Paulette McWilliams
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Paulette McWilliams

Band Jazz Pop


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Before it was Rufus with Chaka Khan it was Ask Rufus with Paulette McWilliams. Since then, McWilliams has lent her voice to dozens of national TV ads, toured with the likes of Michael Jackson, Bette Midler, Marvin Gaye and Johnny Mathis and recorded with Quincy Jones. Now she is stepping out as a leader, with invaluable help from Tom Scott, who serves as co-producer and principal arranger and plays sax on eight cuts and synth strings on two others.

Listening to McWilliams, especially on her opening “Sunday in New York,” it’s impossible not to be reminded of Sarah Vaughan: the same deliciously long notes, impeccable phrasing and round, full tone. Hints of Nancy Wilson-esque purity are also strongly evident across these dozen tracks, an eclectic playlist that extends from Willie Dixon to Kool & the Gang. A sizzling “Don’t Be on the Outside” and vivacious “Live the Life I Love” are offset by a silken “You Fascinate Me So” and a gorgeously tender “Trav’lin’ Light.” Her “Don’t Go to Strangers” rivals the ebony finesse of Etta Jones’ classic reading, and her “Ode to Billie Joe,” featuring some fine guitar work by Robben Ford, captures the correct blend of remorse and resignation. Twice McWilliams pairs with male vocalists: with Bobby Caldwell on a plush “You Go to My Head” and, equally effectively, with Will Dowling on a satin-smooth “Too Hot.” - Jazz Times

All music lovers have experienced the pleasant surprise of hearing an unknown artist impress. The final rounds of most of the singing contests on television have singers quite good in various genres. But when you are totally blown away by an artist, it’s an experience that revives one’s original passion for the power of music.

That’s what happened to me when hearing Paulette McWilliams. Having been marinated in the greatest jazz singers of the century — Ella, Sarah, Billie, Dinah Washington, Carmen McRae, et al. — I’m kind of hard to impress. But McWilliams, a music industry veteran as a backup singer and jingle artist, truly has it all.

She veers from jazz to R&B on this date featuring producer Tom Scott on saxophone, Nat Adderley Jr. on piano, and other fine musicians. But whatever the genre, her quality of voice and nuance of rendition excite.

The first cut, “New York on Sunday,” begins ambling along at a strolling pace, while describing a Sunday in the Big Apple. The pace increases slightly while reflecting on the dreams of the week. Suddenly, a big-city tempo and an arranged section with McWilliams scatting with the horns take over.

Now she has your attention. She draws you closer with her rich, velvet voice on “Trav’lin Light,” a tune associated with Billie Holiday. By “Tangled in Between,” with her subtle Luther Vandross/Al Jarreau-styled melisma connecting passages, and the bluesy “Live the Life I Love,” she’s got you.

Two duets shine. The first, “You Go to My Head,” pairs her with vocalist Bobby Caldwell, just okay as her partner. McWilliams’ interpretive acumen is at a peak, not just telling the story of the lyrics, but tapping her lower register in places that tickle your ears. On Kool & the Gang’s “Too Hot” she meets her match in the dulcet tones of Will Downing.

Some have said that McWilliams sounds like Nancy Wilson, and the influence is there for sure. But on “Don’t Go to Strangers” — known for classic versions sung by Wilson, and the original by Etta James — McWilliams demonstrates with clarity that she is her own woman.

Thank goodness she has come home to jazz.
- New York Daily News

I was at the Blue Note Jazz Club setting up my cameras to document the Jazz Journalists Association Jazz Awards, and so was in the room during sound check. With all the prep for the event going on, it was not particularly quiet, but even with all the distraction of my own devoir, I immediately noted that someone very fine indeed was getting her microphone level checked. I decided that I would make a special effort to capture Paulette McWilliams' set.

I'm glad I did. Paulette, as you will hear, has a wonderfully rich, warm voice. And for all I know I may have heard it many times before without knowing who I was listening to, because she is a very in-demand session singer in LA. She's worked and toured with the biggies, from Quincy Jones, to Bette Midler (as a Harlette) and sung for high profile commercials too numerous to list here. (And why should I give them a plug, right?)

"Don't go to Strangers" is one of the songs off her CD Telling Stories on Reviver Records. It's a bittersweet ballad, one that reminds you straight away that sometimes the right vehicle for a particular sentiment can only be Jazz, and Paulette sings it so comfortably it sounds like it was written for her. She's backed up here by Nat Adderley Jr.on piano and Trifon Dimitrov on bass.

When I later asked Howard Mandel, the president of the JJA, how he had come to choose Paulette to be one of the acts for the awards gala, he made a good point, writing back:

"Paulette has had a long career of singing with others, mostly on the r&b side of the jazz spectrum, but just last year came out with that debut album. We (jazz journalists in general) are often being introduced to bright young singers, but I think it's important to realize there are mid-career artists taking the challenge of expanding on their careers, trying something new, and Paulette embodied that successfully."

I agree. Artistry is artistry, no matter the age. So if you're feeling stressed and want to curl up with a bit of musical caressing from a woman who knows whereof she sings, enjoy this snapshot from the JJA awards. - The Huffington Post

September 7, 2004


Best sets: In addition to Faddis and Blake, the most thrilling music included Saturday's stream-of-consciousness post-bop by drummer Lenny White's uniquely ethereal power trio with bassist Victor Bailey and vibist Joe Locke, whose four-mallet chords and occasional use of synthesized textures added more contrast and color than you might expect.

It was a loose set -- this was the band's first gig -- but the chemistry and conversational approach, anchored by White's fiery yet thoughtful counterpunches, offered their rewards. Interesting set list too, from Earth Wind & Fire's "Fantasy" to John Coltrane's "Resolution" and the bebop anthem "Moose the Mooche." - Detroit Free Press


Still working on that hot first release.



Paulette McWilliams is best known for her deep sultry velvety tones and her wide vocal range.You've heard her voice! The iconic voice behind Michael Jackson on "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" -- Michael's biggest hit; on Aretha Franklin's No.1 hit "Jump To It," Billy Idol's No. 1 hit "Mony Mony," Luther Vandross's "Stop To Love" and "Wait For Love," and her contagious laugh and vocals on "Bad Boy/Having A Party," and so many others.

She also toured and sang live with Luther Vandross and sang all of the Tammi Terrell duets with Marvin Gaye on his last tour. She has worked with some of the best artists, performers and producers in the business, such as Quincy Jones, Luther Vandross, Bette Midler, Billy Idol, David Bowie, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Mary J. Blige, Jennifer Lopez, Lauryn Hill, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Patty LaBelle, Deborah Cox, Michael Jackson, and many others.

Paulette’s Mom used to tell her that before she could utter “cohesive baby-talk”, Paulette was singing songs. Did it have something to do with the fact that her Mom sang all the time? More than likely it did. The “lyrical and vocal dye was cast” and singing was in her DNA.

At 11-years-old, Paulette was competing on the Amateur Hour TV show and their special guest star that evening, was the one-and-only Sammy Davis Jr. Sammy pulled little Paulette aside and said she should stay on the path and don’t be discouraged due to her second-place finish on the show. It inspired her.

Years later, Paulette became the lead singer with Ask Rufus and was solely responsible for introducing the group to a friend of hers, Chaka Khan. Paulette was leaving the group and she felt Chaka had what it takes to fill her lead spot. For a period of time, Paulette and Chaka both shared the lead in Ask Rufus and when Paulette left, Chaka took over. To this day, they remain the best friends – one of those life-changing ties that bind.

Moving from gig to gig, Paulette worked feverishly and then, thanks to a sample recording, she was “introduced” to Quincy Jones. Phil Upchurch, the world-famous jazz guitarist, sent a home studio recording to Quincy. Shortly thereafter, Paulette became solo/lead singer with Quincy during his “Body Heat” tour and featured her on his Mellow Madness album – the title song co-written by Paulette. Next, they toured Japan to where one of Paulette’s dreams came true, singing a duet live with the legendary Sarah Vaughan while Quincy conducted the orchestra.

“I was young and foolish in hindsight. I left Quincy. I wished I had stayed but I didn’t. I worked with everybody: Johnny Mathis, Noel Pointer. Marvin Gaye, Bette Midler (one of her “Harlettes” and Luther Vandross (for 20 years). I also toured and recorded with Mary J. Blige, Aretha Franklin, Lauryn Hill, Celine Dion, Anastacia, Whitney Houston, Patty LaBelle, Deborah Cox, Michael Jackson, David Bowie, The Temptations’ Dennis Edwards to name a few more. There are journeywoman stories to be told - rest assured,” Paulette recalls.

At this point, it is important to credit Paulette’s numerous TV commercials (work) such as Folgers Coffee, McDonalds, Diet Pepsi (with Britney Spears), Cadillac, Cover Girl, American Express, Celebrex, MasterCard, United Airlines, Budweiser Beer and the memorable, “Love Jones” tune Mercedes used triumphantly.

Today, after 40 years of recording and touring, Paulette has hit her stride with Telling Stories saying, “I was destined to sing jazz but it took me a long time to realize it. I’ve performed at jazz festivals in Japan, clubs in London, or The Blue Note in Tokyo and other festivals like, Monterey, Trinidad, Milan, Moscow and Bern, Switzerland. These shows were topped recently when she performed at the International Jazz Festival in The Netherlands in May and this June, the 16th annual Jazz Journalists Association Awards in New York City.

“It was hot and if you have ever been in New York on a hot June summer day, you know what I am talking about. The JJA Awards was being held at The Blue Note downtown off 6th Avenue. I performed two songs with my band leader, Nat Adderley Jr. I could not figure if all of these noted jazz journalists attending were going to take to me. This was their awards show and I was just entertaining.

Well, I have to tell you, since that June day, I have heard praise upon praise. Most singers are really insecure and your audience is your jury. If I could, I would thank everyone who was in that club and I intend to do so the next time I perform in New York,” Paulette said.