Paulette McWilliams Credit: Courtesy the Artist

In the early 1970s, singer Paulette McWilliams quit ascending Chicago R&B group Rufus and recommended that her friend, Chaka Khan, take over the lead spot. The decision benefited everyone, even (and arguably especially) McWilliams, who dodged the pitfalls of limelight while continuing to work constantly in music. By the time she relocated to Los Angeles in 1977, top musicians knew what she could do with her voice: Quincy Jones added her backing vocals to Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall, Aretha Franklin extended a similar invitation (on 1982’s Jump to It and 1983’s Get It Right), and for 20 years she collaborated with Luther Vandross (they were both part of Bette Midler’s famous backing group, the Harlettes). McWilliams moved to New York City in 1986 (she’d return to California 20 years later), and in the early 2000s, she sang background on and helped hire the vocal section for multiple Mary J. Blige projects. Her new solo album, A Woman’s Story, shows why those superstars—and dozens of others—have relied on her over the years. McWilliams’s warm, smoky tone emphasizes the emotional resonance of a diverse repertoire that makes room for Marvin Gaye as well as Janis Ian, and she avoids gaudy flourishes—despite her dynamic range, she judiciously picks her spots to take flight. When she sticks to slow tempos, she uses her voice to direct the rhythm section’s grooves, letting the songs breathe. On an interpretation of Kenny Rankin’s “In the Name of Love,” for instance, McWilliams avoids the quick scatting Rankin often adds—her pauses and deliberate pacing lend the tune more depth of feeling than the original. Producer and arranger Kamau Kenyatta has assembled a sharp and sympathetic group of instrumentalists to frame her voice, assisted by ace jazz trumpeter Etienne Charles, who put together the horn section. McWilliams’s stunning intonation and subtle improvisational ascent gently propel Vandross’s “So Amazing” in a sparse dialogue with pianist Hugo Suarez. She also digs into her own history on a spirited version of “Chasing the Sun,” by fellow Chicagoan Donny Hathaway. Perhaps McWilliams’s hidden strength is that, in some ways, she stayed close to home.   v