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Awesome Austin: an interview with Patti Austin

by Gregg Shapiro

Patti Austin performs in Winston-Salem April 21.
Patti Austin has one of the most familiar voices in contemporary music. Whether you recognize it from her early jazz recordings for Creed Taylor, the years she spent with Quincy Jones during her disco diva phase or her return to jazz vocals, her powerful pipes are simply unmistakable. Probably best-known for her ’80s hit single “Baby, Come to Me,” Austin has had a multi-faceted career and she shows no signs of slowing down, due in part to her renewed vigor and new appearance, a result of gastric bypass surgery. Austin spoke with us soon after the release of her latest CD, “Avant Gershwin” (Rendezvous).

As both a songwriter and a singer, what is it about Gershwin tunes that makes you want to perform them?

Amazing melodies and amazing lyrics, timeless melodies and timeless lyrics. It’s genius music! Not really that tough to decide to do it [laughs] in a world where there’s little genius left of that caliber.

Do you think that there are any potential future Gershwins lurking out there or do you feel like that pool isn’t very deep?

Patti Austin learned from the best — her godparents Quincy Jones and Dinah Washington. Photo – Carol Friedman
It’s not deep and it’s not the fault of the universe. Every generation gets the music it deserves. This generation is getting the music it deserves, unfortunately because our generation did not fight for this generation to be educated musically. As a result the music is exactly what you get when you don’t know anything about music [laughs].

On that note, with the “Avant Gershwin” disc and its predecessor, “For Ella,” would you consider yourself to be taking on the role of a preservationist?

I guess. I was anointed by an originator, a few originators, but the last one to give me the calling was Rosemary Clooney, at an 80th birthday celebration for Lena Horne, speaking of innovators, at Avery Fisher Hall quite a few years ago, maybe 10 years ago or longer. I was standing in the hallway talking to Rosie, whom I’d known for many years, she was truly my mentor, a lot of people don’t know that. A lot of people assume Quincy (Jones) was my mentor. Rosie was more my mentor than Quincy. Quincy is my godfather so it’s kind of a different level of a relationship.

Rosie got me involved in this thing she did for years called Singers for Songwriters, at a time when “Baby Come to Me” was a hit and everybody presumed, in spite of my body of work prior to that, I became best known as a pop vocalist because of “Baby Come to Me” and “How Do You Keep the Music Playing” and “Girl Who Used to be Me” and all that stuff. And every now and then I’d venture into the R&B world and do “Heat of Heat” with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and that sort of thing, but essentially I was known as a pop singer. So I had to fight when I was with my record company to do (the 1988 CD) “The Real Me” because they were like, “you don’t do that sort of music.” But I’m like, “guys, you know, before I met you I was doing this.”

Sure, all your CTI stuff.

Yeah, exactly! Rosie was aware of this whole body of work and as a result called me to participate in this Singers for Songwriters tribute, which was a fundraiser that she did every year. It was all of the Hollywood old guard, all the great singers, Ella Fitzgerald, everybody used to participate in this and she always used to say “I need some young blood, Patti come and sing.” So I’d get to sing these Jule Stine tunes, and these Alan and Marilyn Bergman tunes, Michel LeGrand tunes, because all these people were honored in the seven years that they did this event.

A consummate artist, Patti Austin knows how to bring her best to the stage.
And, finally, at the end of all that, she stopped doing the benefit and I saw her quite a few years later, like I said, and she backed me into a corner and said, “I don’t want you to ever stop singing the Great American Songbook. You must continue to sing it because you are the heir apparent.”

Earlier, you mentioned “Baby, Come To Me,” and recently soap operas have come back in vogue as a way of launching a song. But you were at the head of the class when “Baby Come To Me” was heard on “General Hospital” in the early 1980s. Did you expect the song to have the kind of longevity it’s had when you first recorded it?

No. Quincy says he does and that he did and that he always knew it was a hit. It came out and died. Actually, I found out the complete back-story, from the other perspective about a month a go. It was from a guy who was the head of the music department at ABC. He said that one of the guys who was doing music for “General Hospital” loved “Baby, Come to Me” when it came out and hated the fact that it never did anything. He took it upon himself to use it as underscoring for Luke and Laura, wrote it down on the schedule for where it would be played in the body of the script. The guy who was the head of music took a look at it and said it was fine, he didn’t even know what it was. I think it was the producer of the show who saw it and said, “I love Patti Austin, play that!” That’s how that happened.

It wasn’t anything that we paid to have happen or requested to have happen. We had no idea it was going to happen. Then it caught on, as a result. It caught on in Miami first where they had this radio show in the afternoons that used to do recaps of all the plot lines on the soap operas and when they did that they would play whatever the familiar underscoring was up against the conversation about what Luke and Laura did. People started calling the station and asked them to play “Luke and Laura’s love theme” and stop using it underneath the recap. That’s what they did and in one weekend the record sold 5,000 copies in Miami. The record company scratched their heads and said it was a fluke.

At that time, I was being managed by Freddie DeMann, who managed Madonna for many years, and Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie. We were all with him at the same time, as a matter of fact. We infused some money into the record, because the record company wasn’t doing squat. We had new copies pressed and the record started selling like hotcakes, and the rest is history.

“Avant Gershwin” is a live disc. Is that because the material is better suited to live performance than to studio recording?

It was recorded live because I’ve been doing this gig for the last 10 or 12 years in Germany. The concept of the gig is that they have an American music series that they do every year, and they honor various vocalists and composers and arrangers and whatever. The first year I went, I performed my own music. Then they asked me to come back and do the music of my favorite jazz female vocalists, which is Ella, and that’s how we came to do “For Ella.”

At that particular point in time, my manager said, “You’re coming over here to do these concerts, we need to record them.” Because the concerts are set up to be a live performance in the first place. You go in, you rehearse for a week, and because they’re German, they record everything, because they’re very anal-retentive [laughs] and it’s their responsibility to have everything perfect! Then, on Sunday, you do a live broadcast concert, in the symphony hall, with the WDR symphony. When I’m putting that show together, I’m putting together a live show to be broadcast all over Germany.

Because so many people have commented to me that the flow of the album and the sequencing are so cool, I say it’s because I’m doing a show and it’s got to be paced for that live audience and it also has to translate over the radio. There’s a whole other energy we’re trying to create where we try to make a picture in your mind, so that flow line has to happen from beginning to end. Kind of like you closed your eyes and you are watching a movie or like the old days when you would buy an album and you would sit down and drop the needle and listen to it from one side to the other and hold the cover in your hands and read the liner notes and close your eyes and take this journey. The confines of the situation require that we do it like that, but it also makes for, I think, at this time, a very wonderful and unique kind of recording that most people don’t anymore. These are the kinds of records that Judy Garland used to make, and Liza and Lena, these kinds of wonderful live performance things that we don’t get a lot of anymore. I grew up listening to that stuff and loving it. To me, that was the coolest stuff in the world.”
Many of your gay fans fondly recall your 1984 dance hit “Rhythm of the Street.”

Ah, yes.

Were you aware of a gay following prior to that?
I’ve been [laughs] so immersed in the gay community my whole entire life! Starting with my godmother [Dinah Washington], who kept a dressing room full of fabulous queens, drag queens and every other kind of queens imaginable in her presence. All of those men were my heart. The first person to take me to the ballet was a friend of my mom’s who was a gay man. It just goes on and on and on. I’ve always had close, magnificent, loving, fun, terrific relationships with people from the gay community. And I’ve always been very aware of them. They’ve always been tremendous fans. They’ve always supported me when there was no support there.

It goes back a very long way. And I was very aware of that audience. At the time that [“Rhythm of the Street”] was out, I did a lot of club dates, particularly in New York. There was a whole circuit you would work back in the day, where you would literally pull down about 30 grand in a night. Well, technically in a morning, because you wouldn’t start until 2 a.m. and go until about six. You would do all of these clubs in Brooklyn and the Bronx and Long Island and New York, in the city, and they were absolutely wild. And they would pay cash. All the gigs would pay cash because all the clubs were owned by [in a gruff voice] the guys from Jersey. We used to call them “brown paper bag gigs” because they would literally pay you with a brown paper bag full of cash. Madonna and I had the same road manager and he used to take us both out on these club runs. A lot of them were gay clubs and the “chirren were waitin’” and I was waitin’ for them [laughs].

Your song “We’re All In This Together” became something of an AIDS anthem in the early ’90s and you performed at numerous AIDS benefits. Are you still active in the cause?

I’m still active in the cause, but there is a lot less fundraising activity than there used to be. I remember when the numbers were going down for fatalities with AIDS in this country and everybody was getting all cocky and comfortable and saying, “we got it licked!” And everybody that I was talking to in the medical profession that was on top of the situation was saying they hadn’t even begun. This was what was happening in the States, but the rest of the world was getting ready to collapse from it, particularly Africa. And I was being told this 15 years ago, this epidemic was on its way, beyond anything we could comprehend, and of course it’s here now.
Because of air travel and the smallness of the world, I don’t know how much longer that’s going to be able to hold just on that continent. It makes it really complicated and difficult. I haven’t been called upon in quite a while to do a benefit for AIDS, although anybody that calls me — I’m there. I’m kind of in an anybody-that-calls-me-to-do-anything-or-anything, I’m-there mode [laughs].

Because I feel that the world is so ruptured at this point, that you can’t go wrong with anything that you’re going to do that’s going to help anybody. I work with kids — teaching them about music. And I do stuff for Darfur and I do stuff for AIDS and people in New Orleans. There’s just so much crap going on, that we all need to address. I’ve been blessed with this gift to be able to make music, which touches people’s hearts and makes them go into their wallets and give money for things that need to be reinforced with some kind of profit. So, I’m always there to lend that voice and help people accomplish what they need to do.

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