Maysa Leak knew when her mother took her to see a performance of the Broadway show Purlie as a little girl that she would be an entertainer one day. And for decades she has worked as a singer.
She left Morgan State University for Los Angeles to back up Stevie Wonder. She traveled across the Atlantic to front the British jazz funk band Incognito. Since returning home when her father, Mayso Leak Jr., took ill several years ago, she’s performed at some of the most famed venues in the District and Baltimore, as well other East Coast cities and an occasion gig out west. She’s sung on many albums and toured several +times.
This weekend, Maysa hopes to bring home the ultimate affirmation for a singer. When the stage lights go up on the 56th Annual Grammy Awards Jan. 26 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, she’ll be among the nominees sitting in the audience praying for a win. The Baltimore-born-and-raised smooth jazz vocalist is nominated in the Best Traditional R&B Performance category for her remake of the Nancy Wilson classic “Quiet Fire.” The song is from Maysa’s 10th album, Blue Velvet Soul.
Other nominees in the category include eight-time Grammy nominee Fantasia Barrino, two-time nominee Gary Clark Jr., and three-time nominee Ryan Shaw, yet Maysa isn’t intimidated to be part of such a talented group.
“I’m more than excited,” Maysa told the AFRO in an interview as she headed back to Baltimore from a D.C. TV appearance Jan. 21 at the beginning of a snowstorm, two days before she was scheduled to fly out to the Big Orange. “Overwhelmed is the word I’d use to describe it. It’s great.”
Maysa said she included “Quiet Fire” on her album as a tribute to Nancy Wilson, whom she considers a mentor and role model. It wasn’t the song that she would have expected to get her nominated.
But on Dec. 6, as she was hosting a birthday party for her son Jazz, 14, she received a call that sent her heart—and hopefully her career—soaring.
“I knew it was nomination day, but I [had] lost myself in the party and it just did not register at first that this is what I was getting called about,” she said.
After reality kicked in, Maysa was overcome with joy.
“I just went off,” she told CBS News. “I was so excited. I was crying. I could barely speak. I couldn’t believe it.”
Maysa attended Milford Mill High School before heading to Morgan, where she sang in the famed MSU choir directed by the late legend Nathan Carter. She was a senior studying music in 1991 when iconic singer-songwriter-musician Stevie Wonder, after meeting her at Morgan, selected her to fill the alto spot with his background singers.
After a tour, she went into the studio with Wonder to do some recording for the soundtrack for Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever. Later, she did a vocal audition on the phone and was hired to front the British jazz and funk band Incognito.
Maysa has appeared on seven of the band’s albums, and has released 10 of her own studio albums since 1995.
She was feted at a special send-off Jan. 19 at the Birchmere in Alexandria, where she has performed several times. In March, she’s scheduled to play the Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis.
Since the Grammy nomination, the phone has been ringing more. More shows are being offered, with better pay. After so many years in the business, the acknowledgment—and attention—is welcome. She hopes a win, or even the nomination, takes her career to the next level. She’s interested in doing film soundtracks, theater and bigger shows.
“I hope it puts me out there more where people say, ‘Oh, let’s get her for this. Let’s call her for this,’” Maysa said. “Expand opportunities for me. That’s all I really want it to do. I’d like to be able to reach more people, be accessible to more people.”