Viola Davis transforms into the Mother of the Blues for her award-winning role in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” — and while she delivers a powerhouse performance, former Ikette and soul singer Maxayn Lewis is the unsung hero of the film.
It’s her voice that catapults Davis into a new realm. While it is Davis’ voice who belts out “These Dogs of Mine,” Lewis performs the rest of the numbers.
In an interview with Variety, Lewis explains how she came to sing in the Oscar-nominated film and got to lip-sync for Viola Davis.
How did you get to sing for Viola Davis in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom?”
I’ve been working in the music industry for a long time and I’ve been recording with different people for years. I’ve done background and done vocals for different projects.
Someone I’ve worked with gave “Ma Rainey” composer Branford Marsalis my phone number and he called me. He asked if I’d be interested in doing vintage blues. He never said it was a film or what it was about. It wasn’t until I said ‘I’d love to,’ that he filled me in.
Did you know who Ma Rainey was before he approached you?
I had read a lot of historical blues stuff. I’d done a project at UCLA on Black History Month about the history of the blues from Africa to the Americas.
I did know who she was. I told Branford, ‘I know who she is. I know about her historical contributions. She’s an innovator and she’s one of the original people.’”
Branford invited me to Louisiana to record the songs; he gave me about five or six songs to learn and we went through them all. I knew those songs already. I went in and listened to those lyrics and what her vibe was and what she was writing about.
I went back and started reading more about her and refreshing my knowledge of her. When I got to Louisiana, he had a wonderful ensemble, and we recorded the songs live. I loved working with Branford because he’s an excellent musician, a virtuoso and he was prudent to make it authentic.
And George C. Wolfe, the director, was there. He made it really wonderful, because he was giving the backstories for every song, what the mood was going to be in the film at this point. When I got back to L.A., the original idea was Viola Davis would lip-sync to what I had done, but that didn’t happen.
So, you had recorded it before Viola. I know she sang “These Dogs in Mind”?
Yes. I had to lip-sync to her vocals and mouth movements. I’ve done that before. Every individual has a cadence to their speech, how they talk and how they breathe, and Ms. Davis has that certain kind of cadence when she does a character. It is never the same, and that is the greatness of her.
So, I listened to her cadence of how she was speaking as Ma, how she controlled her breath. I looked at how she moved her lips so I could nail it.
How long did it take to record those vocals?
Less than three hours. They thought it was going to take me three days because when they said ‘You have to lip-sync to Viola,’ I knew what I had to do. I have my own method of how to nail the cadence, and I did that with this.
Who was Ma Rainey to you?
She was an innovator, and that story alone is amazing. She was in a recording studio at the turn of the century. She had the foresight to say, ‘I got to do this because this can promote my music.’ She had the wit to know that recording was something she should do as an artist.
But what was more important about the character of Ma Rainey was that she was fighting for a lot of the same things that Black women who are artists — whether they’re actors, singers, painters, sculptors or dancers — are still fighting for. She was fighting for her own art.
Jim Crow was alive and well, and despite all of that, she was calling her own shots and the captain of her ship.
I’m going to switch to another great woman, Tina Turner. You’re in the new HBO documentary, what was it like seeing that and your days as an Ikette?
Tina is a wonderful person to work with. She was young and when I met her, I was young. I always describe that as the hardest job I’ll ever love.
We did tremendous amounts of work. One year, we had 347 one-nighters in 365 days. Everybody needed a vacation after that. It looked glamorous, but it was super hard work. When you’re young, you think you can do anything. When we rolled that show out, it was like a finely tuned machine. We were dancing and singing, doing it all. It was very demanding and very gratifying.