THE SWEETEST THINGS… THE PAULETTE McWILLIAMS INTERVIEW
Chicago’s PAULETTE McWILLIAMS is something of cult figure on the soul scene. Almost unknown in the mainstream, her few recordings are revered by those in the know. The paucity of her own work is down to the fact that in the States she’s a Premier League session and BV singer- both on the road and in the studio. She’s worked with a veritable who’s who of “names” across genres , oh, and did we mention that she helped unleash a certain Chaka Khan on the world? Ms. Mc Williams has just released a new album, ‘These Are The Sweet Things’ and it’s winning rave reviews, so what better time to sit down with the genial Paulette for a good ‘ole Q&A. We began by wanting to know how she started in the business…
…Well, I’d been singing since I was 2 yrs old and it hit me at around 7-8 that that was all I really ever wanted to do. By the time I was 14 I had a manager, Don Talty and I made a record as Paulette and the Cupids… ‘Teenage Dropout’. The label was Prism. But school came first. I graduated High School in 1967. So I wasn’t really fully on the scene until around 1969 when I auditioned for The American Breed (a Chicago pop band who’d enjoyed a big hit with ‘Bend Me Shape Me’) that’s when I really became involved in the Chicago scene and I’d occasionally see people like Gene Chandler and Curtis Mayfield in the studio – but we never really met. Then once I started traveling with the American Breed we performed in different venues throughout the mid-west states performing for colleges in the south and then coming back to downtown Chicago. We then of course changed our name to Ask Rufus and we made contact with many of the artists that were prominent at the time. We met and hung out with people like Donny Hathaway, Baby Huey,Linda Clifford, Minnie Riperton and actor Stan Shaw who was in Hair and he’d bring the cast to see us perform. So I guess once I started with the American Breed and was getting paid professionally that’s when it really started for me.
Tell us about your time with American Breed/Ask Rufus…
This was the beginning of my moving into a dynamic that I had no clue how to navigate. The band had a few hits ‘Bend Me Shape Me’ and ‘If I were a Carpenter’ and they were a very popular, sort of Bubble Gum group. Then Sly and The Family Stone came along and the Bubble Gum thing sort of diminished for so many because Sly was so incredibly innovative and he brought the funk. So, the band members decided to make their image a bit hipper and wanted to add a female singer and I auditioned. Out of 150 girls I got the gig! And oh, it was fun but it was also painful…learning wasn’t always an easy, comfortable feeling because I felt then that I knew so very little. Absolutely nothing about the energy of the entertainment business.
Can you explain…
I got knocked down a lot learning about what racism felt like. Learning about what I thought was love was just a convenient booty call. Which I never ever wanted to be.. Thinking I was important to someone who just truly broke my heart and thought nothing of it. I learned the show must go on no matter how much you’re hurting inside. But also there were very happy moments of accolades and audience giving standing ovations for performances. Those things felt good and of course, when the band complimented things I did. I also learned about performance.
Tell us more about how American Breed morphed into Rufus …
After Sly and The Family Stone came on the scene their innovation brought a whole new feeling of people loving the funk and the way he did it .The Breed wanted to keep up and keep their audiences which is why they decided to add a female vocalist (Me!) to be more competitive. The material changed and we morphed into a funkier pop, rock n roll flavour. We changed a few players and Charles Colbert who was playing bass moved up front and we got Willie Weeks and Jimmy Stella who had his own group called “The Circus” at the time. He was quite the performer!Now that name!We first had changed the name to “Smoke” only to find out within a few weeks there was a group out there already with that name. One night on tour, we had gathered in Charles Colbert’s hotel room in Minneapolis Minnesota when we heard about the other “Smoke” and Chuck came out of the rest room while we were all sitting around pondering names and said, “I know what the band should be called “Ask Rufus””… and we loved it!! There was a magazine, at the time, called the Farmer’s Almanac and there was a regular feature in that magazine called “Ask Rufus” and that name stuck!
Then of course you left the band to spend more time with your family…but you did introduce Chaka Khan to the group… what can you tell us about that?
We were doing a lot of travelling. As a matter of fact we spent 3 months in the South of France, St Tropez. It was crazy and we packed the house every night! A beautiful club on the water called Papagayo .We ran into artists like The Rolling Stones and many other Rock n Roll acts. When we returned from the South of France I was missing my daughter who was just a baby then. Now Chaka (Yvette) and I were such besties that she would come downtown to whatever club we were playing and sometimes she’d be dancing and hanging out. Ask Rufus didn’t know her then because they were off doing their own thing when she and I would hang on our breaks. Now I kept getting calls and invites to record jingles – all very lucrative – and I began to realize that I could stay at home and make great money and pursue my career differently. Also at that time Cash McCall was forming a group called Life and asked me to join. I turned him down but told him about Chaka. Then I told the Ask Rufus boys I was leaving and they were not very happy! I told them about Chaka and they eventually said OK but only if I would stay for two more weeks and train her! Of course, I knew she would blow them away and if they were to hold any auditions for new singers, they would never get anyone like her. To this day I don’t even know if she knew that was the deal but it doesn’t matter.
Seeing as Rufus and Chaka went on to enjoy success , do you have any regrets leaving?
None. No regrets especially when I look back. I got to work a lot and was one of the “A” singers on call across the country. I got to be at home more with my daughter and sang on plenty of very lucrative jingles and sessions and Chaka and I are still the best of friends. I also realize that everyone has a different journey that is laid out for them. This was mine. She’s quite awesome and I’ve always been a supporter of hers. So no regrets. Regrets are truly a waste of time and keep you from moving forward.
That session work, tell us about some of the most memorable ones …
I was doing session work in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. My most memorable sessions were with Quincy Jones, and of course I sang on sessions with Luther. We sang on sessions for The Brecker Brothers, Irene Cara, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, and many many more. The Michael Jackson sessions with Quincy producing were incredible! Meeting and singing with the top singers in any of those cities was extraordinary. Singing on ‘Mellow Madness’ with Quincy and meeting Billy Preston, Leon Ware, The Brothers Johnson, singing in New York on all of Luther’s favourites and becoming part of his core group on whatever albums he worked on. It’s always been an incredible experience.
Tell us more about Luther …
It was heaven in many ways and it was also a lesson in touring… how to work towards being your very best. It was going to school and realizing I was part of a very important team. It was family on the road and in the studio. It was joyful, laughter and sometimes tears. But always learning. I thank God for my years with Luther . I was with him for over 20 years.
Sadly missed, Luther was a master craftsman… what did you learn from him?
I’m really not sure about how to answer this question because I learned so much from him. I learned about how important it was to be true to yourself and follow your gut regarding whatever the issue is. I learned about how important it is to be precise with whatever the vocals are and how to really sing exactly the part that is given to you. How to emulate exactly what he asked for which really put me on a list of the top singers that could sing background from diverse artist from Placido Domingo to David Bowie and every artist in between. Luther was the expert and he was kind and funny and loving but he knew what he wanted and if you couldn’t give it to him you wouldn’t be asked back to the next session. Everyone wanted to sing on Luther’s sessions.
So, busy with sessions, I think you’ve only released four albums Is that right?
Well including this new album “These Are The Sweet Things” it will be six.
The last one was 2020’s ‘A Woman’s Story’ – jazz flavoured covers of some of your favourite songs, I believe?
Yes, stories of the different journeys of women, both positive and negative. It was produced by the amazing Kamau Kenyatta (Grammy winner for Gregory Porter). It’s been critically acclaimed with many wonderful reviews and there’s a possibility of re-releasing it on my label Bellow Records.
Now the new album, ‘These Are The Sweet Things’ – more of a classic soul/funk sound and a set of all original songs… why the change of direction?
Actually, there is no change of direction for me at all. I put my jazz flavourings into everything I sing. I’m a jazz singer by nature but I love to sing every genre. I wish the industry wouldn’t try to put our versatility into a box. Being a diverse musician is key. That is why as a session singer we’re able to get so much work and sing on many different kinds of projects. I sang on Emerson Lake and Palmer, Boz Scaggs, Al Green, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Celine Dion then with a choir and also I’m soloing on Noel Pointer’s last record. I’ve recorded with David Bowie, Billy Idol, Aretha Franklin. Every singer I know has sung a bit of everything. Aretha even sang opera! And I know you know about Luther and Michael Jackson and my duets with Marvin Gaye on his last tour as well as recorded duets with Johnny Mathis, Bobby Caldwell, Will Downing. All completely different artists. So, yes, no change of direction at all – it’s all me. I’m singing the background vocals – all parts high or low as well as the leads. I did though have a few friends join me on the track ‘New Tunes, Old Grooves’ – Phillip and Pam Groves. I love them.
The 13 tracks are a wonderful blend of feisty funk, jazz and sweeter sounding items – how did you put it all together.
One of my best male friends, my ex-husband, Ivan Hampden would come forth with the music and I’d hear the track and then start humming and creating. Sometimes I’d come with the ideas first but mostly he would have tracks he created and I’d just jump in. We were meant to write together and even when we got divorced we kept on writing. Still to this day. It’s a blessing.
The tune winning plenty of support and plays right now is ‘New Tunes Old Grooves’ – tell us about that one and you mentioned Phillip and Pam Groves helping you out….
They’re friends of mine … Phillip Groves and his sister Pam Groves. We met them when we were going to produce them at one time for Motown and I came up with the idea for this song and wrote the lyrics and they helped me with lead and backgrounds because I felt it needed different voices that were young and fresh!!
So, why did you choose ‘These Are The Sweet Things’ as the title track?
After listening to the tracks Ralph Tee (of Expansion Records) thought ‘These are the Sweet Things’ made a great title and I agreed. After listening to all of the tracks I feel that these are the things in life that are truly the sweet things – relationships, love, fun, self-discovery, generosity, caring about your fellow man, honesty. These are the sweet things. So the title has a sort of double meaning for me now.
What other tracks would you like draw our attention to?
WOW! That’s a tough one for me because there’s so much meaning and love in the lyrics. I mean I’m humbly grateful that people are willing to listen to what I feel about love and loving your neighbours and loving yourselves enough to know when it’s not working to let go. Honesty. So, there’s ‘Share’, ‘Baby Think Again’, ‘That’s How I Am’, ‘Teddy’s Got A Plan’, ‘Stop and Listen’, ‘Take A Drink Of Me’ (it’s so sexy, that one, without being over the top). It’s so funny isn’t it? Different people seem to gravitate to different ones and then ultimately love all of them. They’re all so very special to me.
How will you be promoting the release – any plans to come to the UK
I sure hope so!!! Ralph is helping with that one and my manager is speaking with a few booking agents for UK and Europe!! I’m open for suggestions!
And how can we find out more?
My website https://www.paulettemcwilliams.com/ is constantly being updated and I’m on Wikipedia also my YouTube channel plus all of social media soon, Tik Tok, etc. ’These Are The Sweet Things’ is on every platform you can think of!! Yay!
And finally, a tough one, you’ve enjoyed a wonderful, storied career – what has been the single, real highpoint?
There have been several that were such high points that I cannot choose one over the other. I feel so blessed to have had Quincy Jones as my first mentor and to be able to sing lead for his ‘Body Heat’ tour and the fact that he introduced me on the ‘Mellow Madness’ album on which I co-wrote the lyrics and sang lead. Also when he told me I reminded him so much of Sassie (Sarah Vaughan) and then surprised me on the last day of our Japan tour with her singing with me on stage. We sang a duet on ‘Everything Must Change’. Then of course singing and recording duets with Johnny Mathis and doing both of those songs on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas . Then there was my time singing and dancing as a Harlette with the incredible Bette Midler and traveling all throughout Europe doing TV appearances and then finally with her for eight weeks on Broadway doing the Divine Miss “M” show. Then Singing all of the Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell duets with Marvin Gaye live on stage on a six month tour where he would bring me out front and centre and got on one knee to sing to me every single night. (photo above right) This is all on YouTube, by the way. Singing with Michael Jackson in the studio with Quincy there producing the ‘Off The Wall’ album. And finally after meeting him when we were on the road with Bette, singing on every Luther album from 1981 to 2001 and performing with him live both in the pit and finally on stage dancing with him and the other core singers. Please someone tell me how do I choose? And I left out the moments like meeting and singing with Aretha and her taking me on the road and recording with her. Wow there’s so much more and I’m so humbled and feel so blessed.