By Dee Dee McNeil

I first met Maxine Waters in the early 1970s. That’s six decades ago. At that time, Maxine and her three siblings, Julia, Luther and Oren, were a popular background singing group, often called into studios across Los Angeles to add their magical voices to projects by legendary artists like Michael Jackson, (they worked on the “Thriller” project) Paul McCartney, Guns N Roses, Whitney Houston, (they sang on the film soundtrack of ‘The Bodyguard’), Adele, (adding their tight harmonies to her “21” album) Barbra Streisand, George Harrison, Bobby Womack, Julio Iglesias, Donna Summers, (on the Bad Girls Album), Lionel Richie, Teena Marie, Rod Stewart, Rick James, and the list goes on and on. Maxine and her sister, Julia, are the background voices who sang on Diana Ross’s farewell record, as the diva waved good-bye to the Supremes singing the Johnny Bristol produced hit record, “Someday We’ll Be Together.” Maxine and her siblings are multi-generational voices who are excellent no matter the genre. Maxine and her sister, Julia Waters, famously toured with Neil Diamond. They joined his band in 2005, singing along with background singer, Linda Press and added their strong voices to the Neil Diamond stage. They toured Europe with Patti LaBelle on her first solo tour. In 1991, it was their magnetic harmonies that sang with Paul Simon on his historic concert in Central Park.

When I was a publicist at A&M Records, one of the record company’s smokin’ hot acts was singer Gino Vannelli. Julia and Maxine Waters sang behind his big hit, “I Just Wanna Stop.” (video of that Vannelli song)

Their impressive vocal talents made them an on-demand, self-contained, duo or, when their brothers joined them, a tightknit group. Their silky, smooth vocals have added to the recordings of Johnny Mathis, Natalie Cole, Neil Young, Katy Perry and Harry Styles.

I had an opportunity to talk with Maxine Waters-Willard recently and I asked her when she first became a backup singer.

“Well, you know when we came up my mother always gave us music lessons. So, I play piano and I play cello too. Luther and Oren both play cello and Julia took singing lessons. Anyway, Julia was the first one to get called in to do a recording session. I don’t know how she managed that. As I recall, a lady named Dorothy Berry who was married to Richard Berry (his Louie Louie song and all that) do you remember him?” she asked me.

Of course, I did remember him and that 1957 hit record, “Louie Louie, we gotta go” started rolling around in my head.

“Well, Richard Berry’s wife called Julia to sing. Oh, this was way back in the sixties. Dee Dee, we sang on “You Lost that Lovin’ Feeling” with Phil Spector producing. We were part of a choir of voices including Sonny and Cher, Darlene Love and Edna Wright. Our cousin Wilbur Wade was on that session. It was so far back, I can’t remember all the details, but Julia got me on that session and word of mouth started from that experience. Suddenly other people were calling us. Julia and I were singing around town.”

“Nobody remembers this guy, Dee Dee. His name was Jimmy Holiday. He had a song called New Breed,” Maxine sang a little of the song to me and I remembered it right away.

“He started asking us to back him up during his live show at the California Club. That was the time when Joe Tex was popular. Remember he had that hit song and they used to have the Skinny Leg contests?” (we laughed).

“That was actually not a recording session, but our first ‘live’ stage stuff that we did with Jimmy Holiday at the California Club. Then, we started getting calls for recording sessions. I worked for the phone company at that time. And it got to the point where I had so much work singing, I couldn’t lie about why I couldn’t come to work anymore. Because you know, I would call in sick when I had a session,” Maxine Waters recalled and we both burst into laughter again.

“And then at night, I was going to college to be a kindergarten teacher. That’s what I really wanted to be for most of my life. I didn’t get anywhere close to getting there, but I was on my way. Then I got that opportunity of going on tour with Dusty Springfield. That was a hard decision to make, but I had to choose. I did a recording session with Dusty, and she was putting together her backup group. Me, Alex Brown, and Shelly, the three of us went on tour with Dusty. I let my job go and college. That was my first tour on the road.”

Lorena, the mother of Maxine Waters encouraged her to take a chance on singing. She knew her daughter was talented and told her she could always get another job when she came off tour. Their mother was widowed at the young age of twenty-seven with four young children to raise alone. Her husband was a Lieutenant in the United States Army and was killed during the Korean War.

“Luther Napoleon Waters Sr. was a first Lieutenant,” Maxine proudly told me. “He was up for the next commission when he died. Our father was a career service man. That’s why our baby brother was born in Japan. It was unusual in those days for a black man to be an officer. The last time I saw him, he moved us to L.A. when I was four. We lived on 115th off San Pedro and Avalon. This was before Locke high school was built. I went to Freemont high school and I was President of my class and Homecoming Queen in the eleventh grade. I was popular and always liked people. My mother sang and was a church soloist at the church we grew up in. It was a Presbyterian church on 118th street in Los Angeles. Later, I was Minister of Music for eight years at my church. I attended Vermont Square United Methodist Church, located on Vernon and Budlong streets. Tina Marie and I were really close. She was baptized at my church,” Maxine recalled fondly.

Everything around Maxine Waters played like music falling perfectly into place. Her life was spiritual, adventurous, exciting, international, harmonic, and lucrative. More and more doors opened. Maxine’s voice is heard on one of the longest-running sitcoms on television, (The Jefferson’s sitcom) and it is Maxine’s family voices that croon “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling” on the Righteous Brothers’ hit song produced by Phil Spector. Righteous Brothers produced by Phil Spector

They sang on the motion picture “Avatar” (the 2009 release), that became one of the highest grossing films in Hollywood history. When record producers wanted to fatten the sounds of well-known artists, they knew who to call: The Waters girls or The Waters group! Their voices were added to the Jackson 5 hit records “Who’s Lovin’ you?” and “Never Can Say Goodbye.”

But their harmonic voices didn’t just color and lift pop and R&B songs. Maxine Waters did jazz sessions often, adding choral beauty to projects by Gene Harris (of the Three Sounds fame), drummer extraordinaire, Chico Hamilton and vibraphone master, Bobby Hutcherson. At that time, those were all Blue Note Record artists, and that exposure swiveled the heads of United Artist/Blue Note executives. They noticed these popular background singers.

“At first, we were doing work separately. My brother Oren was in a group called the Doodle Town Pipers. He was singing around with them, and Julia was singing with a group called Rock Flower. We were all doing different stuff, including studio sessions. Keg Johnson, a producer at Blue Note, said why are you guys running around doing all different gigs? Why not do a group project? Keg produced all those acts on Blue Note for Dr. George Butler, and he hired us to sing on jazz tracks. He’s the one who encouraged us to record as a group. Keg says, why don’t you just call yourselves The Waters?”

With Johnson’s help, they landed a record deal with Blue Note Records in 1975 called “Waters.” They were the first jazz vocal group ever signed to that label. This was followed by a deal with Warner Bros. Records in 1977 as The Waters, and Clive Davis at Arista Records signed them to his label and released “Watercolors” in 1980. The Waters family were on a roll, doing their own concerts and promoting their own records. Their final record deal was with Waterwheel Records in 1988 titled, “Welcome Home.” (The Waters)

During this prolific time, while becoming frontline artists, Maxine and her family members continued to work as session singers.

“We sang on several jazz artist albums like percussionist Coke Escovedo, Shiela E’s uncle. We did two albums for him. We recorded with Santana and were blessed with a gold album off one of the two Carlos Santana Albums. ‘Amigos’ was one of them

“We worked with Quincy Jones and recorded two albums with Herbie Hancock when David Rubinson was producing him and producing Patti Labelle. Rubinson produced our album “Watercolors” too. We actually had started another album for Clive Davis because Larkin Arnold was over there. Songwriter, producer Skip Scarborough was producing it. But Larkin Arnold was changing labels and leaving Arista. We got caught in the middle, so Skip never completed production of that album. In between touring, we recorded on a Bennie Maupin album and do you remember when Willie Bobo and Lola Falana were on the Bill Cosby’s television variety show? I worked as one of three contracted, permanent, background singers on that show. Marti McCall, me and Julie Rinker.

“When I think about jazz, I think about Patrice Rushen and Ndugu. We worked with them. I always think about Reggie Andrews when I think of Patrice and Ndugu. Reggie and I grew up together from five years old on. He and his family went to my church. His mother was my Brownie and Girl Scout troop leader. We also worked with great drummer, Alphonse Mouzon and we sang on Merry Clayton’s latest Christian album that was nominated for a Grammy. You can see us with Merry on Youtube if you type in NPR TINY DESK With Merry Clayton,” Maxine told me.

Merry Clayton and The Waters group were featured in the 2014 Oscar Award winning documentary, “20 Feet From Stardom.”

I asked Maxine Waters what she is doing currently.

“Dee Dee, one of the things we’re doing now, we did multiple podcasts talking about working with Michael Jackson because they re-released that album Thriller a couple of months ago to celebrate its 40-year success and the greatest selling album of all times,“ Maxine told me. (the Thriller Podcast featuring the Waters)

“Just before the COVID lockdown, Neil Diamond retired and that ended our long-time association touring with him. Julia and I have been travelling with him for years. His life story is doing very well as a Broadway musical right now. I’m so proud of him. I hope it comes to L.A. It’s called ‘Beautiful Noise’ a title taken from one of his songs.

“Another thing we’ve been doing is recording with a huge group called ‘The Fallout Boy.’ They’re a rock group. My grandchildren immediately knew who they were. Also, we worked on that 50th anniversary for the Good Times television show. Oren is the one who originally sang the duet on their theme song. They had a choir of young singers and they put me, Oren and Julia in there with them. We really had a wonderful time singing with those young singers. When we work with the young vocalists, they want to know all about the music history. This young generation, they really absorb everything. I’m glad they’re interested. I give them little tips. I say ok you guys. Just stay in the cute zone if you want to work a long time. It’s true. That will keep you on the scene. You have to look the part and sing the part.”

Maxine Waters has taken her own advice. She still looks great and her voice is as strong as ever. Her Altadena home is full of awards, trophies and gold records. Now, semi-retired, she is resting proudly on her laurels and thinking about writing down her legacy in an upcoming biography.

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