown, who ended up being with the Raelettes and Stevie Wonder, went on a tour with Dusty Springfield. I had to make a choice. My mother said, “You can always get another job and go back to school. Go out on that tour”, so I quit the phone company.
Oren: When Maxine was at the phone company, I was singing with two of P.P. Arnold’s brothers, Larry and Kenny Cole, and Thomas Jackson. We grew up in the same neighborhood. Our group was very popular. From elementary school, we’d always win all the talent shows. We did battle of the bands. We would always be the cream of the crop. We ran into a guy named Jimmy, who considered himself a producer. He would take us in the studio with him but not on the level that Julia and Maxine are talking about.
Luther: Singing was a hobby during those years. It was something I did, but I wasn’t focused on it. I had a three-pronged dream: to play pro-football, join the marines, and become a teacher. In high school, I was the captain of the football team. I was the president of the Letterman’s Club. I was on the student council. I went to college to play football, not to learn. Vietnam broke out, so I dropped out of college and joined the Marines. I was the Honor Man out of boot camp. I was very successful in the corps.
After I got out of the marines, I worked for the city, but I could take off if I had a recording session. Back in the ’70s, Vietnam veterans always got laid off, because we were the last in. I’d get laid off and then work in the studios. Then the city called me back. Patti LaBelle was going on tour and said, “I need you to go on the road.” It was on. That’s when I quit the city and started looking seriously at singing as a career.
Julia: I went to school to be a teacher. I went all the way to Cal State. I was going to school and still doing all of my sessions. I had about four months left before I graduated from Cal State. I was going to be a teacher. I had been doing my student teaching with the bad kids! That’s when I got the opportunity to audition for the Rock Flowers. It came time for me to audition for that, and that’s when I said, “Uh oh — school or this?”
Who are the Rock Flowers and how did you become one?
Julia: At the time, Mattel had Barbie dolls. They got the idea that they wanted a singing group. The dolls were supposed to be fashioned after us. They wanted a blonde, a brunette, and an African American. I auditioned for it and got the part. The name of my doll was Rosemary. I said, “That doll does not look like me!” You’d put the doll on a record player, and she would spin around and play.
Luther: Tell him about the audition, when they asked, “How high can you sing?”
Julia: They had Tom Hensley audition the singers. He became the pianist for Neil Diamond. He said, “How high can you sing?” I said, “How high do you want me to sing?” At that time, I was considered a lyric soprano because of all that training. I could go off the keyboard. We made records. Wes Farrell produced the records. At that time, he was a huge producer. He produced the Partridge Family. It was totally bubblegum. The group lasted three years, and we stayed on the charts for three years. We ended up being the opening act for Tom Jones. We traveled with him for almost a year and would sing background for him.
The group started off being myself, Debbie Klinger, and Julie Rinker. My claim to fame for that is I started making what I call “real money”. That was a blessing. God placed me there to do it. I don’t know why it transitioned from Julie to Wendy. I was the lead singer, and there was a lot of jealousy that went back and forth. After three years, I decided I couldn’t take it anymore. I was going to go and sing with, basically, my family. Before that, I was a pussycat in Josie & the Pussycats. Patrice Holloway and I sang the voices for those characters.
In a sense, you and Maxine also became Supremes when you sang background on Diana Ross & the Supremes’ “Someday We’ll Be Together” (1969).
Maxine: We thought that was going to be Diana’s first solo record. We’re also on “Touch Me in the Morning” (1973). For about eight years, I did vocal contracting for Motown and everything that Johnny Bristol did. We were very close. I contracted for Junior Walker & the All-Stars, Diana Ross, Edwin Starr, Willie Hutch, the Temptations. I also contracted a lot for Ron Miller.
Oren, you also did several sessions at Motown. How exactly did you start singing on Jackson 5 records?
Oren: Joe Green and Jesse Kirkland were good friends with Billy Preston. I don’t know how I ran into Joe, but when Motown decided to come out to LA, Joe called and said, “Come and sing on some of the stuff.” He and I and Jesse Kirkland started singing on all the Jackson 5 stuff, “I’ll Be There”, “Never Can Say Goodbye”, “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”, “Got to be There” [Michael Jackson], “Daddy’s Home” [Jermaine Jackson] … all of that. We’d be in there all night singing with Michael and the rest of the Jackson 5 until the morning. We did a lot with Willie Hutch and all the producers … Hal Davis, Norman Whitfield, Frank Wilson.
Julia: All of those Motown producers would call us to come in. What Berry Gordy would do back in the day is say, “This producer, you do this. This producer, you do the same thing, and then I’m going to pick which one I want.” We would do the same song for different producers. Then Berry would pick the one that he felt would be the hit.
At what point did you decide to form the Waters as a self-contained singing group and record your own albums?
Julia: We were doing backgrounds all over the place. Maxine’s husband at that time, Keg Johnson, was producing a lot of artists for Blue Note, and we were doing a lot of sessions for Blue Note.
Oren: Keg was a practical thinker. He was the one who said, “You know what? You guys are doing all this. Why don’t you just form the Waters?” We said, “Wow. What a good idea!” [laughs] It was an ah-ha moment.
Maxine: Keg got us the deal with Blue Note. It was pretty easy to get because he was in-house there. He’d been doing so much … Gene Harris, Bobby Hutcherson.
What were your expectations going into record your Blue Note debut, Waters (1975)?
Oren: You have a preconceived idea, but when you start to deal with producers, the light in which they see you is different from how you see yourself. I know that was an adjustment for me. You don’t want to be overbearing — “I’m not doing that” — so you learn to compromise and allow yourself to be putty in somebody else’s hands, especially somebody who got the record deal for you.
Luther: Keg was very good at taking your specific strength and letting you develop it. He didn’t push, but he was inspirational in moving you towards your strength. With me, he’d always say, “Keep writing.” I would say, “Keg, how is this?” He’d say, “Yeah, that’s it! Just keep writing.” I wrote tracks for Phyllis Hyman, Azar Lawrence, and Blue Magic. I just kept writing.
Maxine, there’s a song you wrote on the first album called “Trying Hard to Look Inside”. Earlier, you mentioned how your style is moody and that song is definitely moody.
Maxine: Isn’t it moody? I’m moody! Really, all of my songs are moody. Everything I write is very personal. I know that song was deep. I’m trying to figure out what kind of mood was I in?
What was the sentiment behind “Trying Hard to Look Inside”, especially the line “Making plans to know myself. When I do, I’m telling you, then I’ll understand you, too”? The way you phrase it has a hypnotizing effect.
Maxine: The space that I stay in is always looking at myself before I look at others. If you look inside yourself, then you don’t have a whole bunch of time to judge other people. [laughs] Cancers are sensitive to other people’s feelings, and they’re sensitive to how we’re treating people, even if we go off for a minute. I know how other people feel in certain situations, or I try to put myself in their place.
Oren, I would love to know how your voice became immortalized on The Jeffersons‘ theme song “We’re Moving On Up” (1975).
Oren: Back in the day, you didn’t know The Jeffersons were going to be [emphasizes] The Jeffersons. Clydie King, God rest her soul, said they needed a duet with Ja’Net DuBois. I was just there. She said, “Oren, you sing it.” I sang it and look what it turned into. At that time, it was low-budget. We were just in a little studio somewhere. Nobody knew what it was going to be. It just turned out to be a mega-hit. At one time, it was the longest-running sitcom in the history of television.
Around that same time, all four of you sang on Wah Wah Watson’s album Elementary (1976). My favorite song on there is one that he wrote with Ray Parker, Jr. called “Love Ain’t Somethin’ (That You Get For Free)”. A lot of people know Wah Wah as this innovative guitarist and songwriter, but what was he like to work with as an artist?
Oren: It seemed like Wah Wah as the artist was humbled a little bit. He was always assertive, and in so many other ways he was bigger than life, God rest his soul. He was an awesome friend. He was “street”, but he was never so overbearing that we couldn’t take him.
Julia: Oh, we loved Wah Wah. He was such a talented guy. Dealing with diverse personalities is what we’ve been able to do all of these years. Some are hyper; some are more low key. We just kind of fit in, be whoever we are and be comfortable with who they are. That’s why I think we were able to blend together with different artists.
Maxine: I wrote a song called “Parade”. When I think about Wah Wah, I think about that song. We did it in the ’70s. About seven years ago, when Wah Wah was hooked up with Alicia Keys, he said, “We need to finish this song, and I want to present it to Alicia Keys. It’s a song that she would be able to play to.” We started working on it again, but then I was with Neil [Diamond], and I couldn’t go over to Wah Wah’s studio, plus I didn’t like going over there because he had those big old pit bulls. He insisted that the dogs come in the studio with us. We didn’t finish the song. The song is sitting up there somewhere in his house, probably in storage, but it’s a beautiful song.
In the early 1970s, Steve Barri had a lot of success producing a variety of acts like the Four Tops, Bobby Blue Bland, the Grass Roots, and Bo Donaldson & the Heywoods. Maxine, when did you and Julia start working with him?
Maxine: A girl named Ginger Blake introduced us to Steve. She and her cousin are still performing around. They’re called the Honeys. Ginger is responsible for contracting us on backup singing for Steve Barri, who produced Tommy Roe. Julia and I were backup singers on those records too. A lot of people were hiring Julia and me at the time. Then Steve asked to produce Julia and me as a duo — the Waters sisters. We said we have two brothers, and we already have a group, so we don’t need to be a duo. We know how powerful our group is. If we didn’t think that Luther and Oren were strong, we would have gone on with it as the two of us, but the best thing we knew would be the whole group. Steve decided to record all four of us.
Julia: Steve was leaving ABC Records at the time. A lot of the work that we did with him was for ABC. He loved the sound of the entire group, so he took us over to Warner Bros. with him and signed us. Michael Omartian was a part of his stable, with his writing, and of course, he played the keyboards. Being around town meeting these musicians, we knew Michael and had worked with him before on other projects.
Luther, just prior to Steve Barri and Michael Omartian producing the Waters, you and Oren worked with them in Rhythm Heritage. They had a number one hit with “Theme from S.W.A.T.”. That was an instrumental, but you guys brought a great flavor to “My Cherie Amour” on the album Disco-Fied (1976). Describe the experience of working with Rhythm Heritage.
Luther: When you look at Rhythm Heritage, a lot of articles will mention the guys in the band, but Oren and I were actually there from the jump. If you heard singing on Rhythm Heritage, that was the two of us, and then sometimes Michael Omartian would sing. Michael was a genius with those computers and those synthesizers. It just took off. It was a studio group with all these bad dudes, like Jay Graydon! It was on. The group was really successful. We did the first album. I was driving a truck — Big Brown — with those 35-inch Dick Cepek tires. It was a ballsy truck. When we came back for the second or third album, there were so many Ferraris parked all over the parking lot. As the group sort of disbanded, it disbanded into these successful entities …
Oren: … like Toto! We were great friends with them too, like Steve Lukather and the Porcaro brothers.
The album that Steve Barri and Michael Omartian produced for you on Warner Bros. was also called Waters (1977). It’s such a gem. How would you characterize their approach to producing the four of you in the studio?
Luther: Brains and brawn. One guy had the gift of assembling people and moving them forward — that’s the brain guy, that’s Steve — and the brawn is the guy that came in with every technical piece that could possibly be used to create things, that was Michael. Michael Omartian is a quiet genius. When he touches an instrument, his creativity is off the hook. He’s just completely over the top. I have the greatest respect for Michael Omartian and Steve Barri.
Maxine: They’re the bomb! Their temperament, their musical ability, their different personalities, their different strengths … they work so well together. It was wonderful working with them. No problem at all. If there were any bumps, it was because of us, not because of them. They are cool. Both of them are just wonderful men. We trusted them, their ability, and opinions, or we wouldn’t have been able to get along. We had a lot of respect for them.
Julia: Back then, Steve was a premiere producer. He was producing hit after hit after hit. He said, “Do you guys have any songs that you’d like to put on the album?” We all had an opportunity to sit around and say, “This would be good or that would be good.” When you were doing an album like that back in the day, you tried to make a story out of the whole album, so the songs gel together. At that time, we could sing anything. We could sing from pop to rock to gospel to whatever.
Oren: When we do things for other people, the main focus is on the other artist. What made this album unique for us was that the production was focused on us. It was a lot of fun working with people of that caliber, especially the cerebral part of it. This involved the thought process of probing into who you are as an artist. Another thing that made it different was the ability to express ourselves doing a lot of lead vocals and not just backing vocals. It brought home the fact that singing backup wasn’t all we were able to do. We have more to say. We have our own thoughts.
Photo: Eric Page / Left to right: Oren Waters, Luther Waters, Julia Waters, Maxine Waters
“The Other Side of Midnight” is the perfect introduction to the album. I think it’s one of the greatest recordings you ever cut as a group.
Luther: I love “The Other Side of Midnight”. That’s a great song. When you hear the texture of the instrumentation and the texture of the voices, it all sounds like one piece. Everything is smooth, even the tempo. It doesn’t jump out and say, “Hey, we’re R&B or hey, we’re pop!” It jumps out and says, “This is music.” I believe that song is ageless.
Julia: People still talk about “The Other Side of Midnight”. They love that song. The harmony parts, the words, the sound of the music, and the way that it was orchestrated and the way that we sang it … the whole thing gelled. It was a happy song. That’s the only way I can describe it. It’s still one of my favorites. I listened to “The Other Side of Midnight” this morning, and I thought, That’s a hit right now!
The music flows like water or, should I say, Waters! When I was driving around LA yesterday afternoon, I turned onto Highland Ave. while listening to “The Other Side of Midnight”. I saw this row of gorgeous palm trees against the clear blue sky. That scene fit the music perfectly, even though it was the middle of the day.
Luther: What you just said is how I see it. “The Other Side of Midnight” is so laid back and relaxing. Everything just fits.
Julia: You know what I’ve always said, Christian? I call songs that I really like “driving songs”. That’s the experience that you were having. You could listen to that song and relax in all of this godforsaken traffic that we have! [laughs] It relaxed you. Songs that I like, I think, ‘Oh, this is a good driving song.’ I don’t need to listen to anything else. I can just keep playing it over and over. It’s like the car moves to the rhythm of that track.
Oren, I especially love the way your voice coasts along with that melody. What did “The Other Side of Midnight” evoke for you as a lead singer?
Oren: You couple that melody with the meaning of the song and it matches. It’s bright and it’s personal and it’s happy. I love it. I thank Steve and Michael that their vision of us would give us the capability of singing a song like that. A person like me, I always press ahead with writing and moving on, and then all of a sudden, when you are prompted to reach back and look at some of the past work, it can sort of be amazing to you because you have a different perspective. You’ve grown in a certain direction, and then you listen back and think, Wow, that’s good. The vision that Steve and Michael had for us is still inspirational to this day.
Billboard magazine chose “The Other Side of Midnight” as a “Top Single Pick” so it was nice to see it get some recognition in the trade magazines.
Maxine: At the time, the movie The Other Side of Midnight (1977) was out. People thought our song was the title track to that movie, although it wasn’t in the movie. All of that was at the same time, so there might have been some confusion. Had the movie not been out there, the song would have done more.
Maxine, the Warner Bros. album features a song you wrote called “What Am I Doing Wrong”. I’d be curious to know, what were you doing wrong?
Maxine: I don’t know! [laughter] I finally figured out it was them doing wrong! It wasn’t me all along. I don’t know what I was thinking of when I wrote that song because I feel nothing like that now. [laughs] I like the song, and I like the melody that goes with the words.
Julia: “What Am I Doing Wrong” had meaningful lyrics, something that everybody could relate to. It’s a question that a man or a lady could ask somebody that they may have their eye on. To me, it’s still in that same place as a driving song. You can sway your head to it and listen to the music and say, “Oh yeah, I can relate to that.”
Oren, you also wrote, “Could It Be the Magic” and “We Can Change It” on the album. One is sort of romantic, and the other looks outward at society. Those two topics are never out of style. All of these years later, they still resonate.
Oren: That’s a good evaluation. The songs that I write, or we write still reflect the voice of society. I’m glad you brought that out because, to this day, that’s true. The new song that I was fortunate to play for you, “What You Give is What You’re Gonna Get Back”, is also a display about the voice of society being presented through the artist, that we should say what’s reflected around us.
Julia: Oren’s got a home studio. When he gets started with writing, he might not go to bed until five o’clock in the morning. He’s not going to let it go until it’s finished. He’s real particular and real meticulous. He’s very talented with the rhythm that he hears and the lyrics that he hears. He’s intense with his writing. We’re all talented in different ways, and he’s continued writing, whereas the rest of us have kind of dropped the ball with writing. He kept it up all of these years, so he’s grown tremendously.
Luther, you wrote “Peace at Last”, which closes Waters. Listening to that song reminds me that you served in Vietnam. How did that experience shape your understanding of the world in ways that might be different from your siblings?
Luther: It gave me different insight. People don’t understand some of the things you lose when you go through that. Coming from Vietnam, I have coping skills to deal with people, so I can hang out with folks, but I stay thoroughly uncomfortable around people. That’s something that you’ll find in a lot of vets — they’re more comfortable in not being surrounded by people, especially large crowds. I don’t mind being on the stage. I enjoy being on the stage, actually, but being in the crowd when people start bumping into each other is really hard for somebody like me.
Oren: One thing that I noticed before Luther went over there is that we were all smoking cigarettes. He wasn’t. When he came back, he was smoking cigarettes and we’d all quit. That, to me, was a defining thing that I noticed.
Luther: I didn’t really smoke cigarettes, but I would be in the barracks choking because guys were smoking. They said, “Waters, if you smoked, the cigarettes wouldn’t drive you crazy!” so I started smoking. Then, my wife made me get rid of the cigarettes, so that took care of that issue.
Julia: I saw letters that you wrote to our mother, and she would share those letters with me. We would sit there and cry at those letters. It was a horrible time, not only for you but for our other friends that went to that war. They saw stuff that I would never want to see. You definitely changed.
Luther: I know that I did.
It seems like the Waters album on Warner Bros. had so much potential. It’s disappointing that it didn’t get more support at the time, but it holds up.
Julia: I absolutely love that album. I always said that it’s timeless. I was just very excited to be doing our “own music” thinking that we were going to be these big artists, but God had another plan for us. That album has got some really good songs on it. We were able to contribute a little bit more to it. There’s two or three songs that could really be hit songs if we would go back and re-record them with the same concept and the same parts, but just bump up the instrumentation.
Luther: You had groups like Friends of Distinction and the 5th Dimension. We actually had that sound or better. We never really broke into airplay. We always had a decent market in LA and in San Francisco, but we never really got across the country. Steve tried his best to move us forward. He really tried hard. We just never got out there.
Maxine: My personal opinion is that if we were to have had a big hit record, we would be doing “oldies but goodies” shows right now, figuring out how we’re going to put our next band together. We don’t have to do anything like that. I’m okay with it! It wasn’t like the records didn’t do much, and then we got lost. We kept growing and became stars of backup. I really give all glory to God for the path that we’ve taken. In the meantime, we did so much work that we accrued huge pensions.
The third Waters album Watercolors (1980) was released on Arista. Oren, there’s a song on there you co-wrote called “Heart Lead the Way”. Of all the songs you’ve written or co-written with others, what place does that song hold for you?
Oren: Oh my Lord. Just to hear the title, I can’t tell you how it just went through my body right now. I can feel it. That was a song I wrote with my friends, Addison Terry and Raymond Gibson. The melody of it and the range of it just sort of came out. People see things in you sometimes that you don’t see in yourself. We were in the studio, and I was playing around with it a little bit. That song started with the melody [sings] “They tell my heart to lead the way”. Addison and Raymond were so curious about that melody. They wanted to write to it. I really think about them now because both of them are deceased. I am just so connected to that song. It is timeless, but it’s timeless in the sense that it’s locked in a time capsule where it’s just there. It doesn’t go away. It doesn’t become more magnified. It doesn’t fade. That track is just hovering all the time.
Photo: Eric Page / Left to right: Luther Waters, Julia Waters, Maxine Waters, Christian John Wikane, Oren Waters
Throughout the 1970s, you did a lot of sessions for Herbie Hancock. I’d love to know how you started working with him.
Luther: We go back quite a ways. I think we got access to Herbie because of our experience through Blue Note. We did some beautiful marvelous work, working with those jazz artists. We’re a unique instrument. I look at us as being a horn section in the band or the orchestra. The horns have to be tight in a band. That crispness is who we are when we sing. We could sing the notes Herbie played like a horn section.
Wow, that’s an epiphany for me because the backgrounds you sang in the breakdown on Herbie’s “You Bet Your Love” (1979) are definitely reminiscent of a horn section. The syllables are so precise.
Maxine: I know how we had to execute it, but I never broke it down like that! I have so much respect for Herbie and his music. I don’t get excited about everybody, but he’s one of the ones that I remember I was really excited about. His temperament is very smooth. I love Herbie Hancock. He’s just a talent of his own.
Oren: When I think of Herbie Hancock, I think of his genius. It’s really on an exceptional level. Among talented people, he’s up at the top of those who are talented. He has his own special place, which I appreciate and understand. He has a calling, an anointing because it’s different. He’s not just banging on a piano. He wasn’t abrasive or demanding or anything like that. He’s good people to be around.
Julia: We were pulling for Herbie to have a hit as much as he was pulling for himself to have a hit. When we went into the studio with any artist, we went in with the idea, “This is ours too.” It didn’t have to be about getting the royalties, of course, we were getting paid for our services, but we went in to do our best. You have the ice cream or the cake. Let me put the icing on! To me, the backing vocals completed the sound. We had to go in there with that mindset and leave our egos at the door. We might have had better voices than some of the artists, but it wasn’t about that. We would go in with the intention of giving each and every artist what they wanted. We still do that.
David Rubinson produced all of those albums you sang on for Herbie Hancock, in addition to your own Watercolors album and Patti LaBelle’s first two albums that featured you on backgrounds. What did you learn from David?
Luther: It was a growth period when we worked with David. We were always professional, but to me, when we started working with David, it was a step up, the way we looked at things contractually. He didn’t have a whole lot of people he was producing, but the people he did produce were heavy hitters. His studio, the Automatt, had all the technical bells and whistles that you could stuff in it. He taught me a different level of professionalism.
Years ago when I interviewed Marlena Shaw, she described your voices as soy, the way soy takes on the flavor of whatever you put with it.
Oren: A friend of ours, Phillip Ingram, God bless him. He always said, “If you want a hit record, just add the Waters … but you got to do with it ‘Pheel-ing!'” [laughs]
Julia: I can remember when we first met Patti LaBelle. We walked into the studio in San Francisco. She looked at us and said [in disbelief] “What?” She’d thought we’d be big fat ladies because of the chest cavity. We have big voices, but we can also sing with a softer voice like Michael Jackson. We could cop the Bee Gees to a tee, with the vibrato and everything. We sounded just like them, but that’s because we tried.
Luther: When people think of Maxine, Julia, and Oren, they think of that three-part harmony, right? This is why my situation was different because I was that fourth part. A lot of people don’t hear that fourth part. They hear basic harmonies. That pretty much kept me at bay and limited my performances, even if I was an octave down from Julia. If people added the fourth, it would have changed the dynamic on a lot of records that we did. The people that did add it capitalized on it. Herbie could utilize all the voices. He’s a marvelous musician.
Julia: A lot of artists allowed us to take their idea and embellish their idea. From having the vocal capabilities of doing it, you say. “This might sound better if we do it like this or like that. Can we try it?” Artists being who they are will say sure, especially when you’re doing “head charts” where an artist may have an idea, but it’s in their head, it’s not written down. They may say, “I want you guys to sing the melody here.” Then we have the capability of listening to the instruments, listening to whatever the melody that the lead singer is singing, and then just building the vocal parts around that with the notes. You never want to crush what an artist is hearing and say, “That doesn’t work.” You work together along with them to make it all work.
Luther: The space between the notes adds a different dynamic to the music. It almost acts like a note. If you watch us in a session, you’ll see my hand. I guess it’s the choir director in me, my hand comes up, and I’ll cut us off as we’re singing. Maxine is the person who interprets all the notes. She makes sure that every note is exactly perfect. Oren does those step-outs because that’s Oren, and that’s Julia too. Oren will always add an ad-lib. With me, it’s about the entrances and the cut-offs. For me, the last piece is the interpretation of the words. I sit down and try to understand what is the writer saying?
Maxine, one of the albums that featured you and Julia on backup was Bad Girls (1979) by Donna Summer. You sang on all those hits — “Hot Stuff”, “Bad Girls”, and “Dim All the Lights”. What did you enjoy about that particular session?
Maxine: Oh the music! It was so good and so well-produced. When we were doing “toot-toot beep-beep”, me, Julia, and Stephanie Spruill would be dancing. We’re not just standing there at the mic. We’re gettin it! We’re dancing, turning around, coming back to the mic in time to sing “toot-toot beep-beep”, then turning around again.
During the disco era, the records were long, so as far as our scale that we got paid, every three and a half minutes was counted as another song. If one song lasted fifteen minutes, we got paid five times for that one song, plus we double-tracked them, so that turned into ten songs. When I think about all the dancing we did during those sessions for Rick James and Teena Marie, Bad Girls, Yvonne Elliman’s “If I Can’t Have You” … the disco days really racked us up good pensions. It was really cool. The music was so good.
You mentioned “If I Can’t Have You”. Last year, I interviewed Yvonne Elliman and she commented on how that record would not be what it is without you, Julia, and Marti McCall on background vocals. She said that when she sings that song live, the most important thing for her is that whoever’s singing the background vocals has to sing them perfectly because that’s what creates the excitement in that song.
Maxine: Yeah! “If I Can’t Have You” was cool. The other song where the background vocals made the song was Gino Vannelli’s “I Just Wanna Stop”. That’s Stephanie Spruill, me, and Julia. The backup makes that song. We had a good time doing that. I love that song. I’m proud of that song.
Julia: Gino was such a good writer. The words that we were singing were so right on target. A lot of times, when you’re singing, you put all of yourself into it. That’s one of those songs that came out that way. The melody to “I Just Wanna Stop” was beautiful, the words were beautiful, and the way that he orchestrated and recorded it, the whole sound was really a beautiful sound. Then another thing about that song is he put the vocals upfront. Our vocals were out there, whereas a lot of artists will take your vocals way back. Sometimes you don’t even know that the vocals are there, but those vocals on “I Just Wanna Stop” were out front just like Gino’s voice.
Luther, how were you and Oren cast in The Jazz Singer (1980)?
Luther: Oren and I were on the road with Barry Manilow. Julia and Maxine were working a session with Neil Diamond at the time. He got the call to do the movie. They were going to put four actors in to be this black group. It was supposed to be a group of brothers. Neil is going to make sure his music is right. The music was not going to be right if it was four actors. He was not going to have poor singing on his movie. Franklin Ajaye was a very good actor, and Rod Gist was a very good actor, but they really could not sing. Neil said, “You can have two actors, but I need two musicians.” He asked Maxine and Julia, or they told him — one way or the other — and they gave us the call. We came off the road with Barry and went into The Jazz Singer instantly.
How did it feel to translate your talents to a different medium?
Luther: All I had to do was read the scene, and then I had a picture in my mind of just how that scene should look and flow compared to reality. Then I would take myself and put myself in that situation. I probably would have been a good actor.
Oren: The character that I was required to be was pretty much who I was. [laughs] I already knew I could do it because I’ve been doing it my whole life. You just go there and be you. You hear this in acting — “Get out of your own way.” I guess that’s what separates real actors from people just playing a part. They can capture a character. It was an honor to be put in that environment with such great stars, Laurence Olivier and people like that, who are all right there, and they’re looking at you. To not have an agent, to not go through an audition, which is the normal process of ending up in a movie like that, I just think, Wow, look at what God blessed me with.
Photo: Eric Page / Luther Waters holding Waters (1977) Warner Bros. album
The Waters have been a fixture with Neil Diamond, either in the studio or on the road, since the 1970s. What do you attribute to the longevity of your relationship with him?
Julia: Neil is such a loyal person. If you work for Neil and he likes you, you’re gonna be around. Some of those band members on that 50th-anniversary tour were with him for 50 years. I worked with him for almost 40 years. I sang with him on albums. Finally, he called and said, “Julia,I need you.” That’s how I got into the band. When they decided on another singer outside of Linda Press and myself, then we got Maxine to come in. Before then, we had traveled on the Christmas tour because we had done his Christmas album. Oren got a chance to go. That was in 1993 or 1992.
Maxine: Any chance Neil got to include us in anything, we’d get a call from him. When Julia and I joined as permanent band members, he spoiled us! There’s nobody like him. He’s very generous and caring. I just love him.
Luther and Oren, having worked in these different situations with Neil Diamond and Barry Manilow, I’d love to know the dynamic between the two of you as brothers who sing together.
Luther: We do quite well on the road together. It’s not a thing of conflict or jealousy or anything because we have our own space. Oren and I don’t have competition in voice, so we just get out there and do what we do.
Oren: Out of all the fights that I’ve had in the streets — and I have had many, believe you me — Luther is the only one who ever beat me. [laughs] He hit me in my head so hard one time that I saw stars, like in the cartoons. I didn’t think all that kind of stuff was real. That actually happened. That created a bond that’s unbreakable. That not only goes for Luther and I, it goes for the entire family. We would argue among ourselves, but Lord knows, please don’t let anybody else try to jump in. Don’t do that because now you’re going to have a united front against you. You’re not gonna win. I always knew that Maxine, Julia, and Luther had my back. That gave me a confidence that could be sometimes interpreted as arrogance. I wasn’t arrogant. I was just confident that I knew if it goes down, I’m not alone. I already knew that from the experience of coming up with my father not physically being there, but knowing spiritually that I’m not alone, ever. My relationship with my brother and my entire family has always been unbreakable.
Julia: After our father went missing and didn’t come home, my mother said, “We’ve got to stick together. We’ve got to watch each other’s back.” I think that that was bred into us, that we have to look out for each other.
Oren: When we started to move our mother up here to Altadena from Los Angeles, there was a big brown paper bag full of letters. On the top letter, it said, “Dear husband, The children are asking about you. You’re not responding to my letters. Why not? I love you, and miss you.” It was right at Christmastime. On the outside, it was stamped MIA — Missing In Action. It was the top letter. This was the last letter my mother must have written to my father. I look at every single war documentary, and I always try to see my father. I look up at the stars, and I try to figure out what star he was looking at because he was a praying man. What star was he praying on before they got him?
Julia and Maxine, you’ve sung with Kim Carnes for many years, from Tina Turner’s Acid Queen (1975) album to Kim’s own albums, and even a commercial for Diet Coke. How does she fit into the family as an honorary Waters sister?
Julia: We’ve known Kim a long, long time. She could sing. We gelled with her and became more than singing partners. That relationship just blossomed into a real strong friendship. We have a good solid relationship. That’s what it is. She’s like a sister by another mother. She was and is such a sweetheart. She’s a real person.
Maxine: It was another one of those things like Neil, some people you just bond with. I can’t even remember how I met Kim, but she and I were born only a week apart. We always check in around birthday time. We’ve done a lot together. Our voices are fabulous on Kim’s album Sailin’ (1976). She’s one of my best friends. We’re don’t talk all the time, but when we do, it’s like we put a comma there, and now we’re continuing on. We’re really close.
In the early 1980s, Fame was a huge TV show, perhaps more so in the UK than in the states. What do you recall about touring overseas with the “Kids from Fame“?
Julia: That was a huge tour. Remember when the Beatles came over here, they called it “Beatlemania”? That’s how people reacted to Fame. People were going crazy when they saw the kids from Fame. They even went so far as rocking the buses, just trying to get to us. It was crowds of people. We had to have tons of bodyguards.
Luther: You’re on the road with Neil Diamond, that’s pretty big, but when you’re on the road and people swarm the bus as you’re driving down the street? It was an experience. When you go into the arena, and you go down into the catacombs, there might be a window that goes into the outside, and people are standing in the window, saying, “Please sign this!” They would throw their booklets in. We played the most humongous venues. We played venues where there was no way that people could see us. We’re not talking the Staples Center or Madison Square Garden. We’re talking the big sons of guns. And they were sold out all the time!
It must have been an interesting tour because they were younger …
Julia:… so they were crazy and wild! [laughs] You know how young people are, but that was cool too. They would jump in the pool with their clothes on. They’d come in the hotel, and you’d hear all the noise and the laughter, having a good time.
Luther: The only other adult on the tour would have been Debbie Allen. They were young adults but to me, they were all just kids. They had a lot to learn. I was, for sure, a very grown man. I had been through some things. I was the ‘Grown Up’ form Fame!
Julia: Janet Jackson was on that tour. She was very young and her mom had to come with us. In fact, Maxine did the voice of Janet Jackson because a lot of times, we had to cover for them on the stage. Maxine would sing her part and Janet would mimic. She’d move her mouth, but it would be Maxine singing. I don’t think many people knew that, but that was the reality of it.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about Janet’s brother, specifically how you got the call to do backgrounds on Thriller (1982).
Julia: By then, everybody knew who the Waters were. Michael started calling the shots. We did other things with Michael. We sang on “Muscles”, which he produced for Diana Ross. We did a lot the Jacksons’ stuff, too. I think “Heartbreak Hotel” [the Jacksons] was me, Maxine, and Stephanie Spruill. “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” was just me, Maxine, Oren, and Michael. I can recall one session where it was a choir of people. The guy that contracted the session was on the phone with Michael. He said, “Michael wants the Waters to be upfront.” That made us feel so proud that Michael thought of us in that way. He always thought that our voices blended so well with his. That’s because we worked at it.
Maxine: I liked working with Michael. He was a little serious for me, but I liked him. He wasn’t fun like Rick James. Rick was fun. The music was off the hook. He was just so good to Julia and I. When he started doing some of his stuff at a studio in Rochester, New York, he would send for us and give us a hotel and send a chauffeur to the airport with flowers in the limousine. He came to my 33rd birthday party. Earth, Wind & Fire were all there. They’re still good friends.
Oren, how had Michael grown as an artist since you’d first worked with him at Motown?
Oren: He was doing things that he’d learned from being around the great ones, just like we had grown from being around the great ones. Quincy Jones was a tremendous force. When we did Thriller, it was just us and Michael over at his house. I said, “Michael, what does ‘mama-say mama-sa mama-ko-sa’ mean”? He said, “It don’t mean nothing. Just sing it!”
In the later part of Michael’s career, the attorneys started showing up. You’d go to the studio, and you’d have to sign a release form before you were even allowed in the studio. People had started to accuse him, falsely accuse him, in my opinion, of being somebody that he wasn’t. I think that it confused him and hurt him to the level where he really had no choice but to allow the influence of all these other people who were never in the studio before. You’re trying to deal with a transition that was very abrupt and very abrasive — “What are you talking about signing something before I can go up there and holler at Mike? Mike is my boy. Somebody else sign it. I’m not signing it.” “You have to sign …” “No, I don’t. Go get Michael.” He comes and then he says, “You have to do it.” It was devastating. It was a moment I’ll never forget. To me, music was a collaboration. Now all of a sudden, you have a document to sign? It dimmed some of the magic. It’s not being creative anymore, it’s being compliant.
Photo: Eric Page / Christian John Wikane and Oren Waters
Luther, while your siblings continued to tour and do session work, you got a Doctorate in Education. At what point did you become “Dr. Luther Waters”?
Luther: I don’t let any grass grow under my feet! After coming off the road with The Jazz Singer, I opened my own business — a mobile stationary store — and became the first African American distributor in the U.S. for Maxell Corporation for magnetic media and the largest distributor of Wang Computer Supplies in the United States, other than Wang itself. After that, I went back to college to realize my dream of becoming a teacher. I was a music major when I started college, but music curriculums were being pulled out of schools. That’s why I switched over to social science. I got my Bachelor’s in Social Science with credentials in Special Education. Then I got a Master’s in Administration and became an assistant principal.
From there, I got an offer for a teacher coordinator position, which paid more than the assistant principal job that I had. That was in the division of special education. I ended up being the District Coordinator for the district office of Transition Service. During that time, I went into the Doctorate program. I created the transition assessments that they used to determine what individuals with pretty substantial disabilities should do when they grow up. I opened a school for young adults, the Career in Transition Training Center. I trained kids to go out into the job market.
By the time 20 Feet from Stardom was released, the Waters had more than 50 years of credits in the industry. What was your experience like being featured in the film alongside so many of your peers?
Julia: Our plight was totally different from the main characters like Darlene Love and Merry Clayton. They wanted to be their own stars out front, solo — we did too, but it was okay that we were in the back. I remember one comment that Judith Hill made in 20 Feet. She said she would put on wigs to keep people from knowing that she was singing the background, something to that effect. I thought, Why would she say that? To me, you’re a blessing to those people that you’re singing background with. I always felt that it took all parts to make it work. If you didn’t have that piano player or drummer or guitarist, or that bass player or that horn player, then where would your track be? That’s how I felt about us.
Maxine: People we had already worked with got back in touch again. We didn’t have very much to do in that … and I left the interview early! If you notice in the last scene, it’s just Julia and Oren. I’m married to the Vice Mayor over here in Long Beach. I was dating him at that time, and I had a date with him. They didn’t tell us that it was going to be a movie or I wouldn’t have left. Luckily, I had some makeup on!
Luther: The movie was filmed when I was the coordinator for the division of special education for Los Angeles Unified School District. I had 135 people who worked under me. Every year, I had to manage this program for 36,000 students. Julia called and said there were some people who wanted to interview us. I couldn’t walk away from my duties at the district because it was that kind of job, so I wasn’t there in the 20 Feet from Stardom interview.
Oren: They were smart to interview us, just because the body of work sort of demanded that we’d be in there or else it wouldn’t have been the real story. The main thing is that we were able to go to certain screenings and talk to people. That, to me, was what was most important. I appreciate the fans that say this is of interest to me. My prayer is that any blessings that come for me are magnified so that they’ll be a blessing for other people too. Our story is so much bigger than 20 Feet from Stardom. It’s a movie. It’s the inner workings of being up all night and going home in the morning, going through the different psychological approaches of the different people that you had to deal with in order to get to the music. That’s the story of the Waters.
The story of the Waters encompasses so much. Is there anything that you haven’t done in music that you would still like to do?
Maxine: Yes, as a matter of fact. I would love to be in a play. I’ve never done a stage play. I could handle that now I think. I need to be doing something else, but it can’t be everyday. I’d like to do it Off-Broadway.
Julia: I’ve often thought of doing a play because I used to do that in school. We’ve recorded music for plays but have not actually been in plays, though Oren was in a couple of plays. To me, some of your greatest singers are in those New York plays. Their voices are phenomenal.
Oren: It’s funny you should ask that. This is something that’s been fresh in my mind. We have done so much in every genre, from live performances to recordings to commercials to movies to singing in different languages to touring the world … extraordinary experiences. I can’t think of any element of show business that we have not participated in. I would like to do a song singing in tongues. That is an element that we have not approached. I’m talking about the spiritual anointing of the Holy Spirit, that you allow that to come out. It would have to be something that is spontaneous because I think that if it’s not spontaneous, then it’s not genuine. Speaking in tongues is not something that is rehearsed. It’s something that you must release within yourself.
Luther: I would love to do a gospel album. That’s Julia’s dream also. That’s been mine for a long time. I have a title for a book that I came up with. The name of the book is When My Heart Sings. I want to write it so that everybody can blend in. I wrote the first two pages of the book, and it’s been sitting on the desktop of my computer for the last four or five years. The title really rings. That’s the Waters. Mama loved to sing. She walked around the house singing. She was our greatest fan. We were her greatest fan. We were just kids when our father passed away, so she was father and mother.
Shortly after the release of 20 Feet from Stardom, I remember reading that the Waters received the VOICE Award from the Society of Singers. I applauded you all the way from New York.
Julia: To me, that was one of the highlights of our career. It was an awesome feeling to know that we were recognized and appreciated by our peers. We were treated like VIPs. You had some pretty well-known people there who had spent thousands of dollars to go to this banquet.
Luther: I was thoroughly honored to get that. That was really a blessing. The industry people knew, but a lot of other folks wondered, “Who’s this fourth guy that’s in the pictures?” It was an honor to receive that. We’ve led a blessed life, above what people could even imagine.
Maxine: Oh, that was wonderful. That was very fulfilling. That was really cool. That established a relationship with us and Mike Love. He got an award that night too. Then we ended up going in after that and recording backgrounds on his album and traveling with him. You got to have a good reputation, and you always have to be ready. That came from that night. It was a very honorable experience of getting that VOICE Award.
Oren: It was so much fun being there. I’m extremely appreciative to be honored in any way. So many from the singing community came to support us. I wanted to say a lot of things that I did not say because there was so much going on. There’s four of us and each of us gets up and says something. I’m thinking, Oh man, these people probably really want to get out of here, so I did not take the time to really say what I felt. I should have thanked Sally Stevens, particularly, who has always been very influential in the singing community here in Los Angeles. I should have had her stand up and called her up to the stage because she was part of the committee that said, “Who are we going to honor?”
If I’m a great singer, it’s because of people that I was around [voice breaks], and they have contributed so greatly to me wanting to be better. I didn’t tell them how much I appreciate what they had done to contribute to us being better, and to me being better. If I ever get a chance to be honored like that again, I’m going to tell the people what I feel.
Julia: A lot of people who we meet will come up and say, “Thank you for really paving the way for us.” In some of the interviews we’ve had, we tell people you’ve got to get your rest and take care of your body. You need to learn how to read music — that’s one of the first things to do — and learn your craft. Doing movies and commercials, you have to know how to read because these people are spending a lot of money in the studio so they want you to get in there, do it, and get out of there. We always carried ourselves with dignity. We always carried ourselves in a respectful way. Nobody’s perfect and everybody has made mistakes, but we’ve never burned any bridges, and we’ve always taken our work very seriously. It’s been fun! We had a unique sound and it’s still a unique sound.