Singer Paula Michelle recalls touring with Ray Charles

From Raelette to one-woman show
Jun. 09, 2013 @ 11:47 PM

What did Paula Michelle say when she was asked if she would like to sing with Ray Charles?

“Sure.”

That was in 1991. Michelle was 29. She joined Charles’ band as one of the Raelettes, the women who, starting in the 1950s, accompanied the R&B legend as backup singers. Over several months, the tour took Michelle to Switzerland, Germany, Japan, Italy, Finland.

These days, Michelle lives in Sevierville. She sings regularly, but not with a 26-piece band, like the one that toured with Charles.

On Monday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, she performs at Wood Grill Buffet in Pigeon Forge. With her smooth, sultry voice, she sings to prerecorded accompaniment. In the mix is music by artists like the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Bonnie Raitt, Shirley Bassie and Reba McEntire.

“I have had my own band, many times,” Michelle said. “But I found I got more work having backing tracks.”

On Sunday, June 30, at noon, she will perform her once-monthly program of inspirational music. “It’s positive-message songs and gospel,” she said. “I like a good message song. When I was young, I would sing anything. It wouldn’t matter. As I get older, I want some substance.”

A native of Pontiac, Mich., Michelle got her professional start singing with bands in Atlantic City. A connection there led her to Charles. “It always helps to know someone,” she said.

The bass player she was dating got work with the classic pop-soul combo the 5th Dimension, which was playing in Atlantic City. She befriended Lamonte McLemore, a founding member of the group.

Later, she heard from McLemore. “He called me and said, ‘Ray Charles needs two singers. Are you interested?’” She was.

Then Charles called. “I need two girls, right now,” he said. “Do you have a friend?”

Michelle was in the band. There was no audition. “That’s the way he operated,” she said.

Charles was “hard, difficult,” Michelle said. “It was stressful.” Still, she notes, she learned a lot about the music business from him.

She also learned a lot about singing – from the Raelettes, as she went from being a solo singer to one of five women. “Till then, I didn’t know what a real (vocal) blend was,” she said.

After turning down another tour with Charles, Michelle moved to Los Angeles, where she sang and acted. Another ex-Raelette introduced Michelle to the Supremes tribute act the Sounds of the Supremes, and with that group Michelle toured Germany, Malaysia – and Australia, where she lived for 10 years.

She moved to East Tennessee in 2009, after her husband, Don Bennett, an attorney, took a job with the State of Tennessee. They settled for a time in Dandridge.

“I remember saying to Don, ‘What am I supposed to do in Tennessee?’” she recalled, laughing. “I was worried. Then we happened to drive in Pigeon Forge. It looked like a mini Las Vegas. I’m looking at theaters to the left and right. I’m like, I think I need to start knocking on doors.”

She found work at what was then the “Tennessee Shindig” show, in the facility that now houses the Biblical Times Dinner Theatre. Pigeon Forge businessman Jess Davis owns the theater, as well as the Wood Grill Buffet.

“Jess hired me,” Michelle said. “He knew my background, and he was quite interested.”

When the theater became Biblical Times and began hosting a show about the birth of Jesus, Michelle was cast as an angel. She is featured as both an angel and the Queen of Sheba in the current Biblical Times show, “King of Psalms.”

Davis proposed that she put together her Wood Grill Buffet show, Michelle said.

“He has given me so much freedom,” she said. “That means a lot after 31 years. I dress how I want, and I sing what I want. I am so ultimately happy.”

kburns@themountainpress.com