Bless the Godchild
Sanctified by Dinah and Quincy, Patti Austin’s career was destiny.
By Michael Roberts
Music lovers who only know Patti Austin as the voice behind “Baby, Come to Me,” a 1982 duet with James Ingram that topped the pop chart thanks to exposure on General Hospital, have a lot to learn.
The daughter of trombonist Gordon Austin, who performed alongside the likes of Lena Horne and Billy Eckstine, Austin has led an extremely rich and varied show business life that began when, as a preschooler, she bulldozed her way onto the stage of the Apollo Theater – and into the hearts of Dinah Washington and Quincy Jones, her self-proclaimed godparents.
By the 1970s, she was a CTI Records solo artist, an in-demand vocalist on the commercial-jingle scene, and a studio singer with an incredible list of credits. She contributed to big-selling albums by Roberta Flack, Paul Simon, Steely Dan, and many other notables. After making a major impression on two Jones productions – Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall, a 1979 dance-floor classic, and 1980′s The Dude, a Grammy winner released under Jones’ name – Austin signed to her godfather’s Qwest imprint, where she became one of the most reliable adult-contemporary stars of the era.
In the years that followed, Austin issued a slew of discs for labels such as GRP and Concord Jazz and rewarded loyal fans in Asia by performing for them in Chinese. Then, in 2002, she recorded For Ella, a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald cut with Cologne, Germany’s WDR Big Band. The CD was such a success that she recently reunited with WDR for Avant-Gershwin, a recording whose dramatic arrangements, by Michael Abene, help her infuse George and Ira Gershwin staples such as “Funny Face” and “Lady Be Good” with fresh energy and vitality.
These terms apply to Austin, too. Since having gastric bypass surgery in 2004, she’s shed well over 100 pounds – a dramatic change that’s improved her art as well as her health. “Losing the weight has made my singing much better, much stronger,” she says. “I’m able to access parts of my body that I couldn’t before, because they were covered with big wads of fat.”
In conversation, Austin is straightforward and sassy – just as she was back on that mid-’50s Sunday when she made her impromptu Apollo debut, which she recalled for JAZZIZ …
Patti Austin: We went to the dressing room, and Dinah leaned down and said, “Hi, honey, I’m Dinah Washington, and I’m a singer.” And I said, “I’m Patti Austin, and I’m a singer, too.” And everyone kind of inhaled at the same time, including my parents, who had no idea I was going to be so bodacious. And she said, “Oh really? Well, if you’re a singer, you’re going to go out and sing onstage today.” And I said, “Okay!” Her musical director was walking by the door, and she said, “Get in here. The kid’s going to sing today. I’m going to cut my second number and let her do a tune.” He says, “Oh really?” Everybody’s chuckling. “What do you want to sing, little girl?’ And I said, “Mmmm, ‘Teach Me Tonight.’” Everybody laughs again, and he says, “What key do you sing it in?” And I said, “B-flat!”
JAZZIZ: How old were you at this point?
I was 4.
And you already knew what key you sang in?
Yeah, because when my dad would practice, and he’d show me what everything was. But when I walked onstage, the band was playing the intro in a different key, because the musical director forgot to tell them it was in B-flat. So I stopped them and said, “It’s in the wrong key!”
You were bodacious.
Oh yeah! The audience flipped out. That was my first taste of an audience flipping out – and that was it for me.
How did your first album come about?
I’d started writing. Quincy was always on me to write, and I finally did, but I was very shy about it until one day when Bill Eaton, who was doing the arrangements for my club dates, came over to add some new material for my show. Those were the days of sangria, and after we shared a pitcher, I was sufficiently loose to play him a medley of my “hits” – and he loved them. Bill was working with Ralph MacDonald, and Ralph took a cassette to CTI, and they loved them, too.
When did you start singing on commercials?
I kind of went at it very bass-ackwards. I was working as a solo artist and making records and doing local concerts. I used to work a lot with James Brown and Patti LaBelle on the New York City circuit, and then I started getting work as a studio singer. But I kept seeing this thing called the jingle business, and I wiggled my way into that world. It was very closed and very racist and very difficult to be a part of, because there were about eight people in those days who were singing pretty much all of the commercials – but I managed to slide in as Barry Manilow was sliding out. People liked what I did, and so for 15 years, I sang on commercials and produced them and wrote copy and just became totally immersed in the jingle business. At that point, I abandoned the studio background singing, because jingles were a fulltime job. We were doing six jingles a day in those days.
What are some of the commercials you did that people would remember?
I was the voice of Avon for many years. I did Hyatt, Hellmann’s, Dr Pepper. At one point, I had 75 spots running at the same time between TV and radio. I ended up with hit records I never worked because I was making too much money on jingles. You couldn’t get me on the road to support “Baby, Come to Me” because I was doing so much jingle work.
Among the more famous items on your studio résumé is Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall, which is a title that seems more appropriate now than it probably did then.
(laughing) Yes, hindsight being 20-20.
What was that experience like?
Whenever you work with Quincy, it’s a whole bunch of fun, because his motto in the studio is, “Let me get the baddest mamma-jammas who do whatever it is the baddest mamma-jammas do, and have some great snacks on the console, and generate an atmosphere of creativity and silliness.” That’s what all of the projects I did with Quincy were like, from The Dude to working with Michael to working on my own albums. Everything was fun-filled, with the best people imaginable.
Over the years, you’ve built a huge following in Asia by singing in Mandarin and Cantonese. How difficult is that?
Everybody wants to get all excited about that, but it’s really more like being a trained monkey. You just do it over and over and over until you’ve got it right.
When you’re singing in those languages, do you think of your voice more as an instrument? Or do you have enough experience in those languages to know what syllable to emphasize to create the most meaning?
I always approach vocals as an instrumentalist just because of the time I came up in the business. People would always ask me, “Who was your influence?” They’d expect me to say Ella or Sarah Vaughan or whoever, and I’d always say Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. But lyrically, I approach music as an actor, because I want to tell a story. Once I’ve learned the lyric and understand what it means, I go about the task of kind of gluing the actual melody around all of that and finding out where the inflections lie musically against the Cantonese and the Mandarin and the Portuguese or whatever language I’m singing in.
It sounds as if that’s one of your great pleasures when you’re singing in another language – that it takes you out of your comfort zone.
Oh, yes. Ever since I hit 50, I feel like everything must be a challenge. Something’s got to wake me up in the morning, whether it’s trying to learn a new language or trying to accomplish a new form or an ancient form or find a new way to express a lyric so that people feel it even more. Whatever that is, that’s my joy at this point.
A lot of your hits continue to get airplay on smooth jazz radio. When you were making them, did you think, “I’m slipping some jazz into the mainstream”?
Oh, hell no. When I make a jazz record, you’ll know it. As far as I’m concerned, I haven’t done jazz yet. The closest I’ve come to making a jazz record is the For Ella project and Avant-Gershwin, which is somewhere between big-band jazz and Broadway.
Why did you choose to focus on the Gershwins?
I love Ira. I love George. And I love what they wrote. It’s melodically fun to sing and the lyrics are crazy and wonderful. It’s all the things music is working overtime not to be at this point. So I must zig when everyone else zags.
Is the “avant” part of the title a way of telling people you’re not going to do this music the way everyone’s done it for years?
Exactly. The idea was, let’s do “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” and all these songs that people think of as vaudevillian and hokey, and show that the music is so much deeper than the style than it was originally performed in – that it’s still profound and fun.
Is there a song on the new album that epitomizes that approach?
I’d say “Swanee.” That’s the one song where especially black folks go, “Oh, shit! Don’t want to hear no banjo music up in here!” Even Michael Abene looked at me like, “You want to do ‘Swanee’?” And I said, “Yeah, but we’re going to funk it up,” and he really did a brilliant job of translating what I wanted to express.
Listening to the music, it doesn’t sound creaky. It feels very vibrant.
Yes, and that was the other reason the word “avant” worked so wonderfully. The intention wasn’t to create any kind of new form. I think taking these gowns out of the closet, these magnificent gowns, and taking a tuck here, and putting a little beading over here just makes this material live again.
With this project, do you feel as if you’ve come full circle?
Absolutely. When I was a kid, my mom bought me a little Victrola from the next-door neighbors, and their record collection was all Broadway show tunes. For the first three years of my life, I thought I was Stubby Kaye, because my favorite musical was Guys and Dolls. I used to sing, “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat” until my mother was like, “All right, already! Sit down! You’re rockin’ my boat!” And now, with Avant-Gershwin, hopefully, we will be performing this music on Broadway. That’s the ultimate plan – where we can develop it to the point where it can became a theatrical piece. That really would be full circle.