When it comes to making it in the music industry, there’s no such thing as an overnight success. Careful planning and hard work are sometimes overlooked because people are more inclined to focus on the end result and not what happens behind the scenes.
For almost three decades, acclaimed vocalist Tawatha Agee’s has proven that your name doesn’t have to be in the limelight to make it in the music industry. In an interview with Southern Laced, the Howard Univesity graduate, who initially set out to become a music teacher, introduced us to the intricate details of her life as a background singer and “go-to” person in the music industry.
Born in Pittsburg and raised in Newark, New Jersey, Agee, whose voice can be heard on the number one hit “Juicy Fruit” and “You, Me and He”, had no idea she would end up working with musical artists like Mtume, Aretha Franklin, Lenny Kravitz, David Bowie and the Dave Matthews Band.
In an interview with Southern Laced, Agee explained how she became the new kid on the block while working with Mtume.
“I was singing in a gospel group, which included Richard Smallwood and Angela Wimbush. A mutual friend introduced us to Mtume and Reggie Lucas. We were able to do a demo for them, but it didn’t work out,” Agee said. “Because Mtume and I stayed in the same town, I was able to stay in touch with him once I left D.C.”
After graduation, Agee went on to become a substitute teacher because she had been unable to find a full-time position. Soon after, Mtume asked her to sing in a group he was forming. She happily accepted the offer and began working in the studio with him and other influential people in the music industry.
As Mtume became well-known as a producer, more and more people began to recognize Agee for her astounding voice and work.
“One thing led to another and I’m standing up there with Luther,” Agee shared. “I’m on every Luther album, except for two.”
In 1986, Agee released her first solo album “Welcome to My Dream”. Currently, she’s gracing the stage in select cities and working diligently in the studio to complete her next project.
“I got a chance to get dates and sing as myself and not behind someone else. It’s like starting all over again. I’m the only one on the stage. And I’m used to having a band, background singers and just a large group behind me. But when they say, ‘Tawatha of Mtume’ and I walk out on the stage, I’m the only one singing,” Agee said. “It’s exciting… very exciting. I still love it. And I still love singing for people.”
Q: You have a new project coming out. Tell us about that.
A: I’m working on a new project and doing a tour date. So it’s a very exciting time for ‘Ms. Tawatha.’
Of course, you know that I got started with Mtume. I also worked with so many other people singing background. So I was like, ‘Okay. You’ve done that. What are you going to do now? What’s the next chapter of your life going to be?.’ I was like, ‘Why not sing for myself again while I still have the chops?‘
Sometimes your voice goes for many reasons, but I still have the chops. I can still do this. I can still sing. As Mtume says, “I’m photo ready.” (laughs) I can still manage to pull it together to look decent. We (singers) have to go through that process of getting ready. I can still carry a tune.
Q: Throughout your career, you never had management. How did you learn the business side of the music industry?
A: Trial and error… I never had a business manager. Everything I did was by word of mouth. People would see how I worked and my finished product. They liked the background groups I got together. And they kept calling me to actually sing or get singers for them.
Q: You are such a well-rounded and diversified artist. You’ve done jingles, television commercials and TV appearances. What advice would you give to upcoming artists that may be focusing on just completing an album and getting it out there?
A: First of all, people want to be stars. And they want to do it quickly. They don’t want to put in the work that it takes to prepare themselves for what’s to come. But there are other things you can do in the meantime. You don’t have to be in the front. You can be the background singer. You can work in the crew. You can be a vocal coach aside from being the soloist.
I never wanted to be a soloist. I always wanted to be in the background. And I think that’s from playing for my church choir when I was younger. Someone else would be singing the solos and I’d be there for support. I was somewhat shy as a child. So I liked being the background person.
Being a professional singer, I realized there are other things you can do. I can be a soloist, sing jingles or do the music people hear on the tv and radio. You don’t have to be seen. Your voice is heard. They don’t have to have a picture of you out there because you’re singing the background for a product. You’re helping to sell a product and can make a living doing that.
I used to sing on Saturday Night Live. Everybody thinks that you have to be in front of the camera. No, you don’t. When you would hear the guest singing, we’d be singing to support the people doing skits on the stage. So you don’t always have to be seen to be in the music business. Sometimes you’re on the stage and sometimes you’re not.
Q: It’s easy to say who you haven’t worked with versus who you have worked with. On your upcoming project, do you have a wish list of collaborations?
A: It might not be collaborations, but let me tell you who I’m really into. I love D’Angelo, Rahsaan Patterson, Jazmine Sullivan, Ledisi, SZA, and Kendrick Lamar. Going way back, I like Marvin Gaye and Teddy Pendergrass. There are a lot of people that I love. Jaheim, Johnny Gill and Babyface…
I can usually get along vocally with other people. So I don’t know who would be on my wishlist. Everybody has something they contribute that I really love. It might be a phrase that somebody sings – like when Teddy Pendergrass did the song “Close the Door”. He would do that, “Come here, girl!” (mimics Teddy Pendergrass) He was just very masculine and macho. I love that, but I also love the tenderness in the falsetto singers’ voices.
My taste is wide and varied. I don’t have a wishlist because I like everybody.
This interview has been condensed and edited by Southern Laced. Contributor Kendra Bell represented Southern Laced in this interview.
Find more about Tawatha Agee’s upcoming project and tour dates by visiting her website at http://www.tawathaagee.com/. Click on the links below to follow her on social media.