By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist
In the music community, Paulette McWilliams is a recognizable, familiar and respected name. She’s been singing and dancing around the business of music her whole life. She was on Marvin Gaye’s final tour as a performance partner singing the Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye duets to sold-out audiences.
From 1979-1980, she was a member of the Harlettes, travelling and performing with the iconic Bette Midler as part of an energetic, background trio. This is where she first met Luther Vandross, who was the velvet smooth voice singing behind the curtain during the Bette Midler performances.
McWilliams has sung duets with some of the biggest names in show business, like the legendary Johnny Mathis.
This songbird was also a dear friend and peer of the late Luther Vandross, touring with him on multiple occasions and also recording with him for over twenty years. It’s her voice you hear on his chart-topping songs “Wait for Love” and also “Stop for Love.” Her lovely voice has graced the recordings and stages of multiple stars including Michael Jackson. She’s the background vocals on one of Jackson’s biggest hits, “Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough” and on Billy Idol’s #1 hit, “Mony Mony.” Paulette sang backup on the Aretha Franklin hit, “Jump to It.” She has chirped with super stars like David Bowie and Celine Dion. As a professional singer for over five decades, Paulette McWilliams has used her voice to enhance every genre of music. She recorded an amazing rendition of “Too Hot” with R&B crooner, Will Downing, in a smooth jazz setting. That was on a CD Co-produced by McWilliams and Tom Scott titled, “Telling Stories.” But in her heart of hearts, Paulette McWilliams wanted to sing jazz.
You can hear Paulette’s jazzy side when she sang a duet with Bobby Caldwell. McWilliams has a silky voice that can switch from jazz to pop to R&B in the wink of an eye. Her voice is a chameleon. This is a perfect ticket to becoming a well-paid session singer.
For example, you may have heard Paulette McWilliams’ power-house vocals on several, familiar television and radio jingles including the Folgers commercial or encouraging us to buy Budweiser, Michelob and Coors beer(featuring Tom Sellick in the TV commercial). Her voice promoted Diet Pepsi with Britney Spears, McDonalds, Cadillac, Cover Girl, American Express, MasterCard, and even United Airlines among hundreds of others. The McWilliams voice has always been in demand.
Even as a baby, Paulette McWilliams’ mother claims she hummed instead of cooing. Other family members say she sang before she could speak. She sang with the radio music she heard and she sang when she took her first unsteady steps. After all, both her mother and her father had strong, beautiful voices and they always sang around the house. Little Paulette soaked up all the music like a sponge. By the age of three and four-years-old, the whole family recognized Paulette’s God-given, talent. Her home was a hub for the holidays. Paulette’s mom, dad, two older sisters and a little brother welcomed all the relatives, on both sides of their family. Every holiday season, everyone flooded their home to enjoy family and her mom’s cooking. At some point, the call would always echo, “Paulette, come sing. Paulette, come sing.” Shyly at first, the little girl would take center stage in the living room and serenade the family. Gifting her with much applause, they showered the child with silver dollars. That became a ritual, and It may have been that warm, loving experience that enlightened Paulette to the value of her very, special, vocal talent. Subconsciously, she probably realized she could make money as a singer.
At eleven years old, she appeared on the popular Patricia Vance Little Stars competition in her hometown of Chicago, Illinois. Patricia Vance headed a children’s school and modeling agency in the Windy City. Vance also hosted a talent show called “Little Stars” and young Paulette, with the beautiful voice, sang ‘Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket’. Sammy Davis Jr. was a guest on the show that particular day. Paulette came in second place, but to her surprise and joy, Sammy Davis Jr., approached little Paulette after the show and encouraged her talent. He even gave her his business card. She was a great admirer of Sammy Davis from his roles in movies. His endorsement of her performance helped validate Paulette’s journey to stardom.
“When I relocated to Los Angeles in 1976, I went to Danny Daniel’s Tap School in Santa Monica. Oh, I love tap. I had taken tap in Chicago as a child at Sadie Bruce School and I continued my studies out here. I wanted to incorporate everything into my art and be a great entertainer, because I had watched Sammy Davis Jr. and wanted to make sure I could do everything he did,” Paulette told me.
At thirteen, Paulette McWilliams was a precocious teenager who sat at home wondering why she wasn’t a super star. She explained:
“As a teenager, I was wondering why hadn’t I been discovered? I would get frustrated and go to the yellow pages and look up managers and one day I contacted Don Talty. I was thirteen going on fourteen when Don came to my house after I sang to him over the phone. Don and his artist, Jan Bradley, who had some hit records back in 1963, (Paulette sings “Mama didn’t lie – didn’t lie); they sat in my living room talking to me and my parents. That was a result of me looking Don Talty up in the phone book. Famous guitarist, Phil Upchurch came with them. Don Talty talked to my dad and my mom about maybe doing a record on me. They approved and the next thing I knew, they cut a record on me. (she sings) ‘He’s nothing but a teenage dropout.’ They released a 45rpm record on the Prism label. I wrote the song on the B-side called, “May Cupid Forgive You,” Paulette told me.
Teenage Dropout song was Paulette’s first record release.
“Early on, I hung out with Phil Upchurch. Phil introduced me to Donny Hathaway and Phil Upchurch is the one who mentored me for a long time. He’s about seven years older than I am,” Paulette recalled hanging out with legendary musicians early in her career.
By the time she was twenty, Paulette McWilliams was singing with a popular Chicago group called, “Ask Rufus.” They presented an eclectic repertoire of funk, pop and country-soul. In fact, when Paulette decided to leave ‘Ask Rufus’ she is the one who introduced them to her friend, a very young Chaka Khan. The rest is history.
Afterwards, she spent time working the Chicago hotel circuit headlining her own band, “Paulette McWilliams and the Grip.” She and the iconic Donny Hathaway also started jamming together.
“Donny Hathaway frequented a club called Ratsos as an artist. It was a very well-known nightclub in Chicago. Quite a few times I would go there, sit on the piano stool and sing with him. It was composer/pianist, Tennyson Stephens, Phil Upchurch and Donny Hathaway that took me back into the studio. One of the songs they had me sing is one of the songs on my current ‘A Woman’s Story’ album called, ‘Chasing the Sun.’ In 1974, that song was sent to Quincy Jones by Phil Upchurch. A week later, Q calls me at home. He said, hey baby girl, I just heard your tape. I want you to come out here and sing lead for me on my Body Heat tour.”
Chasing the Sun on A Woman’s Story CD
It was in the mid-1970s when Paulette McWilliams packed a bag, kissed her mom and little daughter good-bye, and headed to Southern California for the Body Heat Tour. The world opened up like an oyster and her voice and reputation was the shiny pearl.
“Q (Quincy Jones) would tell everybody that I was half Aretha and half Sarah Vaughan. He would tell me all the time; you remind me so much of ‘Sassy.’ The last night of our tour in Tokyo, Japan, we were on stage and he was conducting the orchestra. I was singing ‘Everything Must Change.’
(she sang the first line of Bernard Igner’s song to me.)
“While singing the second verse, I heard this amazing voice start singing and I looked up shocked. I was standing on the stage next to Sarah Vaughan, who had suddenly walked in from the wings and joined me. That’s a duet I’ll never forget! Q was conducting the orchestra with tears running down his face,” Paulette recalled the surprising moment when Sarah Vaughan joined her on stage and they sang together.
The Body Heat Tour became a catalyst for work. Paulette wound up being the featured singer on the Quincy Jones follow-up album, “Mellow Madness” for which she co-wrote the title tune. She was also getting lots of studio session work with folks like The Johnson Brothers and then she started getting calls to do jingles again. She had already been recording commercials for television and radio in Chicago, so it wasn’t surprising that Los Angeles would also put her to work. For a single mother, struggling to raise her young daughter, that session work was the gravy on the biscuits.
However, Paulette’s real dream was to become a successful solo artist. Her first album release was “Never Been Here Before” on Fantasy Records in 1977. The next album was for Columbia Music and titled, “Flow”, released in Japan (the same year) where she previewed her composer talents co-writing nine out of the dozen songs she recorded. At the time, she was working steadily with Cannonball Adderley’s nephew, Nat Adderley Jr. on piano, as her co-producer. They became fast friends when she was based in New York. That dynamic musical relationship went on for thirty-plus years. In 1980, a 45rpm single release featured Paulette singing a duet with Johnny Mathis. That release was titled, “I’ll Do It All for You,” From their album “Different Kind of Different.” In 1985, Paulette joined the Disco craze when she recorded a duet album for Atlantic Records, produced by Ollie Brown, titled “Fire Fox.” It was a duo featuring Paulette McWilliams and Toi Overton.
In 2012, Tom Scott Presented Paulette McWilliams on an album titled, “Telling Stories.” On this album, she began to sing some jazz songs, but it was still a mixture of funk, pop and soul. Then there was “Paulette McWilliams and the Beet Brothers” a ‘live’ album recorded in Amsterdam after weeks of touring. On this album she sang several familiar standard jazz tunes.
“We recorded twelve songs in two days and put the best 10 tracks on the album,” Paulette remembered their swift and amazing studio accomplishment.
Finally, in 2020, she has released her solo album titled, “A Woman’s Story.” It was produced by two-time, Grammy winner, Kamau Kenyatta. It was released this year and has tapped into her dream of becoming a jazz/soul solo artist. For years she has admired and listened to vocalists like Sarah Vaughan, Nancy Wilson, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Doris Day, Carmen McCrae, Nina Simone, Betty Carter, Shirley Horn and Aretha Franklin. This album features songs made popular by some of the other female artists who Paulette McWilliams admires. She taps into her jazz roots, exploring melodies that intrigue her and lyrics that relate to her own life experiences. She picked pop and R&B songs, along with the able assistance of producer/arranger Kamau Kenyatta. Under his direction, McWilliams interprets them in her own jazzy way. Even more importantly, this album is a tribute to those amazing influences on her life like Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross and composer, pianist, singer, Tennyson Stephens. For Marvin, she sings “Just to Keep You Satisfied” from his “Here My Dear” album. For Luther she sings, “So Amazing”, interpreting it in her own unique way. It was a pleasant surprise to hear her ‘cover’ the Janis Ian song, “At Seventeen” with an emotional solo by Gregmoire Maret on harmonica. I thought this arrangement took many liberties with both the melody and the chord changes, but the beauty of the song still shines honest and true. She also celebrates Joni Mitchell, singing “Both Sides Now.” However, there is one mentor that Paulette McWilliams greatly credits with her growth and this latest album release.
“The total album is me, in many ways paying homage to Quincy Jones. For someone of that stature to take me around, share musical and historic stories with me, and take me under his wing is something I’ll never forget. This whole album becomes a statement to him that says, look Q, I finally know who I am.”