Interview recorded January 8, 2012
Any soul music connoisseur, worth his or her weight in gold, knows the name Maxayn Lewis. From the tender age of 18, she's shared stages, and been in and out of recording studios with some of the best that ever did it: Bobby Blue Bland, Ike & Tina Turner, Bonnie Raitt, Rufus, D.J. Rodgers, and more. The Tulsa, Oklahoma native sat down, recently, to chat about her whirlwind of a journey from "(Gimmie Back) My Love" to "Gimmie Shelter," about growing up with The Gap Band, the genesis of her dynamic funk band Maxayn, and her prolific output over the 30+ years of her magnificent career.
Rico AKA Superbizzee Washington: What’s going on, guys! This is Rico AKA Superbizzee for SoulMusic.com, and I’m on the horn with none other than the greatest soul singer that I’ve heard in some time, Miss Maxayn. How are you, Maxayn?
Maxayn: I am really well, Rico, and thank you for having me.
RSW: No problem at all; it’s our pleasure. Just to give people a little bit of a rundown of your impeccable resume, you’ve sung with everyone from Bonnie Raitt to Sammy Hagar, Tata Vega, of course, the late Billy Preston, Wornell Jones, Rufus … you’ve even sung on the Grease soundtrack. What can we not say about you, man?
M: Well, I’ve been involved with some really great projects. I’ve been very, very fortunate, very blessed, and I’ve had a really good career doing that, and enjoying working with people in all kinds of music. So I’ve been very, very fortunate.
RSW: Absolutely. So I guess we can just start off with how you actually got into music. When did the music bug bite you?
M: Oh, boy … I think I was born with it. I wanted to play piano even before I knew it was called a piano. I would just see a piano. If I heard piano music I was just fascinated by it. Before I could walk, my mom said the thing that could put me to sleep was turning on the radio at night, because I was a little nighthawk baby—I didn’t want to go to sleep. She’d put me in bed; I’d still be awake in the dark just looking around, which is funny. Then she would play the radio for me, that would calm me down, and I would go to sleep.
M: So I’ve always loved music, all kinds, from a very, very young age, and the first instrument I learned to play was piano. I wanted to play it; even before I could learn to say the word properly, I wanted to play piano.
RSW: Now where are you originally from?
M: I’m from Tulsa, Oklahoma.
RSW: Oh, wow. So tell us how you first came into the industry as a singer in your own right.
M: Of course some people are raised in the church, and they think you’re raised in the church, and that was a natural pathway for you to get into music, but that wasn’t the case for me. I did go to church as a child, but it wasn’t that kind of black musical church with the gospel and the COGIC kind of background … I wasn’t raised like that. In fact, I was raised in a very austere, Christian, conservative kind of upbringing. And I actually was drawn to go to other churches, because I thought the music at our church was pretty boring.
I loved classical music, but I also liked other things. Just the challenge of learning to play it, just from that standpoint it was, like, “Wow, how do they play that? How do they do that?” And the blues and gospel, the way they do it at the convocation and the revivals. I would ride my bike to just go hear the music at other churches, because it was just so different from everything I had been exposed to.
In Oklahoma, I got invited to join some bands, and just do local stuff when you’re a kid, and then I formed my own singing group when I was a little kid, and then we won a lot of contests—just local stuff. It was just stuff that happens to a lot of people when you’re growing up in a community--lots of music influence. I grew up with the Gap Band; we’re all from the same little neighborhood, and we all were in classes together doing music classes together, and marching band together … that sort of thing.
And it went on from there; it grew and grew, until one day I got a call on the phone, and it was from Tina Turner. I couldn’t believe it, I thought it was my friends playing on the phone. And it wasn’t, and I ended up doing a world tour, going out on the road with her. And that was my first foray into becoming a professional musician and working in the industry, I should say.
RSW: And around how old were you at that point?
M: About eighteen.
RSW: Wow, so pretty young. That’s remarkable.
M: Yeah, eighteen and nineteen years old. I had already graduated form high school.
RSW: But that’s remarkable that you were able to build that type of reputation at that age, for Tina Turner to call you.
M: Well, somebody recommended me, and I think it was the head of the musicians’ union in Tulsa. He said, “Yeah, we do have somebody like that.” They were looking for somebody who could do this and do that, and I was recommended, and the next thing you know, I was on tour. And the next thing I know, I was in Europe. I always thought, “I’m not ready.”
I was music conservatory growing up, as well, and so I had studied a lot of music, and I always thought, “I want to be ready if I ever get to have a job and work in music.” Because I thought that music was really going to be a hard field to get into, and I had to really know a lot of music, and read and write and do charts and those kind of things, and for the most part, that isn’t what popular recorded music is about. Classical music is that, but not making records and that sort of thing.
I was very surprised to learn that you go to a session and nobody would have a chart. They’d just play parts and say, “We’re going to write out these lyrics and we’ll tell you where to sing it.” We’d do that sort of thing. I was very surprised. When I did that soundtrack for Grease with Frankie Valli and Barry Gibb—Jack Nitzsche was there at that session as well—those were all heavyweight people to me and I knew there would be a lot of heavy chart stuff to do … and it wasn’t. Nobody gave me a chart. They just said, “You’re just going to sing it like this.” They played it on the piano--“Just do it like this.”
So, again, you had to be a quick learner and really get in there and do what you needed to do. I had some music education under my belt, but it was still more of learning a different way to operate in the industry.
RSW: So you also, if I’m not mistaken, had the chance to be in The Ikettes.
M: I was an Ikette, that’s right. But not the original Ikettes. A lot of people think, “Oh, original Ikettes …” No, there were a couple of sets of Ikettes—a few before I got there. In fact the lady who has the television show--she has a restaurant in St. Louis--it’s called Sweetie Pie. Her name is Robbie Montgomery. She was an Ikette early on, way before my time. She was one of the originals.
RSW: So tell me a little bit about being in the group that was ultimately named after you.
M: Well, after Tina and Ike went through their thing of breaking up, Tina still sort of wanted to have … well, not sort of—she wanted to have her career. But it was a really rocky road for her at the beginning when she left that whole thing. So she wanted us to stay in touch with her, but she really wasn’t sure how she was going to put everything together, so there was this lull, I want to say, in between. During that lull, everybody was looking for other bands to work in, looking for other jobs—that kind of thing.
Well, I came back to Oklahoma. I could have stayed in L.A., but I wanted to see my parents; they wanted to see me. I’d been gone for a while. And so I came back, and while I was in Oklahoma, I got a call about working for Bobby Blue Bland, and going and doing this blues tour that he was going to do across Canada and the U.S. That’s during the time when they would have those big festival tours. So they had a blues festival tour; that’s what he was doing, and it was going to be all these famous blues people on the bill, so I was thrilled to get a chance to do that. Because Bobby Bland sort of had a review: he had an MC, he had a big band with horns and everything, and then I was the female vocalist that opened the show for him. Then he would come out and do his show: after everything else had happened, then he would come out and do his show.
It wasn’t like you’d just go see him, and he just came out and sang; he had a whole presentation that he liked to do at that time. And I went on this tour with him, and it was just this amazing thing. I met Koko Taylor. I met all the blues people in the world, and it was just amazing. I call them the “Blues Gentlemen” because they were so respectful, and they had lived life; they knew all this great stuff, and they were so kind, and yet when they hit the stage they were just awesome.
M: So just unbelievable. I learned so much from being on that tour. And while I was on that tour, we played Chicago. Bobby Bland made Chicago sort of his hub for playing everywhere. He wasn’t from there, but he liked to go there and be there, because then it wouldn't be so far to drive to go to some … because we were doing bus tours. So he liked to be in Chicago, and then we would go to Detroit and play, or we would go to Ohio, or wherever, but it was all in that area—that Midwest area. He played there a lot.
So one day, I’d got a reputation there: a lot of people liked what I did in his show, and a lot of professional people would come to see him, other artists that were in the Chicago area—other people who were based out of Chicago would be there. The Chi-Lites loved Bobby Bland—all these younger groups really loved him, especially male vocals; they loved him. So The Chi-Lites would come to see him a lot. Tyrone Davis would come see him … The Emotions … just anybody. You’d be so surprised how many people--that were young people--knew who Bobby Bland was, and they would come see him.
So I came offstage one night, and Donny Hathaway was backstage. Donny Hathaway said that he was just signed with Curtom Records, and he was going to be doing some production with them, and he asked me about producing me. And I was, like, whoa. I was just blown away … like, whoa. I loved Donny Hathaway; it was, like, “Bow down; it’s Donny Hathaway.”
M: I thought he was a musical genius, and just an amazing talent, so for him to even talk to me once, I was, like, [gasps] breathless—and at the same time I was trying to be cool. So he gave me a card, and said, “I’ll get in touch with you.” He took my number—because we didn’t have cell phones then, so the only number I had to get in touch with me was my mom and dad’s number in Oklahoma, and that was it. So I said, “My mom always knows where I am,” and she did—my mom and dad always knew my itinerary—so he said, “Okay, I’ll give you a call.”
And then I walked ten feet from him and there was … now let me say that everybody in Chicago were suited down—they were all wearing these beautiful suits. The men were dressed to perfection, and everybody was really dressed. And I walked ten feet from him and my bandleader, the MD (musical director) for Bobby Bland was a man named Ernie Fields Jr., And Ernie said, “Oh, I want you to meet my friends, they’re playing with Buddy Miles.”
M: And that was Andre and another guy from the Buddy Miles band; they were together, and they looked like they had just dropped from space: everybody else had on these suits, and these guys were like rockers, and they had on these crazy leather boots, and leather with fringe and crazy hats, and they just looked like, “Whoa, what do you guys do?” I said, “What kind of music?” He said, “It’s rock and roll. You could sing rock—I want to produce you.” So I said, “Why, what is it? I just talked to Mr. Hathaway there and he wants to produce me.” He says, “Yeah, I know Donny. Donny knows me.” And then they started talking, so I’m standing there like, “Whoa, what is going on?” I said, “Okay, I’m going to change clothes, and I’ll talk to you guys.” Andre goes, “I want to produce you, and I’m going to introduce you to Buddy Miles.”
I was like, “Okay …” Now my head was spinning, right? This was, like, crazy … who would this happen to? And then the next thing I know, the next day we left Chicago, because we were actually going to play in my hometown of Tulsa, and then we were going to go on to Texas and do a whole string of dates in Texas. So I went to Oklahoma, and by the time I got to Oklahoma, when I got to my mom and dad’s house, Andre Lewis had already called me on the phone, because he wanted to get a jump on Donny Hathaway producing me. He said, “Okay, Donny Hathaway said he’s produce you, but that’s just going to be R&B, and you can do something different. Do you want to do something really different?” I’m talking to him on the phone; he goes, “I’m here in Tulsa.” He actually came here. So that was like, “Whoa, you’re here?”
So that’s how it all got started. He said, “Do you write songs?” and I said, “Yes, I do.” And he said, “Then you’ve gotta come to Boston, because that’s where we’re working on songs: we’re songwriting, we’re producing—that’s where everything is, and I’ll get you there if you want to come there.” And I said, “But I have a job, I’m doing this show.” He said, “Well, I think you have to step out and take a chance. And I promise you, you won’t be left hanging; you’ll be okay.” And I went to Boston, Massachusetts, and I started.
When I went there, I sat there and I wrote about twenty-five, thirty songs. Then we went to Miami, Florida, and I met Luther Dixon, Dave Prather from Sam and Dave. Dave Prather, who I had met on the road with Bobby Bland—he thought I was there with Bobby Bland, and when I saw him in Miami he said, “That’s a person you can invest in,” just across the lobby of this hotel. I was just walking in this hotel from the beach, and he introduced me to Luther Dixon, who was a famous songwriter. He said, “Luther was looking for somebody; he wanted to put up the money to do a record. I just saw you walk in, and I said, ‘That girl can sing.’”
The next thing you know we went into a famous studio there in Miami, Florida, and I took Andre, Marlo Henderson, and some of the guys from Buddy Miles’ band, and we went in and we cut “Gimme Shelter,” just to show Luther Dixon that I could do it. I said, “I’ve got some other songs, but we’ll just do this,” because we had been just messing around with that song, and that was on the first album. And Luther took us to New York, because we were based in Boston; we went to Miami just for a couple of weeks. Then we went back to Boston; then he met us in New York, and set us up, and we went to Record Plant and we started recording at Record Plant in New York.
And that’s how the Maxayn band came to be. They were still working with Buddy Miles at the time. Then when we moved out of Boston we formed our own band, and we went to San Diego and we really started working there, and doing a lot of work there. We really formulated the whole thing, and then we got our own deal.
RSW: Now that was my next question. How did Capricorn Records come into the picture? Because they had primarily been known as a swamp-rock label.
M: A gentleman--his name is Mario Medius--he was our manager for a while. And he was just one of those people that knew the industry, knew the business, and he introduced us to Capricorn Records. They heard some of the music that we had already been working on, because we were working in New York without a deal.
And I think that maybe Luther Dixon had something to do with that as well, because I think he knew those guys, Frank Fenter and Phil Walden, that owned Capricorn Records. The next thing you know, they flew to California, and we met them in Beverly Hills. And right on the spot, from the moment I walked into that room, those lawyers wanted to make a deal; they really wanted us to be on that label.
Like today, everybody’s trying to meet people … I have to say it was really an experience; it kind of spoiled me a lot, because I thought people had to work really, really hard to get to meet record executives and get a deal, like it seems like today. It’s really difficult. It’s not something you just waltz into.
But I wanted to make a record, but that wasn’t my focus: my focus was the music itself. Everybody else, I guess, was running around trying to do a record deal, but my focus was, “Let’s just do great music, and I want to really get this right. I want this to be this way …”
I was just living doing the music, and I didn’t have to worry about all the rest of the stuff around me, because other people were doing such a great job. So when I walked into that room everybody was like, “There she is. Okay, yes!” And I was like, “Yes, what?” “Yes, we’re going to do this deal.” It was that kind of thing. And I was, like, “Oh, okay.” It was just this world to me and I was, like, “This is amazing.”
I wanted to do this, but I thought it would be so much more hard to get through, because I had read so many articles and interviews of people who said they really were trying to get in and they stood on the street, and stood outside the office, and they camped out in the parking lot … those kind of things. I never did that, and I think I’m very blessed that I didn’t have to go that route. They came to us, because in that time the music that we were doing was very compelling, and I think that’s what drew those companies. A lot of different companies came to us.
RSW: So was there a bidding war, dare I say?
M: Well, it was a lot of people really coming looking for us, and wanting to do business with us, because it was such a unique kind of group. It was black music, but it wasn’t just black music in the traditional sense.
RSW: Okay, I understand.
M: It was message music. It was music that had a message attached to it—a conscience attached to it.
RSW: So at the time you guys were recording the material at the Record Plant, had you guys already decided on the name Maxayn, or did that come after the deal?
M: No, that was already decided on from the beginning. Because they were still attached to the Buddy Miles scenario—they were still in that band. So they kept saying, “We’re working on the Maxayn project,” so it turned into the Maxayn project. “What’s the name of the band? Maxayn.” That was it; it just sort of flowed into that. In order to set it apart from the Buddy Miles project they said, “Oh, we’re working on the Maxayn project.” So it was referred to as that, so it just went with that. The next thing I know they were making a logo of my name.
RSW: That’s kind of cool. It’s like Sade before Sade.
M: Yeah, exactly. It was, like, “They’re making a logo of my name--oh wow.” A lot of companies wanted us to do endorsements for equipment, because we were using a lot of equipment that hadn’t ever been used in recording before. Like we introduced Roland instruments in the United States. And because Andre was so adept with computers and synthesizers—and we’re talking about synthesizers at the beginning when you had to patch cords, and do all that stuff—he was just a genius at that, and just a master of sound, and knowing how to get all these different lyric sounds, using electronica to do music. That was before Stevie did that thing with Malcolm and Cecil, with that new big computer that they eventually put in Record Plant, here at the old location on Third Street.
RSW: You’re talking about the TONTO?
M: Right. I remember when they installed that, and they said, “You’ve gotta go down the hall and see the computer.” I walked in and it was this whole big room of all these towers and big huge things; it took up the whole room. I remember Andre going, “Oh yeah, in a couple years this will be in a little box you can carry around. It doesn’t need to be this big, and the technology now is going to take off.” I remember him saying that. The minute we walked in there and looked around, that was his assessment of the whole thing: “It doesn’t need to be this big.”
RSW: And it came to pass.
M: He was very intuitive about those kind of things, and he was way ahead. I remember him saying to me once that he had had a dream. He said, “In the future, in order for them to tell you everything to be able to assess your health, you’ll be able to just sit or lie on a table. And they’ll just scan your body, and they can tell you everything that’s happening.” I said, “Really?” And he said, “Yeah, they’ll be able to do that, and it won’t be a problem, because of the technology. Technology is going to make that possible.” And that’s exactly where we are now.
RSW: That’s remarkable. He definitely had foresight with that one. So tell me a little bit about how the first album was received.
M: How the first album was received? Well, a lot of people--they would hear the music and then they would like it, but then they would be confused, like, “Whoa, what do you call it?” [Laughs] That was the main thing. “What do you call it? Is it rock, is it jazz, is it funk?” I’d say it was a distillation of all those things—a lot of different things that came together in a very interesting way that made it unique. Because of the people who were involved, and because of my approach to singing, and my approach to lyrics, how to tell a story … that whole thing. It’s like the personalities of the people involved, and even though we were all individuals, it made a different kind of personality when we all came together, because we had a very good musical understanding.
There wasn’t infighting, and we didn’t argue over music; it never turned into that kind of situation, where we were arguing over music, or fighting about songs, or any of that. It was, “If you do that, then I’ll try this. Okay, play that. Ooh, I like that.” It would be so much fun, and we just had a ball doing that. So it was like an experimental thing that worked, because everybody was open for it to work.
RSW: You guys were definitely pushing the envelope with a lot of the stuff that you were doing on the album, especially the more expansive type stuff on “Beloved,” which I love. I think it’s a beautiful song.
M: Thank you. Yeah, and everybody was open-minded with open hearts to do that. We all lived in the same house—when we moved to San Diego we all lived in a big, huge house that our manager, at that time, got for us there, so we could get up every day and play music and write music, or somebody could come up with an idea. Somebody was always cooking food for everybody. We ate--as they said--we lived and breathed the music all the time, without having the hassle of making noise and disturbing people.
Today my heart goes out to people who really have music in their heart and soul, and they really want to make something--you don’t really have a place to do it. If you live in a big city like Los Angeles or somewhere, you can’t move into an apartment and set up house, and start making music. Inevitably you’re going to have neighbors who are going to try to keep you from doing that, and then there’s very few places that you can feel comfortable to live in an atmosphere of creating music.
M: We actually had the luxury of that, and it worked out really well.
RSW: Sonically, it’s brilliant. I love the album—the first album’s a really great album.
M: Thank you.
RSW: But tell me a little bit about what went into the recording process and the writing process of the second album, MINDFUL, which is probably my favorite out of the three?
M: Mindful was … because we never had, like, a line of demarcation in, “Okay, we’re going to make this music for this album, and then we’re going to make this music for that album …” It was just a constant flow of music. If somebody came up with something, then we’d all dive into it, and that’s the way the MINDFUL album…. And we would talk about things and talk about observances we would make, or philosophies about life.
We all were readers. I have to say that the Maxayn band was a band of really super-intelligent people. And I’m not saying that for me, but the guys were reading people: they read books, they studied all kinds of philosophies, and looked at what was happening in the world--being very aware of what was happening politically around the globe.
And, at that time, to do that you really had to make an effort: there was no Internet that you could go on and sort of peruse what was going on around the world. If you wanted to know what was happening in the world, you had to really get up and look for it. You had to go to the library … those kind of things. So it was an interesting group of people that had a like-minded atmosphere to it.
So when somebody brought up something interesting or we heard something interesting, we would discuss it. And we met a lot of interesting people that were drawn to us because of that—lots of great people that flowed in and out of our circle of friends, who were very interesting, well-read … some of them writers, people who had traveled the world, adventurers … all kinds of things--scientists who were doing breakthrough scientific experiments … all kinds of things. So we were surrounded by a rich world of people who were doing interesting things, and who had new ideas, because, at that time,, it was just a world of people wanting to create positive change in any way.
RSW: And, listening to the lyricism on this album, it definitely reflects everything you were saying. “I Want to Rest My Mind”—it definitely speaks to that; “The Answer”—just so many great songs that you guys constructed. You even redid—this is probably my favorite song by you guys— “Check Out Your Mind,” a Curtis Mayfield song. I think you actually did it better than Curtis did.
M: I love Curtis Mayfield.
RSW: Even just looking at that clip of you guys when you went on Soul Train and performed the song--you know that the gauge for how good a song is to the crowd by how loud they’re screaming overtop of the music. They were going wild over that song, man.
M: They went crazy when we arrived at the studio that day.
RSW: Oh, really?
M: In California, we were like this mythical kind of group, because most of our people knew us better on the East Coast and down South and in the Midwest than they did out here on the West Coast, so when we showed up to do that, they were … they didn’t know that we lived in California. They thought we lived somewhere else. So when we were there, we just walked into the studio before the taping even started.
They were going crazy, because they were acting like we had traveled from a long distance; they didn’t even know we lived in California. So it was kind of funny. We were, like, “Yeah, we actually live here.”
And then, from there, we actually started playing locally at a famous place here called Maverick Flats, which, in entertainment history out here on the west coast-- it’s a famous place. That was a great place to be, because all kinds of people went there for all kinds of shows. Even Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx and Sammy Davis, Jr., and all these different people … Lou Rawls … all those people played at Maverick Flats, which is right on Crenshaw Boulevard, and was a black-owned and operated business, and it still is—it’s still standing. It’s been renovated, and now it’s into a new generation of history making at that place. It’s a beautiful place.
RSW: Wow, I’m glad it’s still there, man. I’m sure plenty of great people have graced its stages.
M: Oh, there’s a lot of history there. It’s a great place. If you ever come to California, and you’re in L.A., please go by and have a look at it. They have a whole gallery there of history around the walls that you’ll see. It’ll be mind-blowing for you to see Rufus and Chaka Khan; when they first came here they played at Maverick Flats. They were just a fledgling group, and they played there, and we all went down to see them. It was just an amazing place … lot of history there.
RSW: Wonderful. So BAIL OUT FOR FUN, the final installation of the Maxayn trilogy… I love this album, too. The first track on there, which is written by D.J. Rogers—I just can’t say enough about that song, man.
M: Yes. And how timely is that song?
M: That song was another song ahead of its time. Again D.J. Rogers, one of my dearest friends … I just went to a party over the holidays with him and all his brothers. Our families became great friends, lifelong friends, and we just had a reunion over the holidays, this past holiday season. D.J. and I sang at that party. And it just brought back so many memories, because D.J. is an amazing talent in his own right—oh, my goodness. I think he’s been very influential to so many male vocals that you hear today. If you talk to Boyz II Men, The Winans—all the great male vocalists, even including Luther Vandross—they all know D.J. Rogers, because he’s such an amazing male vocal.
M: And he and I were talking about some of the shows we used to do. We used to do so many shows that were just huge, and so many people would just be at them. We’d be at the Whiskey; we’d be at the Roxy; we’d be at all the places that there were to play then. It was just an amazing time … a totally amazing time to be in the industry and to do the songs, the collaborations. D.J. used to come over to my house—we had a house in Hollywood Hills—and he would come up to the house, and walk right in and just start playing the piano: “Look, I just wrote this song. Check this out.” And he’d just start playing a song he wrote.
Same thing with Johnny Guitar Watson, who used to come to our house all the time, and just walk right in and start playing something. A lot of people don’t know that his first instrument was actually keyboard—piano, and guitar was his second instrument. But he played piano like waterfalls. He was just an amazing musician and a great guy, so much fun.
And D.J., Johnny Guitar Watson, any number of people who were famous, a lot of them who came through … Taj Mahal … just incredible people that would come by and say, “Oh, check this song out,” or eat some food, or hang out in the studio and look at new instruments that we were introducing, new gear. Our house was like that almost every day.
RSW: Wow, that sounds wonderful. I can only imagine.
M: So that’s how we ended up doing that song, “Bail Out,” that’s how it came to be. We thought it had, again, that element of consciousness, of observing something that needs to be stated--that kind of thing.
RSW: And you also had—speaking of Buddy Miles earlier—Buddy contributed a tune to this album, as well, “Life Is What You Make It.”
M: That’s right.
RSW: So everything’s coming full circle on this album.
M: Exactly. And Buddy was very supportive. Really, he was just a big teddy bear. He was just a really talented, fun guy. He was very kind to me from the first day that I met him: I met him and one of his sisters and he was, like, “Okay, come on in here, girl, and get cooking with this music.”--that kind of thing. Everybody welcomed me right off the bat.
RSW: That was a great rendition that you guys did; I love that version. So you guys actually did this in Alabama. This is the first time you recorded in the South. How was that experience?
M: We got invited to go because those guys--the Matos Brothers--they really wanted to introduce their studio. At that time period everybody was building these state-of-the-art, beautiful studios, with a house or some kind of residence attached to it so you could have a beautiful place to go, and you wouldn’t have a bunch of people showing up, because when you work in a big city—like I would say New York would probably be the same way, and Los Angeles for sure at that time—if fans knew that somebody they really loved was recording somewhere, then they would show up and be outside. They couldn’t just walk in the studio, but you would know that they were out there, and if they could just catch a glimpse of you, or take a picture, or ask you for an autograph or something, they would be hanging around.
Or people, your friends that you know--they want to come by, because they’re excited that you’re in the studio, and everybody wants to be the first to hear something new. So the Matos Brothers had offered for us to come down and have a peaceful place to record.
A lot of people thought that the room contributed to the success of the record, because of the dimensions and the dynamics of it, and, at that time it did, because it was analog, and so the actual sound of a room did contribute to those things.
RSW: Okay, I understand.
M: So that’s why people wanted to be in certain places. So we got invited to go there and do a record there, and it’s in Homewood, Alabama—I’ll never forget that—right outside Birmingham, which is a lovely, beautiful residential neighborhood. And the studio was great, and it was a peaceful place to work, and that’s what we did. We did that, and we did some good stuff there.
RSW: So now I guess the question that I would like to delve into is--there’s an interim period before Motown and after the Capricorn Records. What was going on with Maxayn in that period? It was about three years, I guess?
M: In between that time, I actually went on the road with Donna Summer. We went to the Philippines. We had went through a lot of turmoil with Warner Brothers over the distribution of our records. They weren’t really being very kind to us. People were calling us from places where we had a really lovely following of fans and people who wanted to buy our records, and the record was being played on the radio, and people were loving it, but when they would go to the stores, they wouldn’t be there.
So we kept calling Warner Brothers, because they were the distributors: “Hey, you guys, can you get on this and move it out? It’s sort of killing this record if you don’t put it out there. What’s the problem?” And then we had some friends there that told us they had thousands of our records just sitting in the warehouse, and they weren’t moving them out. So we took the initiative and we went over and commandeered some of them, and got them sent out to people and did it on our own.
M: But that’s before the day of computers and that kind of thing. But they were just not focused … whatever they were focused on, it wasn’t us. They were just deciding to do something else, and they seemed like they didn’t care. People were calling us—I’m serious—starting from three, four o’clock in the morning, our phones would be ringing off the hook from people that were in stores. Because they knew how to get in touch with us from us doing interviews and traveling and working.
A lot of people called us and said, “We can’t get your record, what’s going on? We called, we asked for it, we ordered it—they are not coming through.” So we started shipping those records on our own. We would go over there to the warehouse and get them and ship them out. That’s how we did it … which is crazy, that you’d have to go worry about something like that. I don’t know who at Warner Brothers decided to do that. At that time, the industry was going through its own slips, with everything the companies were going through. You know how they used to have what they would call bloodletting, and they would fire a bunch of people at the label. Then whoever signed certain artists, if you signed these artists, then they would get rid of the person who signed you. And if you were signed by a person who was let go, then basically your career was over with that company. That’s the way the industry went at that time.
So a lot of artists fell victim to some corporate turntable stuff. And they didn’t do anything wrong; their music was great, but the companies didn’t care: if they were getting rid of certain people then they got rid of whoever they signed. So that kind of thing was happening quite a bit. We liked working with Capricorn, but it was just that Warner Brothers was not compliant in really being on top of things. So in that lull of things we worked on other music--worked on a lot of Johnny Guitar Watson’s stuff during that period. I went on the tour with Donna Summer. I did some stuff with Frank Zappa at that time, you know, the Mothers of Invention Frank Zappa?
M: We had been so busy doing our own thing, so that when we did get that break with Warner Brothers, it doesn’t mean that we weren’t actually signed to any label. There were a lot of people that really rushed in to say, “Okay, you’re not busy now, so you can do this, you can do that.” So that’s when we were doing a lot of that kind of stuff. I did the Gap Band; I worked on their stuff. I worked with D.J. on his stuff … there was a lot of stuff going on. So it wasn’t like we were sitting around twiddling our thumbs.
And then Andre decided that he wanted to do the Mandre project, and his very first album--he wanted to do it but he wasn’t sure about his direction, how he was going to go with it. So we started working on what would this character be, because he wanted to do something really experimental and different. So we started working on that. So the very first Mandre album, I really worked on that a lot. When we weren’t doing anything else, then we would work on the Mandre stuff.
RSW: And this was stuff that you guys were working on before Motown came to the table. Is that correct?
M: Exactly. The reason Motown came to the table was because they heard some of that Mandre stuff. We had been fiddling around with that stuff for a couple of years. We were making up this persona of who the Masked Marauder would be, which is kind of fun. It was really funny, because all the time we were doing it, everybody would contribute to how this character was going to act, and what kind of person he would be, and what he would say in certain situations. He was like an anti-superhero kind of guy, but it was all done with music, right.
M: So it was fun working on that stuff. It started out being a running joke kind of stuff; we were making up, “What would the Masked Marauder say? What would he do?” So we were doing that kind of stuff, but it panned out to be something good.
RSW: So I’m guessing that you and Motown had a pretty good rapport, because you guys stayed there for three albums.
M: Yeah, Andre did. I wasn’t signed to Motown: he was signed as that Mandre character. There was some talk of them wanting to sign me as well, but it never got around to that. I don’t know what happened with that. Who knows what corporations do? I don’t know. They say they want to do one thing, and it’s kind of like, “We really do!” And they were really enthusiastic, but it never came down to the paper on the table; you know what I mean? So, in the meantime, as I said before, it wasn’t like, “Oh, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Many things were happening, and the next thing I knew, I was invited to go to Japan and work in Japan, because I had been doing work for a Japanese producer. He couldn’t even speak English, and he had to have an interpreter tell me everything that he wanted. He would describe things in colors: “I want this to be more purple. I want this to be more red. Can you make this more yellow?” So I was singing for him using those kind of terms to describe how he wanted it to sound.
And it worked out, and one day after about three or four years of that, he came back to America, and he could actually speak English, and he said, “You know how many Number One records you’re on in Japan?” And I had no idea. And he said, “Twenty-five.” I said, “Are you kidding me? All this music I’ve been doing for you--that’s what it is?” He was like, “Yeah. If you came there, you would have a great career if you came over some time.” So I said, “I don’t know.” I couldn’t imagine being in Japan, it was so far and so foreign to me. It seemed like a “Whoa, okay. If I ever come to Japan I’ll give you a call” kind of thing.
Next thing I know, I was working with the Rufus band when Chaka left Rufus. I knew those guys, and they said, “Well Maxayn, Chaka and the Rufus band broke up, and Chaka’s not going to sing with Rufus anymore. But we don’t want to have it be called Rufus, we just want to keep a band going.” So I started working with Bobby Watson, Tony Maiden, and Andre Fisher, and we added another keyboard player and some horns every now and then. But it really turned out to be a really incredible musical adventure, and I started singing with them.
We played a lot in Los Angeles and a place called the Flying Jib that became famous. All these people used to come out to see us: Teena Marie, Rene & Angela … it would be all these people that came to hear us. And then two things happened there: Aretha Franklin used to live up the street from the Flying Jib, so she would come down, and I had already met her in Detroit, so we were friends, and she would come and sneak in. She’d be out for her walk in her jogging suit but she would slip in and sit in there and see me.
She would invite me to her house sometimes when she was having dinners and stuff that she was just doing--casual little get-togethers. And then Gino and Joe Vannelli came down to that place, and they came to hear me. I think that Jimmy Haslip, the bass player from the Yellow Jackets, had recommended that they come down and hear me. And then from there, I met them and I recorded with them and ended up doing some touring with them.
But I really enjoyed singing with them. I wanted to work with them; I wanted to meet them. I heard their music, and I wanted to work with the Vannelli brothers, and I did get to meet them through that. So that was a great thing that happened from doing that.
But from there, we got invited to go to Japan, which I never, ever dreamt that we would do. We went to Japan; I was there in Japan—I had never been there before in my life. All these people showed up that had Maxayn albums for me to sign, at a place called the _______ Club in Tokyo in Aoyama, which is, like, an area in Tokyo. And they gave me a party; they said, “We’re giving a party for you.” And J-WAVE, which is a radio station there, was sponsoring the party, and I had no idea that people in Japan knew who Maxayn was. They had the Maxayn albums, and they wanted me to sign them.
So that opened up a new world for me, and when I got invited to stay and do some tours there, I ended up being there for the better part of ten or twelve years, back and forth. And I always can go to Japan and work, and be there. I feel very at home there. Everybody always goes, “How did you stay there so long? How could you do that, and did you like it?” And I always say, “It loved me.” So I really enjoyed being there, and I loved working there. Japan has a place in my heart, always, because I was so well received there, and so embraced completely, and I love being there, as well.
RSW: We talked about everybody else that you’ve recorded with, but do you want to talk a little bit about the song that you came out with in ’02 on the GETTING THROUGH IT album?
M: Oh, GETTING THROUGH IT—that was done by a friend of mine, whose idea it was: Richard Feldman, who’s a guy from Tulsa who has lived here in Los Angeles for quite some time. I’ve worked with him a lot. He produced the Wailing Souls, and Ras Michael & The Sons of Negus, which is two pretty well-known reggae artist groups. Then he asked me about doing that GETTING THROUGH IT as an inspiration for people who are going through lots of grief and that kind of thing. And that’s how that came to be. He wanted to create a package of music that spoke to being uplifting, to people’s spirits, at times when they were really challenged by something, some kind of devastating time in their lives.
RSW: Such an awesome career … like I said, the resume is just flawless. But I just have one more question before we part. Just me connecting the dots, I know that you said you were working with Bobby Blue Bland; I know Bobby Blue Bland was signed to Duke Records.
M: That’s right.
RSW: Were you the singer that recorded “(Gimme Back) My Love”?
M: That’s me.
RSW: So that was your first recording as a solo artist?
M: Yeah, and I was actually underage when I did that. I was underage, and that’s how I got out of that contract, to go on and do other stuff--because I should have had my parents sign on that, but I didn’t. I didn’t know that I was doing that—I didn’t purposely do it for that reason. I just said, “Okay, I gotta sign this paper,” when I shouldn’t have been signing anything. I was actually underage to do that.
RSW: So what was your reaction once the song was finished and released? Moreover, what did your parents think?
M: They were happy. They just thought, “Wow, okay; you’re getting to do a record,” because they didn’t know anything about the industry; they didn’t know. They just thought, “Oh, okay.” And then we saw a record with my name, and it was like, whoa. It was just like a dream … just fun. So it was just one of those things that just came to me--like Maxayn--like who knows that this is going to turn out to be something really special, or that connects you in a different kind of way, and opens doors in a different kind of way for so many things?
My attitude is always--I’m really concerned about the performance, the music, what the song is doing. That’s my focus, and everything else comes behind that. If you set your intention about your energy in a positive way, for things that you really desire in your heart, I think that we’ve been promised that if you ask for them they will be given unto you. But you don’t ask with hope--you ask with knowingness and assuredness, and believe it’s going to happen. And then you don’t have to worry about whether or not it’s going to happen; you prepare to receive what you’ve asked for. If that preparation means that you do your work and use the gifts that you’ve been given to do your work, and do it really well ,and be as close to flawless as you can be about it, with the right spirit about it, those things will be added unto you.
RSW: Absolutely. Thank you for those words of wisdom. Like I said, you are one of the best soul singers I’ve ever heard. I still listen to all of my Maxayn vinyl—it’s still some of the best material ever done in the seventies, and I just want to say thank you for sharing your story with us and thank you for all the great music.
M: Thank you for having me, Rico.
RSW: No problem.
M: Thank you so much.
RSW: My pleasure.
About the Writer
Rico "Superbizzee" Washington is a Washington, D.C. native and has served as music editor for Brooklyn-based Free Magazine and was a staff writer and columnist for XLR8R Magazine. His work can be found in Wax Poetics, Art Nouveau, and Okayplayer.com. He lives and works in New York City.