From an era when studying credits on album covers could provide an invaluable musical education, chances are in the '80's you would have seen one name more than most, Tawatha Agee. As an integral member of Mtume (and lead singer of their seminal "Juicy Fruit") to being a mainstay on all Luther Vandross albums and numerous other records over the last thirty years, the Newark native chats to old friend Jeff Foreman about her career and the Funky Town Grooves re-release of her 1987 solo album, "Welcome To My Dream"...
Jeff Forman: Hello everybody in the Soulmusic.com community. I’m Jeff Forman and I have the pleasure today, the delightful pleasure to speak to a dear, dear friend and one of my favourite, favourite singers ever, Miss Tawatha Agee. Wassup T?
Tawatha: How you doing? Everything’s good.
JF: FYI for those out there in the Soulmusic.com world, we who know her affectionately refer to her as T, also Miss T, not to be confused with Lady T.
T: Right (laughs).
JF: It is a pleasure to speak to you. I have to say in advance of our conversation, I have to disclose to the community out there that I have known you for forever.
T: And a day.
JF: You are a dear friend. You are like family, especially via your long-term affiliation with my big brother James Mtume, so this talk will be more like a conversation than a proper interview. I hope everybody is okay with that.
T: That’s cool with me.
JF: Cool. So, first thing, the talk today is really surrounding the re-release of your 1987 solo project, "Welcome To My Dream". I pulled it out and was listening to it, and was taken back; memories just came back. One of the first things that came to mind was, I’ve listened to you over the years, I’ve studied your voice, I know it well, and it seems to be pretty much the same now as it’s ever been. First of all, do you feel that way about it, and if so what do you attribute that to? Are there things you do to preserve the quality of your voice, or is it just the natural gift and you just try not to abuse it?
T: Well, the first thing is that I listened to the CD and you’re absolutely correct. I sound the same today as I did then, because everything was very clean. The production was very clean, and that’s how my tone was. That’s how I really sound, and I still sound like this today, but there’s nothing special that I do. I went to college, got a degree in Music Ed at Howard University and all of that and learned how to sing, as they say, properly, even though certain things are just a given. Certain things you just know how to do; a teacher didn’t have to tell you how to do certain things. It’s like, that’s what I do all the time, so why am I here? That’s another story. No special preparation. The thing to do is to keep singing, and I’ve been singing the entire time. Since "Welcome To My Dream", I have never stopped singing.
JF: It’s that adage; the voice is almost a muscle of sorts.
T: The voice is a muscle, and if you don’t use it, you lose it. Exactly.
JF: I asked because I know various singers have various techniques they use to preserve their voices. Some singers refrain from talking as much as possible.
T: Sometimes that’s necessary if you’ve been on a long flight or you’re doing a lot of work and you have to prepare for a concert, sometimes you have to do vocal silence, just for a while. If you get hoarse or raspy, vocal silence is called for, and of course the warm drinks with honey and all that kind of stuff. To me it’s common sense.
JF: You’ve never been one to abuse your voice via smoking or anything.
T: Oh, no; none of that. The only way I abuse my voice is by eating ice cream. That’s my weakness (laughs).
JF: We are all entitled to our indulgences, and that’s a pretty benign one to have.
T: Mmmmhmmm and it’s inexpensive too.
JF: The other thing I’ve always wanted to ask: tell me about your unique and beautiful name. I’ve never asked you about where it’s from. Were you named after anybody in the family?
T: My name came about, let me see… My father named me. This is my original name, no changes. He wanted something different, and it was going to be Hiawatha and a friend of his said, “No, no” because they were trying to decide on a name, and he said, “Call her Tawatha” and so that’s what it was. Nobody could pronounce my name when I was little so I had a nickname, which I won’t tell you.
JF: Awww, come on T. Come on.
T: (laughs) No, because I don’t want people to start calling me that. It was Bunny. That’s pretty regular. Nobody could say Tawatha, so they called me Bunny, but Tawatha was the name I was born with. My father, that’s the name he gave me; he wanted something different, and boy did he get it!
JF: I think it’s a lovely, lovely name, especially in terms of, we think of great female singers, a lot of them tend to have unique monikers, especially if you can go by one name, and I just think that you fit into that tradition so elegantly.
T: My father was ahead of his time. I guess I was predestined to have some sort of showbiz career with that name.
JF: Let’s talk a little bit about background before we go into the discussion about the solo record. Most of our listeners and website readers and viewers are going to know you from your long time association with the band Mtume, of course; lead singer, singer on hits that everybody knows, "Juicy Fruit", "You, Me and He", etc. Talk a little bit about how that association with Mtume began. You mentioned earlier that you were at Howard University. Is that where you met Mtume originally, or had you guys met before? How did that connection come about?
T: I met Mtume at Howard. He was looking for a group to produce, and he had come down to Howard. I was in a group called Hot Tea, which comprised of Angela Winbush and another young lady by the name of Elette Ricks, and we knew Louise West, who was a prominent attorney.
JF: The legendary Louise West.
T: Yes, the legendary Louise West. She knew Mtume, and so she called Mtume and his partner at the time, Reggie Lucas, to come down and listen to these girls sing, and it was us.
JF: Before you go on, I’ve got to point out again, because I don’t want this to get past the Soulmusic.com community, the name of the group was Hot Tea. You just mentioned Angela Winbush, another great singer, Elette Ricks who I know of through you, I’m not very familiar with her voice, but just the three of you guys at Howard at the same time, that’s pretty amazing.
T: We were all at the College of Fine Arts, so we were all music majors and we’d be in the practice rooms singing, and you know singing and playing in our individual practice rooms, and we got together and started singing, and we became a group. Also at the same time, this was an amazing class of people at Howard, there was a young man by the name of Sheldon Beckton who plays keyboards, and then there was Richard Smallwood, who was very prominent in the Gospel Music community, and so we had a group, and so Mtume and Reggie came down to listen to this group we had been talking about, and it was us! We did some songs, demoed some songs for Mtume, and then we came up to New York to sing at a showcase for Dick Scott, who was a CBS executive at the time.
JF: Dick also went on to manage New Kids on the Block, I believe at one point later on.
T: So, early on we did the showcase, and it’s not like we got a deal right after that, but that’s how we met Mtume, well that’s how I met Mtume, and it just so happened that we lived in the same town; we both lived in Newark, and so we kept in touch. If Mtume had a gig or something, a record date, if they needed a singer, he’d have me come along and it just started like that; word of mouth. When he put his band together, he asked me to sing in his band, and of course I said yes. You know, there it is.
JF: I think around that time, didn’t Angela go off to sing with Stevie Wonder?
T: While we were at Howard, Angela went off to LA to audition for Wonderlove, which was Stevie’s band, and she was going to be in Wonderlove, but they never recorded and there was never a Wonderlove project, but she was already out there and she had hooked up with Stevie and she met other people in the industry on the West Coast, and you know, we know the rest.
JF: Here’s my curiosity question: Are there any Hot Tea recordings out there anywhere?
T: Nothing official. There might be a few cassettes floating around (laughs).
JF: That means yes! I would love to hear that stuff one day.
T: I would really have to dig into the crates for that one. I don’t even know if I have it; that was so long ago. Everybody just decided to take a chance on the music thing to see if it was going to happen, and back then you could always become a teacher. You could always fall back on the teaching thing, but we decided to take a chance on the music.
JF: Does anybody know what path Elette chose to take?
T: Elette is a teacher, I believe in Sacramento.
JF: Shout out to Elette out there, wherever you are.
T: Let me tell you Jeff, she was one of the best pianists I’ve ever heard; the very best. She was the type of woman that could play a song once through and she’d have it memorized. Hot Tea was an amazing group of people.
JF: You play a little bit as well, right?
T: I play, but when you had Richard Smallwood in the group and Elette Ricks, there was no need to play (laughs). They can play and I’ll sing.
JF: We know Angela plays, of course.
T: Well, we all played. We were all from the school of music, so everybody played.
JF: So everybody was a musician in the truest sense of the word.
JF: As an aside, not that my opinion really matters too much, I always consider singers to be the ultimate musician. To me, the voice is the ultimate instrument and I think that sometimes we overlook the fact that singers really are musicians in the most authentic sense of the word.
T: That’s been a long-standing battle, because certain people don’t consider singers musicians, and I say yes we are. Yes we are.
JF: We know about the history with Mtume, so talk a little bit about the other artists you’ve worked with. You have such a rich history… Luther Vandross, Dave Matthews Band, Roxy Music, Sting, and the list goes on and on.
T: Steely Dan.
JF: Of course! Talk a little bit about Luther first, because you were a longtime associate of his and collaborator. We know how Luther loved his singers, and you were among them.
T: I called Luther for a job, because Mtume was out of a contract, so I called singers for the Mtume production, and we hit it off. He sang on Stephanie Mills, when Mtume was doing Stephanie Mills I called Luther for the job.
JF: Was that the "Whatcha Gonna Do With My Lovin’" album, or the "Sweet Sensation" album?
T: Yes, "Sweet Sensation". We hit it off. I sang on Luther’s demo for CBS, which was way back in the 80’s.
JF: You mean the demo for his solo album?
T: The demo for his solo album for CBS. I think it was Epic at the time, but I’m not sure. It was a song called "Don’t You Know That" and he kept the demo vocals on it for the recording, so I was really pleased with that. I’ve sung on every single Luther album since "Never Too Much". The only one I didn’t sing on was one that he was working on when "Juicy Fruit" came out and we were on tour and I couldn’t get back to do it, but I sang on every single Luther album and I’ve had the privilege of working with him onstage. As time went along and I was doing other things, Luther would use me as a sub when one of his girls couldn’t make it. This was in the later years, because I was doing jingles and television commercials, and it was more lucrative for me to do that than to travel on the road. He would call me if somebody was on maternity leave or something like that and I would fill in. But I sang on every last project.
JF: He was pretty loyal as far as using the same cadre of singers, correct?
T: Right. When he found the people that he liked, that was the group for every single occasion. He was such a consummate teacher and performer, that it was like going to school all over again, but it was just fun. He knew exactly what he wanted at all times and he knew how to pull out the best from each singer that he used.
JF: I was at some session that you were doing with Luther, and I don’t remember the record, but around the mic, it was you, Gwen Guthrie, I believe Brenda White, maybe Fonzie Thornton was there, but I remember being literally in awe, watching you guys do your thing. It was just amazing to me to watch that.
T: Every time we walked into the studio, we didn’t know if it was going to last that long, but it was magic every time we went in there. It was so great!
JF: Everybody seemed to have so much respect for each other and each other’s ability.
T: Absolutely. I don’t know if it’s still like that today, because there are no groups right now that sing on all the projects. Back then we were part of the sound. People call you for jobs and they want that Luther sound, Philly International had a sound, Mtume & Lucas had a sound, Jimmy Jam and Terry had a sound; there were different production sounds and we were part of the production sound. It’s a little different now.
JF: Let’s talk about that a little bit. I guess a lot of that has to do with the way recording has changed, insofar as most singers now want to track their own background vocals, for better or for worse. I guess part of that initially had to do with saving money, but to me there has been somewhat of a loss in terms of texture with regard to recording, because unless you’re a premier singer, well I guess the technology allows anybody to pull it off today, but I think recording can sometimes lack fullness and richness when you have one singer singing all the parts, unless that singer is really a premier singer. Do you know what I mean?
T: Yes, I like to have a contrasting texture if possible. It’s just more to support who the main singer is, but when you hear yourself ten times in the background, it’s just not the same as having other people there for full support, but that’s because of the money; the budget is so much smaller and more people want to be self-contained. They want it to be written, arranged and produced and sung by one person. It’s like Gladys Knight and the Pips… To hear Gladys Knight without the Pips, you gotta have the guys there, you know?
JF: Well, I speak for the world probably, when I say, we appreciate your contribution to that whole Luther sound. It really was and continues to be a phenomenal contribution to music.
T: Thank you. And it still stands to this day. Those songs and that production sound will always stand. People always know who it is. You listen to records today and you don’t know who it is; it could be ten different people, but it’s the same sound. It all sounds the same. I liked the artistry of it all. There was more artistry involved in it all.
JF: How did the Dave Matthews Band situation come about?
T: They were doing a session, Dave Matthews Band, and they needed some singers, someone from the record company suggested that they call me, and they did, because they had never used background singers before on any of their projects because they were totally self-contained, and someone suggested for one song they should have some girls come in and sing. They called me and of course I called the A-Team, and that would be Brenda White-King, Cindy Mizelle and myself. I said, “This guy called me to do this session, so come on let’s go over and sing”. We were at Electric Lady in the Village, and we came in to do one song and they loved us, and they were going to be on tour, so they said, “Could you come out to the Meadowlands?” which is a very large venue here in the New York area and said, “Could you come and sing this one song?” So, we went out and sang one song, and then it’s like, “Could you sing some more songs?” and before you knew it, it was the entire show. We can sing more than one song you know (laughs)! We can handle that. So, we became what Dave Matthews called The Lovely Ladies, that’s what he called the group that sang with him, and so before you know it, one song turned into a whole show, and then a whole show turned into a tour, and then it was two tours. I think we did maybe 3 summers with Dave Matthews. It was the best. The level of musicianship in that band was so amazing, I mean you just went to the next level, and the singers just enhanced what they already had.
JF: I remember seeing you guys in Dodger Stadium in LA a few years back, and I hadn’t seen Dave Matthews before. Like you mentioned, I was just blown away by the musicianship, by the quality of the music.
T: Oh my goodness. That was one of the best tours that I’ve ever been on. Each one is good in its own way, but Dave Matthews totally blew me away because of the musicianship and the crowd. College kids, 30,000 people, and that was like the smallest stadium they ever played. I’ve never seen this many people to be into the music, and the musicianship, the treatment, Dave respects the singers, and it was mutual respect all around in the music. We put a different spin on what they were doing, because we had a very ethnic look and he loved it. Dave is from South Africa, so he appreciated what we brought to his show, and all the guys were great. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me. And always on the humble. It’s not like I go out seeking these things; they just come to me. It’s like, “Could you do a session for this guy named Dave Matthews?” Okay, who is that? The same thing happened to me with Roxy Music. I remember I got the gig with Roxy, and so I called Mtume and said, “This group called Roxy Music just called me to go out on tour with my friend Fonzie Thornton, and it was like, “Who are these people?” I didn’t know. My musical tastes have definitely broadened, knowing the Roxy Music’s of the world and the Dave Matthews’ of the world.
JF: That is terrific. Who else? Sting, Celine Dion…
T: Sting! I did the Brand New Day CD that he did. That was a great experience. We did about 8 songs on that album, and people don’t usually do that; usually you’d come in and sing one or two songs, but he had us sing maybe 8 songs on the album. It was great! It was like the old days. Nice guy.
JF: Anybody you haven’t worked with yet, that you would love to collaborate with?
T: I appreciate anybody who will call me for work, Jeff (laughs). It feels like every time I go out, it’s the next level of musicianship and I love that. You gotta keep it fresh. Even though I have the foundation, like R&B is my heart, Funk is my heart, Gospel is my heart, and I can always bring something else to your table if you called me. So, right through here, I always wanted to sing with Steely Dan, and then I worked with Steely Dan. Who else could it be? I have no idea, but whoever calls me, I’m ready! I’ll be ready. What do you think? Who do you think I should work with? It’s gotta be on that Luther/Dave/Mtume/Steely Dan level.
JF: You’re talking about premier musicians, and I’m thinking in terms of the R&B genre. I don’t know.
T: Oh, you know who I did work with that I didn’t tell you about? I did a couple of dates with The Queen, with Aretha.
JF: Okay, we have to talk about that because I know what she means to you. I know.
T: Oh my God (laughs)! That was the best. When you’re working with people, you have to enjoy what you’re doing, and I’ve been so fortunate. I’ve enjoyed every artist that I’ve worked with. ‘Cause you learn.
JF: Would you say Aretha is your primary influence and inspiration when it comes to singing?
T: Absolutely positively, and I know along with a million other singers. When you’re a little girl, you look at yourself and you’re singing and it’s Aretha. You’ve got the brush in the mirror and you’re pretending to be Aretha. That was the woman that touched my heart. I could feel when she sang, and Gladys, when I grow up I want to sound like Gladys Knight. That’s who I want to sound like. But the Queen, oh my goodness. It was such an experience just watching her sing, and the problem with working with Aretha is when you’re onstage with her, you’re listening to her sing and you’re immediately in the audience. It’s like, “Oh my God! I’m up here with the Queen of Soul”. She sings just as well today as she did 20 years ago. I’ve witnessed that. When she’s out doing dates, she is an amazing woman to watch. With certain people you have to take notes when they’re singing; I take notes because you are constantly learning from everybody that you work with, and she is the Queen.
JF: Talk a little bit about early, early days. Did you grow up singing in the church? How did you even discover that you have the ability?
T: Well, I started out as a church singer. I started singing at maybe 3 or 4; I started singing with my father at church. I used to play for the junior choir at my church, and I would also play for choirs around the city. That’s how I started; that’s how I made my extra money, I would play for choirs in Newark. Even though some people think I am from Philly, I am from Newark, New Jersey.
JF: Shout out to Jersey!
T: Yeah! Brick City!
JF: So, basically it was your dad who got you into this, essentially.
T: Oh, he would be singing all the time. He’s a great singer and he still sings to this day. I would sing with him and then listen to the radio; I was always listening to the radio, that’s how I learned most of the songs. Radio was much different back then. They gave you information about who you were listening to, and that’s how I learned about singing and that I wanted to become a support singer or background singer. In church, once the music starts going, you can’t help but sing; you just gotta do it, and that’s what I’ve always done. Obviously there was something there that I could develop, and later this turned into a career. That’s my foundation, church. Absolutely.
JF: Was it ever a struggle for you in terms of when you opted to sing some secular music?
T: Oh, the conflict, exactly.
JF: How did you navigate that?
T: I’ll tell you exactly how I did it. By the time I got to Howard, I had joined a church, the Church Of God In Christ, that was very strict; a Pentecostal church, and they said you shouldn’t be singing that secular music because you’re gonna go to hell. Well, it seems like if God gave me a gift to be able to sing, I should be able to support myself, and that’s how it worked for me. God knows my heart and he knows that I like to sing, and if I can make money to support myself singing, then that’s what I should do. I don’t see why that’s wrong.
JF: It’s funny, because that’s still a struggle for a lot of singers.
T: Even to this day, I see people my age talking about that, and I don’t have a problem with singing both. I don’t see where the conflict is.
JF: There are two camps that still grapple with the whole notion of Pop music, and that’s the Gospel community and the Jazz community.
T: But the Gospel community, have you heard the new music today? It sounds like what you would hear on the radio.
JF: In terms of production quality, you’re absolutely right.
T: Kirk Franklin, Mary Mary, and the only thing that’s different is lyrics. That’s fine, but why is their stuff so funky now? Because they want to sell more units, it’s more commercial. If they can do it, well why not? I consider what Kirk Franklin does and what Mary Mary does and all those other guys to be great music. Music is music. Either it’s good music or it’s not. The topic doesn’t matter to me; good is good.
JF: Let’s touch on a couple of aspects of your career that most people may not be familiar with, and that is your success as a jingles singer, and also you as a songwriter. I think that people don’t really know that, along with being a musician, that you are a songwriter as well. Let’s talk about the jingle stuff first. People have probably heard you who didn’t even realize they were listening to Tawatha Agee.
T: The thing with the jingles, is when I was doing record dates and the jingle business used to be very generic sounding, and then something happened in the jingle business, and they wanted people who had sung on records with a more commercial sound for their jingles, and that’s how I got in, because they would see my name on all the record credits. That’s how I got in. I’ve never had a manager; everything has been word of mouth for me, and I’ve done well but it was working on all the record dates that I had done. Jingle producers started looking at the credits to see who was doing the work, and they started calling me. It started off in groups, and the jingle dates became like record dates because the sound was changing for television and radio, and that’s how I got in. I had been doing that for quite a while and it was very good for me. You get to meet different people and sing different styles of music. Anybody can do it, because it’s only 30 or 60 seconds, and if you can’t remember what’s going on in 30 or 60 seconds, then you don’t need to be doing it (laughs).
JF: List a few of the products you’ve represented.
T: Burger King, KFC, Vagisil, airline commercials.
JF: Wasn’t there a Colgate or Crest thing?
T: There was a Crest thing! Soulful Crest. (laughs)
JF: I remember one day, the TV was on and the commercial came on and I heard you, but I didn’t know that you had done the commercial, or that particular jingle, and I was like, “Wow! That’s T!” and I was reminded then about how unique your sound is.
T: Sometimes you can hear me in the group. That’s probably what you’re talking about. I don’t know what that is, but you can hear me in the group. Not that it’s louder or anything, but you can hear the tone inside the group.
JF: I think that’s one of the greatest gifts that an artist can have, is identifiability, unique sound, unique tone, whatever it is, I just think it’s such a special thing for any artist to have, and you’ve got that.
T: Oh, thanks. Do you remember the Burger King spot? Once there was a Burger King spot, and I think I sang ‘America The Beautiful’ or something, and I got so many calls like, “Are you singing that on the Burger King commercial?” and I said, “Yeah”. It’s a lot of fun, and you can do very well doing television commercials.
JF: Very lucrative, definitely.
T: Absolutely. It can be very nice.
JF: If I’m not mistaken, that community of jingle singers is pretty tight and pretty restricted, no? Is it hard to break into that?
T: Yeah, it is. When I got in, they were looking for people who were working on record dates, so they would call those people. It’s hard to get in, and once you’re in, you’re cool unless things change again, and now things have changed and people are more self-contained. What they’re doing now is, they’re doing records or they’re doing covers of old songs. The work is still out there. As far as the songwriting…
JF: Tawatha the songwriter. Let’s talk about that, because you’ve written 2 songs that to this day, I still play and I think are just amazing songs. One is "Two Hearts" sung by Stephanie Mills and Teddy Pendergrass, and anybody who knows anything about Soul music knows that song. I love that song! Tell us a little bit about that. Who did you co-write with, and how did that happen?
T: "Two Hearts" is something that I had written when I was in school, but it wasn’t finished; I had all of the music done. I think this is probably one of the first times that it was all instrumental. I had no hook or anything, but I knew the music was really good. Mtume and Reggie were producing Stephanie Mills, and at that time when we were working together, they would say to the group, “We are doing a project, so submit some songs for the artists we are working with” so I submitted this song for Stephanie Mills and Teddy Pendergrass. I didn’t have any idea what the song was going to be, but I had the music and I played it for Reggie and Mtume and they put the lyrics to the song because I had no lyrics, I just knew that this music was really good. It’s funky and it’s going to work. We collaborated on that, and there it is! ‘Two Hearts’ is one of my favourites to this day!
JF: Me too. Two great voices of music on that. Teddy, who we just lost… a treasure.
T: I think he was the last of the male sex symbol singers.
JF: Really T, one of the really great male singers. He was kind of underrated and overlooked often.
T: I think you’re right. I love Teddy!
JF: So authentic, so soulful, so genuine, and such a great, great voice. He and Stephanie sounded so good together on ‘Two Hearts’.
T: Yeah, I was hoping that they could do more things together, but stuff happens and everybody goes about their way. That Stephanie Mills and Teddy Pendergrass duet, I loved that. As a matter of fact, I would like to re-do that song.
JF: Another one of my favourite Tawatha compositions is "Day After Day" from the Luther Vandross-produced Cheryl Lynn album. Was it "Instant Love?"
T: Yes, I think it was. "Day After Day"; sometimes those songs just come to you, "Two Hearts" was like that, "Day After Day" was like that. Sometimes you have to work at them, but sometimes they just come to you. "Day After Day" is one of my favourites, and also on my CD, on "Welcome To My Dream", I like "The Waiting’s Over".
JF: Let’s talk about the solo record. That’s a great transition. 1987 is when it was originally released. It seems like yesterday, huh? Talk a little bit about how the solo project came about.
T: The band, Mtume had done several albums and I thought, “When is my turn coming? I want to do something.” I got an opportunity to do a project, and that became Welcome To My Dream. When I first started out, I only wanted to be the support singer. I never planned on being the soloist, but it just turned out that way. I take life as it rolls, so I became the soloist in the Mtume band, so maybe I could do my own solo project too. This is the result of that, and everybody in the band contributed like we always do for projects, and I was very pleased with the way it turned out.
JF: Shout out to Funky Town Grooves, who just re-released the project about a month or so ago. Special shout out to Donald Cleveland, who was behind that whole re-issue. Like I mentioned earlier, I pulled it out and have been listening to it, and have been transported back. Just listening to the quality of the voice, the timbre, the tone, the production and just waxing nostalgic. As you know, music is memories… for everybody.
T: The production on this was very clean. Everything was very clean, because that was the production style from Mtume; it was very clean and very sparse, a less-is-more type of thing, and that’s why the production is so pristine.
JF: Which was somewhat of a departure from his production with Stephanie Mills and Phyllis Hyman.
T: Right, for the other artists. For band projects it was the less-is-more thing, but for Phyllis Hyman and Stephanie, that was more full-blown production. This was great. I listen to it, and it still sounds great to me, it really does. Like you said, it brought back a lot of memories, from the hair on down. You know, the 1986 hairstyles and the shoulder pads and all of that stuff. (laughs)
JF: Right. What are your favourites from the record? You mentioned ‘The Waiting’s Over.
T: I like "The Waiting’s Over" and "Welcome To My Dream", which is just a little interlude. I had written that for a radio station, actually for WHUR, which is Howard University Radio in DC and it didn’t go, so I decided to use it for myself.
JF: That’s just the vocal and piano.
T: Vocal and piano, right. ‘No More Tears’ is that big drama song.
JF: Yes, I remember a heavy discussion with you, with my brother Mtume fighting about, “This needs to be the single! Make this the single!” After ‘Thigh Ride’, ‘Did I Dream You’ was the second single, correct?
T: Yes, "Did I Dream You" was the second single.
JF: Which is a beautiful song.
T: "Did I Dream You" was a very lush production; very, very lush. "Are You Serious". I like all of them for different reasons. It’s like they’re all my children. I have no favourites, but I love them all. "The Waiting’s Over" would be the first one.
JF: Anything that didn’t make the record that you recall? Anything that you wrote, or you guys recorded that didn’t make the project?
T: I can’t think of anything. That was ’86. I don’t remember that. This was the cream of the crop right here. What a great experience, though. It’s different solo than with the group. It’s different, but I loved it. Maybe I’ll do another CD one day.
JF: That was the segue. What’s next? Why not another Tawatha solo record?
T: I would love to do another Tawatha solo record and just have it on the internet, so people can really appreciate what I do. I know that Funky Town Grooves, I appreciate them re-releasing me. It’s like a gift for everyone! I’m not commercial. Good songs are good songs and I would just like to do a lot of good music. I would like to re-do ‘Two Hearts’. To me, that’s a classic duet. I would like to do another project, but I have to do what I do. I can’t come out and do something totally different.
T: I have to do what I do. I’m not trying to be 20. I can’t be one of the new girls, younger girls. I can’t do that; I have to be true to myself. People know that, when you’re not true to the music you’re doing; they can feel that. You can really feel that.
JF: I think one the advantages of new technology and new distribution models is, artists today don’t need the major label to make your music anymore, so basically anybody can do it, which is maybe a good and not-so-good thing. For artists like yourself, there is an audience out there who wants to hear Tawatha again. We hear you, of course, via other artists, but we would love to hear another solo project.
T: There are still a few projects in me. I can still do that; I would love to do that. I just have to seriously consider all the ramifications and just find some good songs and do it!
JF: Please, please consider it. Like I said earlier, your voice is just a treasure. You know how I feel about your voice. You’ve schooled me in terms of what singing is and what singing should be. Like I said, there are a lot of folks out there who would love to hear a full-length project from you.
T: I believe it’s coming. It will be coming.
JF: Very cool. So T, thank you so much for the time you spent with us today. One thing I do want to ask you before we go, one thing I always like to ask the artists I speak with, I’m always curious about who they are listening to today, what contemporary artists are on their iPods or in the CD player or in the car or whatever. Who are you listening to today that you are digging, that you like, in the so-called newer generation.
T: I’m so glad you asked me that, because I wanted to say that one of the mistakes that are often made by the artists of my generation is that they distance themselves from being able to appreciate contributions from today’s younger artists, and the people that I listen to are Jill Scott, Indie.Arie, I love Ledisi, Raheem DeVaughn, Jaheim, Common, Snoop, Jay-Z. They’re not all that new, but they’re not that old either. It’s not about the competition, it’s about bringing something fresh to the music, and these people sometimes they do tributes that I absolutely love. Did I say Rashaan Patterson? I love him too, and Blues artists I love Leela James and there’s another young man by the name of Calvin Richardson who I think is really underrated. I love him! You just get that raw thing, and I love of course Mary J. Mary is a given, Beyonce is a given, but the people that I listen to are basically the ones I just named, and I think that I have to be current, I have to continue listening to younger people so I can see what’s going on. They have something to contribute, and I can always learn from anybody that I listen to. It’s just that simple, nothing complicated, I like to listen to everybody and see what I can pick up from everybody, and these people are doing something really great and continuing the tradition of Soul music, and that’s what I love about it.
JF: It’s funny, because that’s one of the missions of Soulmusic.com, and that is to bridge the gap between what came before and what’s happening now.
T: It’s a wonderful thing, because each one has to teach one and it has to continue.
JF: It’s a continuum.
T: Absolutely. There’s nothing like Soul music.
You can write to Tawatha at email@example.com
About the Writer
Jeff Forman, a music industry vet, heads Mylestone, his artist advocacy firm in New York City.