Paulette McWilliams
is a veritable unsung hero among singers. In the early 1970s, McWilliams emerged from the Chicago music scene as the original lead singer of the legendary funk band Rufus—before she passed the mic to her best friend, Chaka Khan, and spent the next five decades as one of the most in-demand backup singers in the industry. She’s worked with the likes of like Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross, Billy Idol and David Bowie and recorded more than 500 commercials and jingles. You may not be familiar with Paulette McWilliams’ name, but we guarantee you’ve heard her voice.

Tell us about being the original lead singer for Rufus.
There was a band in Chicago called American Breed. They wanted to change their sound to be less “bubblegum” to compete with acts like Sly & The Family Stone, so they auditioned 150 or so Black girl singers—and I got the job. American Breed reformed as Ask Rufus, and then the name was shortened to Rufus. We toured and recorded for a few years, but I was making a lot more money singing commercial jingles, which allowed me to stay home with my baby. So I told them I didn’t want to do it anymore. They were, like, “What? Who can we get to take your place?” I told them, “My best buddy; Chaka Khan sings her butt off.” The rest is “herstory,” because she's better than good and I love her to the bone.

How did you end up working with Quincy Jones?
Guitarist Phil Upchurch introduced me to Donny Hathaway, and we recorded some songs together. Phil was good friends with Q, and he sent him the tapes. That was the real beginning. Quincy was the mentor.

You’ve sung on literally hundreds of hit songs of all genres. Are folks surprised at the diversity?
You know, I'm not. I'm a singer. I sing every genre. You can't pigeonhole me into one place. I refuse.

What are some of the tracks you’ve performed on?
I sang on Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” and “Rock With You.” I’m also on Billy Idol’s “Money Money” and “Hot in the City,” Aretha Franklin’s “Jump to It” and David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out the Fire).” I did sessions with people like Anastacia, Harvey Mason, Jody Watley, Whitney Houston, Patti LaBelle, Diana Ross and Irene Cara and worked with Luther Vandross for many years. Luther always said my voice was the closest to his in female form.

What career moments particularly stand out?
When I toured with Marvin Gaye. He’d get down on his knees in front of me every night and sing “Ain’t Nothin’ Like the Real Thing” straight to me. The women went nuts! Overall, I would say the real highlight was singing “Everything Must Change” with the great Sarah Vaughan in Tokyo with Quincy Jones conducting the orchestra. I've been very blessed. God has kept me working.

What’s next for you?
I just did a record with producer Kamal Kenyatta, who won a Grammy for [his work with] Gregory Porter. There’s no title yet, but it's going to be so yummy. And Janis Ian loved my rendition of her song “At 17,” so much so that she reached out to me. We became friends via email, and she wrote a song just for me for this new album. Nobody has heard it yet.

When can we expect it?
Hopefully before the end of the year. I just formed my own band, Novoera, which means, “new era.” Oskar Cartaya, who played with Spiro Gyra, Robbie Robertson and Herb Alpert, is my musical director. We’re supposed to start touring mid-2023. I’m being managed by the wonderful Mark Eddinger, who was with Chrysalis Records and worked with Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles.

We're so glad you're still doing it.
Thank you. I love it so much.

Bottom: Paulette with Marvin Gaye (courtesy paulettemcwilliams.com)