David Nathan talks to a soulful lady whose dulcet tones can also be heard on numerous American TV commercials
FOR MANY years now, B&S has prided itself on being able to at least offer some suggestions as to who we feel will emerge as prospective superstars. Fortunately, our batting average (if you'll excuse the cricket pun!) is pretty high, so it's now time to state clearly that one of the names you should be looking for in the next few years to achieve that elusive and elevated status belongs to the highly personable daughter of Mr. & Mrs. Austin — Patti!
Her name will be familiar to all Northern soul fans in the U.K. via "Music To My Heart" and deep soul folk will remember her incredible "Family Tree" on U.A. during the late Sixties, Soulfully inclined movie fans may recall Patti in the Isley Brothers' film, "It's Your Thing" and those people who check out their album credits will have seen Patti's name on innumerable productions — the list of her session credits alone would take up most of the page, with formidable names like Roberta Flack, Paul Simon, Esther Phillips, Bob James, Kenny Loggins, as just a few of the many who have benefited immensely from Patti's talents.
And that says nothing of her work on jingles and commercials in the States which means in essence that the chances of you hearing the dulcet tones of Ms. Austin advertising anything from the U.S. Navy to Avon or cheese crackers are quite high!
Discerning record buyers will be aware that Patti signed with CTI Records during 1976 and her debut album, "End of The Rainbow" was released around November. A particularly auspicious opener, the album did very well in making music fans cognizant of this lady's incredible talents as both as vocalist and as a songwriter (she wrote all but one of the tunes on that set and wrote the vast majority of the material on her newest album).
It spawned a hit single in "Say You Love Me" which should have been a big pop smash for Patti — it had all the ingredients — but did manage to make a dent in the r&b charts in both the U.S. and U.K.
Now comes "Havana Candy", Patti's second album and although it contains again, some fine songs from the lady's pen (notably "I Need Somebody" and "We're In Love", two particularly strong cuts), it also presents another side of the ubiquitous Ms. Austin!
Just by way of explanation, we should inform you that Patti is, besides being a fine singer etc., one of your original crazy people! She's constantly laughing and indeed this interview was conducted amidst gales of mirth and lunacy, Patti would be a natural for "Monty Python" or the old "Goon Show" in England or America's "Saturday Night Live" and if Carol Burnett ever decides to take a hiatus, someone ought to recommend Ms. Austin!
Immediately stating that this album "portrays far more of the real me, the nutty side of my personality than the first one", Patti states categorically that "I like it, I think it's better than the last one because it's closer to what I'm really all about. That's why you've got songs like "Havana Candy" and "Golden Oldies".
"You see, people were coming to see my shows expecting this really sophisticated torchy kind of singer and they got this crazy woman instead! So I felt it was only fair that what people heard on record would be what they saw on stage."
Divulging more about the two particular cuts which definitely broaden the whole base of the album, Pattie explains: "Well, 'Golden Oldies' was about the fourth or fifth song that I ever wrote, and it stems from the fact that I hate rock & roll! I've never dug it, couldn't understand it when it first came out and still don't.
"What happened was I was watching television — 'Midnight Special' I think — and they were doing a tribute to all the old rock stuff. Well, I just thought it was hysterical so out came 'Golden Oldies' which is a kind of spoof on the whole thing.
"Hmm, 'Havana Candy' — now that also came from watching a movie on tv. It was a Liza Minelli movie, 'Lucky Lady' all about these rum-rummers who had decided to fight the Mafia! There was one rum-runner on there, Savannah Candy was her name and it just so happened that I had been trying to write what you might call a finger-to-elbow song, one of those really rumba-type things! And it all just clicked in place! Boom — there was 'Havana Candy'!"
ASIDE from the above-mentioned cuts, Patti's album contains some really nice mellow music (as did much of her first album) and she was somewhat startled to learn that the album had made its initial debut on the jazz charts!
"Now that is crazy! Because the one thing that this album doesn't contain is any jazz! None whatsoever. I realize of course that CTI is basically strongest in that area but when I signed with them, it was because they wanted to get more into the pop area with people like myself and Seawind.
"The problem is that there may be people who will figure that because it shows up on the jazz charts that I'm a jazz singer or that the album is a jazz album — which would seem logical — but it just isn't the case. What we want to do with this album is reach across to the public."
When it's suggested that perhaps it might have been wiser for Patti to hold off from recording the diverse material on this album until a later stage in her career when it could have been marketed to a wider audience, she's unable to agree.
"I felt it was the right time for me to do this now because it says what I'm about now and I have to be true to myself. Plus, since I do so much background and so on, I'm under a strange kind of 'peer' pressure. It's like the other folks are the first ones to tell you if they dig what you're doing — the other singers and so on. Fortunately, so far, they all seem to dig it — quite a few like it more than the first album."
However, Patti contends that her main priority is satisfying both herself and the public, precious few of whom have had much opportunity to see the lady in person. She explains why.
"Well, right now, it's for legal reasons but I will be doing some dates in the first part of the year. But you know, being on the road takes a lot of strength and endurance. Don't forget that I did it for about four years non-stop so I know what it entails and it isn't easy.
"Everywhere that we've appeared (Patti did a highly successful run at Smucker's in New York, as well as appearing with Ralph MacDonald at Avery Fisher Hall and doing dates with folk like Bob James and Michael Henderson on the road) the response has been very good and that makes me feel confident that it isn't a question of not being able to reach people in person.
"But you have to remember that I'm also kept constantly busy with commercials and background work, so it's also about finding the time. But I definitely will be doing some performing during '78 and the show will have some surprises in it."
There were vague hints that some of those 'surprises' might include some costume changes and so on and with 'Havana Candy' as a definite item for inclusion in Patti's act, the mind boggles!
Patti's other major plans involve "getting more into areas that seem to just be presenting themselves to me."
She elaborates: "More recently, I've been getting into writing songs specifically for other artists, because I've had requests from people to do that. I did a song for Noel Pointer and there are a couple of other things coming up. It's a challenge and it is somewhat more difficult from when I'm writing just for me. Lyrically, it helps to know the person a little, so that you can tell what they're about and what they want to say.
"But in some ways, it's like writing jingles — which I've had to do. It's restrictive because you are working within a basic format. But I do have my own publishing company now, Yippity Yippity Music and I will be concentrating a lot more work into that."
Previously, Patti was associated with the very successful Antisia Music company, headed by Ralph MacDonald, Bill Salter and William Eaton (a company, responsible for such songs as "Where Is The Love", "Trade Winds" and "Mister Magic") and she notes: "Ralph said he knew that it would be inevitable he was just surprised that it took me so long to do it!
"But he had a perfect understanding about my wanting to do it myself — take care of my own publishing — and I certainly will be exploiting my material now to the max!"
PATTI notes that she finds the demand for her services to do commercials "has increased incredibly over the last year and I'm doing now more than ever!" In retrospect, it seems that her concentration in the last few years on doing work in the background (either on sessions or doing jingles) as opposed to being out front is part of the Patti Austin Master Plan and the lady confesses!
"Yes, indeed it is. After I had those four years on the road, I just decided that was it. I called my manager and agent at the time and told them, hey, I didn't want to be out there any more like that. I wanted me some roots!
"It happened that it was whilst I was home from being on the road that I did my first background date and I dug it. Seeing the other people involved in it and how their lifestyles were, just turned my head around. For the first time, I realized that I would be able to be at home at weekends if I wanted to. So I decided to pursue that particular aspect of the music business because I've seen how just putting all your energy into being a "star" as such can just destroy so many people.
"Belive me, it's incredible to watch how many folks put themselves through so much hurt just to be a "star". To me, it's just not that important. I'd rather be happy as a person in doing whatever I'm doing and I've seen precious few people who've been happy as stars.
"You find yourself then at the mercy of the public, you can either rise or fall according to people's whims and I must say that I've been very fortunate in that I've learned so much about what to do and what not to do by seeing other people go through it.
"What I realized early on was that I needed to build a strong financial base for myself so that then when I wanted to get into making albums and so on, I wouldn't be totally dependent on their success or failure as to whether I went hungry or not. So many people do that and it can be very detrimental.
"I'm always trying to encourage people to develop as many talents as they can — whether it's doing background, writing songs, whatever. Sure, everyone is striving for recognition, we all want to be known for what we do but it's important to get it all into a proper perspective or it can really harm your whole personality, the kind of person you really are."
WHEN speaking about her own career as a performer and recording artiste, as opposed to doing the background and commercials' work which still occupies a big part in Patti's life, she states categorically: "I guess I'm from the old school of entertainers — I've been around so many people like that all my life — and I want to be that elusive thing they call an "all round entertainer". That's why there will be so much more silliness in my act from now on!
"Sure, it's tough to get people to see all the things you're capable of doing. It's hard for them to even see beyond just singing. But I think it's all about what you project in every situation. I certainly want to use the funny side of me (cough, cough!) to get over!"
Watch out, Lucille Ball, Phyllis Diller and co., here comes Patti!
With such a busy schedule — Patti can be found doing at least two or three sessions a week, most weeks of the year — we enquired what the lady did when she did have time off.
"Well, firstly, I try to keep every weekend free for me. And I have learned about making time for myself. And then? Well, I love cooking, watching television, being totally insane!"
She relates how, together with some other well known background singers, she bought a whole batch of water guns and spent a whole day in her home in upstate New York, just spraying water at people!
"Yes, we do have totally loony times but that's what life's all about."
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.