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By Bob Weinberg
Patti Austin brings sizzle, sensuality and a lifetime of experience to her swinging new celebration of Ella Fitzgerald. She also brought along some muscle — Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band.
Like her idol, Ella Fitzgerald, Patti Austin got her start singing on the stage of the Apollo Theater. Just 4 years old, Austin brazened her way into performing with Dinah Washington at the famed Harlem venue after her dad, jazz trombonist Gordon Austin, had brought her and her mom backstage to meet Washington, whom he’d befriended when she sang with Lionel Hampton’s band. Nearly 70 years later, Austin vividly recalls the scene, describing the tall, elegant drag queens lounging around Washington’s dressing room — the Apollo hosted drag shows in the 1950s — who adored The Queen of the Blues and she them.
“And so Dinah comes over, she’s kinda showing off for the guys,” says Austin, relating her origin tale by phone from her home in Panama City, Panama, “and she leans over and goes, ‘Hi, honey, I’m Dinah Washington and I’m a singer.’ And everybody cracks up. And I say, ‘Well, I’m Patti Austin and I’m a singer, too.’ And she didn’t miss a beat. She said, ‘Well, if you’re a singer, then you’re gonna go out and sing with me on stage.’ I said, ‘OK!’”
Washington’s musical director, not expecting much from the tiny tyke, asked Austin what she wanted to sing and in what key did she want to sing it? “‘Teach Me Tonight,’” she replied. “B Flat.” After an impromptu rehearsal with a piano in a basement band room, it was star time. On stage, Washington introduced Austin, who strode from the wings … and stopped the band just as they started to play. “I said, ‘You’re in the wrong key.’ And the conductor said, ‘Oh, my God, I’m so sorry, I forgot to tell them.’ The audience fell out [laughing]!”
Such was the start of a remarkable career. The 72-year-old singer, who enjoyed fame before she was in double digits, has performed alongside icons from Sammy Davis Jr. and Quincy Jones to Michael Jackson and George Benson, and scored enormous radio hits with classic R&B ballads such as “The Closer I Get to You,” “Baby, Come to Me” and “How Do You Keep the Music Playing.” Pop listeners may have been surprised to hear Austin’s deft vocalese alongside Benson on their charming duet of “Moody’s Mood” in 1980, or her 1988 standards album The Real Me. But it was her return to singing jazz that broke her to an even larger international audience in recent decades.
During the past 20 years, Austin has lovingly expressed her devotion to the music of Ella Fitzgerald with recordings and tribute concerts alongside big bands and symphony orchestras around the world. Her latest such expression, the self-released For Ella 2, is a collaboration with Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band and a follow-up to the 2002 album For Ella, recorded with the Cologne, Germany-based WDR Big Band. Fronting a large ensemble wasn’t exactly new territory for her.
“Well, I mean, the first big band I sang in front of was Dinah’s at the Apollo when I was 4 years old,” she says, laughing. “And of course I felt that that’s exactly the kind of instrumentation that I required.”
Stepping out front of the San Francisco Symphony, the L.A. Philharmonic and the Boston Pops, as she has in later years, also thrilled the singer. Austin has great reverence for the musicianship and discipline of the members of these institutions. “You walk on stage and everybody taps their strings with their bow and there’s all of this pomp and circumstance,” she says. “I don’t know anybody that’s done that kind of gig that doesn’t go, ‘Dammm-nnn.’”
On her 2007 release Avant Gershwin, a recording of timeless gems from one of America’s greatest songbooks, Austin had the luxury of rehearsing with the WDR Big Band for 10 days before recording. Even then, the experience was almost overwhelming. “When we finally got to the point when the strings came in, it was just …” she trails off. “I almost forgot to sing.”
"That’s the way Patti works,” explains bandleader Goodwin, speaking by phone from his home in Los Angeles, “because she’s a musician. She’s not just a vocalist. She loves standing close to the band so she can feel the rhythm section, so she can see everybody and get that interaction. That’s where the magic happens.”
Austin retracts her description of Rosemary Clooney as a mother figure. No, she says, she was too hip for that designation. Instead she applies the term “mentor” to the singer, who had recorded with Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, and acknowledges her importance in her career direction.
Backstage at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in 1997, during an all-star concert celebrating Lena Horne’s 80th birthday, Clooney forcefully impressed upon Austin the importance of singing jazz. “She literally backed me [up],” Austin recalls. “With her arm across my chest, she backed me into a wall and said, ‘You are the heir apparent.’ And I said, ‘Of what?’ She said, ‘You have to continue this thing, the Great American Songbook,’ because I had done The Real Me album, and a lot of people didn’t know that I did that kind of music. Rosie knew because she knew my relationship with Quincy, and she knew what I could do.”
And it was thanks to Clooney that Austin got to meet Ella. For several years, Clooney hosted a Betty Clooney Foundation for the Brain Injured fundraiser (named for her sister) at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles on the night before the Academy Awards. Austin was invited to perform at the star-studded event, as was Fitzgerald, and when the two met backstage, Austin lost it. “She was tremendously shy, tremendously sweet, and I was a complete moron when I met her,” she says. “Because this was, excuse me, FUCKING Ella Fitzgerald! So I’m acting like a complete idiot. ‘Oh, Ms. Fitzgerald, you’re so wonderful!’ And she’s just kinda patiently looking down at the floor … And she said, ‘Well, thank you, dear,’ and was very patient and very kind with me.”
Whenever the singers’ paths would cross in the future, invariably someone would rush over to introduce them. It became a running joke between the women, who would laugh and pretend they had never met with a coy, “You look familiar … ”
Austin’s admiration for Ella, who died in 1996, runs deep. Following the first For Ella album, she developed a tribute show, in which she would regale audiences with tales from Fitzgerald’s life. She spent about a decade honing her often comedic between-songs patter to get it just right, frequently discussing the context of songs or their accompanying introductory verses, which might reference the Broadway show or movie musical from which they came. Musically, however, Austin knew better than to try to replicate her idol’s vocal delivery.
“I’m not imitating Ella. That cannot be done,” she says. “So I tell the audience ‘I’m not going to imitate her tonight, I’m going to honor her body of work. But doing that required my going into her closet and taking out my favorite dresses that she had, putting them on and then having somebody tailor them for me.’ That’s what the show is; it’s not me imitating her by any stretch. I wouldn’t deem to. That happens once every 100 years, that kind of voice, that kind of popularity.”
Like Austin’s stage show, For Ella 2 spans Fitzgerald’s varied career. There’s a nod to improvisational Ella with the rousing opener “Mack the Knife,” during which Austin, like her predecessor, takes liberties with the verses, alluding to the fabled 1960 live Berlin performance during which Fitzgerald forgot the words but triumphed with impromptu lyrics that brought the house down. Bebop Ella receives her due on a Latinized read of “Lullaby of Birdland.” There’s also songbook Ella, with Austin and the Big Phat Band diving into saucy Cole Porter numbers such as “Anything Goes” and “Let’s Do It.” And perhaps in emulation of her duets with guitarist Joe Pass, there’s intimate Ella, represented on a ballad medley of “I Fall in Love Too Easily” and “It Never Entered My Mind,” on which Take 6 provides sigh-inducingly lovely backing vocals. And, not to be overlooked, there’s swing Ella, as Austin and company revive “Sing Me a Swing Song (And Let Me Dance)” and “Tain’t What Ya Do (It’s the Way That Cha Do It),” two of Fitzgerald’s early-career performances with the Chick Webb Orchestra.
“People forget that Ella did a lot of what they then called novelty records,” Austin says, referencing songs such as “A-Tisket A-Tasket” that brought Fitzgerald to prominence with Webb when she was in her teens and early 20s. “It was the equivalent of what hip-hop is now; it was about a culture and a language, and she was kind of the queen of that genre.”
Aptly, Goodwin updates “Sing Me a Swing Song” — Ella’s first big hit with Webb in 1936 — with a bumptious funk rhythm, while he and his Big Phat fellows hark back to Webb’s band by providing call-and-response vocals on “Tain’t What Ya Do.” He made sure to check in with Austin on the correct singing of the words on the latter. “I don’t want to sing like a white boy from Witchita,” he jokes.
While writing arrangements, Goodwin also checked in with Fitzgerald’s recordings, particularly those she made with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. The idea, again, was not to imitate but to honor and to update. “We wanted to start where [Ella] started,” he says, “but then make it relevant to contemporary listeners and somehow have some sort of a through-line back to her version of it.”
For Ella 2 has been some time in the making. Austin, who self-funded the project, first approached Goodwin back in 2015, tasking him with writing arrangements and leading the band. With the singer out on the road, and Goodwin back in L.A., the give-and-take was in fits and starts. Austin would, at times, tell the bandleader what she wanted — her prime directive was that the record be “cinematic.” But other times, he just intuited it, as happened on an epic arrangement of “April in Paris,” which starts out as a romantic chanson, evolves into bright Count Basie swing then unspools into An American in Paris fantasia with a dreamy coda.
“I wanted [Goodwin] to refer to the Basie arrangement, because it’s such a classic,” Austin explains. “But I never got to tell him, because I was in two different time zones. But he’d do a demo and send it to me. There were two things I wanted to say to him: ‘I know this is gonna be really cheesy, but I want it to start with an accordion.’ And the other thing was, ‘Can you please find a way to reference American in Paris? Think Gene Kelly and take it out for a minute and bring it back and reference Basie.’ Didn’t get to tell him any of that. Not one of those things. … And he nailed it. To me, it’s some of the most beautiful work I’ve heard Gordon do.”
“We couldn’t decide if we would emphasize the romance of that song and do it with strings or swing it like Count Basie,” Goodwin says. “We never really came to a decision. And I ended up doing both. I started off with accordion and strings, and then we went into the swing thing. And she called up when I sent her the demo and went, ‘You son of a bitch! I kept meaning to call you and tell you, ‘Just do both.’ We had a lot of moments like that. Just some sort of shorthand kicked in.”
The songbook entries, particularly the Cole Porter songs, resonate with Austin. Porter’s witty double-entendre wordplay tickles her and she says she never had any difficulty memorizing his tongue-tangling lyrics. She also recognizes the importance of the songbook albums — from Porter to Richard Rodgers to Harold Arlen — in Fitzgerald’s career, though the singer was initially reluctant when Norman Granz proposed she record them. In some instances, Ella’s versions became the definitive standard readings and exposed her to even greater popular acclaim, as both her voice and her song selections grew richer.
“The thing about her for me was always just the very tone of her voice,” Austin says. “I thought she had one of the most beautiful vibratos. It was just right in the sweet spot of what I think a vibrato should be. It’s almost like the sound of a beautiful viola. Just this rich, beautiful vibrato, and that for me was the icing on the cake. I probably say this because I’m an old broad now with old chops, but there’s something wonderful about a voice as it seasons up.”
Goodwin, and anyone with ears, will dispute Austin’s self-deprecating assessment of her chops. From “Mack the Knife” to the roof-raising gospel closer “Get Happy,” the singer remains a powerhouse jazz interpreter with a lifetime of musical experience at her command. Goodwin explains how Austin would sing reference vocals with the band then come back later to redo her parts.
“For my money, her reference takes were amazing, too,” the bandleader says. “It’s not like, ‘Well, that sucks, Patti, you better come back and fix that.’ With Patti Austin, you never have to do anything. You don’t have to tune it, you don’t have to move it around like sometimes you have to do with vocalists. It’s always just perfect. And it always has that ‘grease’ to it. It’s a wonder to behold.”
Featured photos by Albert Sanchez.