In person interview conducted November 5, 2010 at Ronnie Scott's club in London
Paying close attention to the line-up of visiting US performers coming to the UK can have big benefits. The renowed guitarist Lee Ritenour brought an all-star band with him for shows at the famous Ronnie Scott’s club in London and alongisde bassist Melvin Davis and drummer Sonny Emory was none other than ‘Baby Fingers’ herself, Ms. Patrice Rushen. David Nathan snuck backstage for a pre-show interview with this legendary music artist as she reflected on her illustrious career to date and new ventures she’s planning…
David Nathan: Well, I am sitting here in the dressing room at the world-famous Ronnie Scott’s in London, and I’m in the company of a very distinguished lady whose music, if you are listening to this, of course, for Soul Music.com will be instantly familiar with [and with] this lady’s name. I don’t know how many albums she’s played on—and I’m going to ask her in a moment how many, if she has any idea of how many—
Patrice Rushen: [Laughs]
DN: —but I’m referring to the very lovely, delightful Patrice Rushen. And so, Patrice, I want to welcome you to Soul Music.com.
PR: Thank you very much. Good to be here.
DN: Yes. And, well, I mentioned in the introduction how many albums you’ve been on. Do you have any idea how many albums you’ve played on? Not just as yourself, but—
PR: Oh, my goodness. I can imagine it’s probably close to a thousand.
DN: Wow, wow.
PR: I can think it’s close to a thousand. I mean, probably not all of the things that I played on actually were released, because you know, so many times you’re doing sessions and the music doesn’t surface. But I think it’s been at least that many.
DN: Wow. Do you remember your first session as a sidewoman?
PR: Yeah. Let’s see… I think my first session as a sidewoman actually was on a Jean-Luc Ponty project—called “Upon the Wings of Music.” I had done some little demos for people, but never anything where I knew that it was going to be released and it was going to be out there.
DN: Wow. So that was the beginning of you as a session musician.
DN: Obviously, we know you’ve had a recording career as well. Well, just for a moment, because I don’t think I’ve ever asked you this—and just for the benefit of those listening, Patrice and I have done interviews; we started doing interviews back when Patrice was on Elektra Records. I can’t remember the very first one we did, but it was somewhere in the mid-seventies—for sure. So over the years, from time to time, we’ve connected again. It’s really great to be talking to you—let me add that. But when you think back on all these, probably, hundreds and hundreds of recording sessions, is there one or two in particular that stand out for you? Now, I’m talking about—not your own, ’cause we’re going to talk about your own music in a moment—but one or two sessions that will always stay in your mind?
PR: Well, I think the very first one that was under my own name.
PR: That stands out in my mind, because I was so in awe of the whole experience. You know, just… I wasn’t ready, I think, psychologically, for the energy and the time and the care and the effort that goes into doing a project, so it was a little overwhelming. Thankfully, there were people around who could handle all of that and I could just kind of be the observing participant.
PR: But I was on a session with some of my heroes, like Joe Henderson, Oscar Brashear, Hadley Caliman—it was a jazz album, my first one, for Prestige.
DN: Okay, yes.
PR: And then, after that session, other situations came up that allowed me to play with other musicians. And really, by the time we got to the second album, that was about the time when I had been playing a little bit more in L.A.
PR: I had met and started playing often with Lee Ritenour and Harvey Mason, and we used to play a gig at a club called the Baked Potato in L.A.… in North Hollywood.
DN: Right, right, right.
PR: And I played there with them every week. And I started out, really, taking Dave Grusin’s place, because right around that same time he was starting to get really, really busy composing—doing film composing. He had asked me to come and play a little, and I got to do it more. As Dave got busier and busier doing that, then I got busier and busier working with Lee. And then by the time we did the second album, I was a little bit more comfortable.
PR: I did three albums for Prestige and on the third one I sang one song.
DN: Which was?
PR: Called “Let Your Heart Be Free”.
DN: Oh, and that’s the album Shout It Out.
DN: Right; yes.
PR: And that was the end of that time with Prestige, and that’s when Elektra said, “We want you to come over, and we want you to do more stuff like that, because we think we can open up the market to incorporate what you do as a jazz artist, but also, we didn’t know about this other side.” So that was the start of what came to be known as sort of a quiet storm format which was the blend of R&B sensibilities with the information and the language that had come from the jazz tradition.
DN: Now, did you start out wanting to be a jazz artist, or did you even think that way?
PR: I think I started out wanting to be, actually, a composer.
PR: The high school that I went to was where I was really introduced to jazz formally; at home, my parents were regular listeners of jazz and R&B of their day. So I heard the music; I grew up listening to the music all the time, but kind of took it for granted—because it was just something that was a part of our household.
PR: And by the time I got in high school, though, the teachers there used jazz as a means by which they would reach the kids about history, about social skills; certainly, learning to think outside the box. A lot of the concepts that came from being involved in the music department were things that we could translate into everyday life. Then jazz had by this time a special meaning. I had been playing piano since I was five. By the time I got to high school, I’m thirteen, fourteen, but I was playing classical music. I love classical music, but piano was a means by which I did that. Then suddenly I’m in a high school situation, which allows me to be able to explore the piano in a different way with music that was a part of my history, part of my makeup. And certainly, I could investigate R&B through the medium of jazz—and investigate all the blues and all this other kind of stuff that became part of the music that was the contemporary music of my time, yeah. So I didn’t see myself labeling it as being a jazz musician, and yet that’s exactly what I was doing.
DN: [Laughs] Right.
PR: I was getting down that path. And I think what was so great about that, is that at the time when I was growing up, that path was full of the richness of the tradition, along with people who were experimenting with other things that were coming into play; other instruments we were beginning to use—synthesizers—and just barely cracked the surface of people’s consciousness, in terms of what was happening. So I saw all of this kind of develop.
DN: Well, who did you listen to, growing up? I mean, you mentioned, obviously, growing up in a household where you were exposed to R&B and jazz at the time. Who were some of the people that were playing… who were some of the people that your parents were playing that you listened to?
PR: Oh, my parents were playing Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, Perry Como.
PR: They were playing… let’s see. I remember hearing Errol Garner; I remember, of course, hearing B.B. King. And they were also playing Mahalia Jackson, and they were also playing Leontyne Price—and they were also playing Bach and Beethoven and Brahms.
DN: So you heard it all.
PR: I heard everything; I heard everything. They were members of a record club and they used to get albums every month, and you could list the kinds of music that you liked the most, but you also could receive music that was sort of outside of your list. And so they embraced everything.
DN: Wow. So you were really exposed to a lot.
PR: All of it, yes.
DN: Yes, yes. Well, let’s talk a little bit about that transition from Prestige to Elektra. So during those years when you started to have hit records—I mean, were you surprised by having hit records? Were you kind of like in shock, like, “Oh, what happened?”—
PR: [Laughs] Well—
DN: —“suddenly I’m having a hit record”?
PR: Musically, no … you know, I went out, I went to parties, I listened, I danced—I loved to dance. So there were all kinds of things that I would do that allowed me to be among the people all the time, and respond the way they were responding. I loved… I grew up listening to Motown and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and I was hearing all the Stax music, and that was all part of the music that I was hearing—you know, James Brown; Sly Stone. So that was a part of my language as well.
PR: And incorporated in each of the pieces that I would do, you could tell that there was this mix. And so I felt like there had to be at least a few more people out there who related to these different musics, and I didn’t worry about whether it was going to be a hit or not. It was just music that pleased me—and that my immediate peer group and colleagues had fun recording. And we had a great time, and all of the sessions felt great, and the people would hear it and respond to that. So the big surprise was the business that is connected to having a hit record. because one does not have it just from the standpoint of the music alone—there are lots of different things that have to be in alignment for the music to get to the public in such a way that it becomes qualified as a hit.
DN: Right. So once you did have hits, did you become accustomed… I assume it was an adjustment. Was it an easy adjustment to suddenly find yourself… I assume you did Soul Train? I assume you did all the things people do when they have hits.
DN: Was it an easy adjustment for you? I mean personally.
PR: I think because I grew up watching American Bandstand and Soul Train and things like this, that I knew that that’s kind of what could happen. So I was totally into it and I enjoyed the whole ride. I think that having participated, as I said, as a fan of the music and as a person that would just go to clubs and dances and parties, and enjoy the response and what it did to people—the happiness, the joy, the sheer abandon that would happen when people heard that tune that they just loved. I think it was thrilling. And it was really in later years, I looked upon it as a supreme compliment—to have recordings that people really, really liked and physically, would respond to.
DN: Yeah. Well, speaking of which, of course we can’t do an interview without talking about “Forget Me Nots”. We could, but it would be silly. I mean, did you have any idea that that song would last for as long as it has? Because obviously, I know it’s been sampled. I know that it’s still played. I know that people still respond to it; it’s probably been on who knows how many compilations over the years. Are you surprised about that?
PR: Oh, man. That is an amazing thing, because the story of “Forget Me Nots” is that the situation happened where the record company, when we turned that album in, they didn’t like it. The Straight From the Heart album was not received very well by Elektra—
PR: —and we were devastated, because we could not believe that after—especially after the string of hits and almost-hits that we had had—some successful songs, “Haven’t You Heard” and some other things like that—
PR: —that they were just like, “Okay, we don’t hear this at all.” We were like, “Are you kidding?” But this was back in the day, you’ll recall, and I tell this story often: they would put the records out anyway, and whatever happened, happened. And the people ate it up. They just soaked it up—now I did my part; I believed in the record and I didn’t want it to die on the vine. So I hired independent promotion and used my life savings, which wasn’t very much at the time, and said, “Listen, I just want to get the record to radio. If the people shut it down ’cause they don’t like it, I’m good.” : But I’m not gonna let two guys at a record company, who may or may not be right, say that they don’t hear anything on this album.
PR: So that’s what we did. And it got to radio and took off.
DN: Do you remember which station—was there any particular radio station in a particular city that was like the first one to respond to it?
PR: Let’s see, I don’t know… I think… I can’t recall which city, but I will say that it seemed like on the extreme west coast and east coast—it took off like wildfire, and then right in the middle of the country, once they got it, that was it; they just went crazy. And the surprise there was how fast it took off. I mean, it took no time at all—to the point that the record company had to then play catch-up the rest of the time,
PR: That album and that single spawned a Grammy nomination—two Grammy nominations. The hits off that primarily were “Forget Me Nots”; a song called “Remind Me” was very big.
DN: Oh, absolutely.
PR: “Number One”, which was an instrumental, which hardly ever happened. These records just took off from this album that they said they didn’t like. So the thing that I learned—the lesson I learned is, when you really believe in something and it’s well-founded belief, go after it. And it was a very valuable and important experience to have, because it was a hit for me—it brought me here to the UK—
DN: Yes, that’s true.
PR: I came here and did Top of the Pops—a few other things, you know; a few gigs here and there. You know, it just opened some doors for me that gave me a unique access, because it was not a little hit—it was a big one. And then it continued to grow. It died out for a while, and then it was in this motion picture called Big with Tom Hanks, so it resurfaced again. Then a few years later, Will Smith does it; takes the recording and puts a new rap on top of it, and it becomes the theme—the basis for the theme of Men in Black. So it started all over again, because people rediscovered the original version, and it continues to get airplay. And when I play it in different parts of the world, it has been astounding to me that I’ll hear it and people are, “I know that song!” They might not know me—
DN: Right. They know the song—
PR: They know the song.
DN: And is “Remind Me” the same thing? Hasn’t that been sampled also?
PR: “Remind Me” is probably the most sampled. I don’t know exactly why, but it’s probably the most sampled. Perhaps they use more of it in a more sophisticated and… maybe less of it—they’ll maybe take eight bars of it and put it in a tune; use it for a bed—a musical bed—or something like that. But it is the one that I get the most requests for, for samples.
DN: Really? Wow, wow. Okay, usually I don’t ask people this question, but I’m going to ask you [laughs].
PR: Okay [laughs].
DN: —Have those songs—the songs, themselves—contributed to your financial wellbeing?
PR: Yes, they have, thankfully. I would say, obviously, that because “Forget Me Nots” has been so popular over such a long period of time, it has definitely allowed me to keep the word savings in my vocabulary. I have children now and a mortgage, and it means a lot that it continues to help take care of us with the royalties. Interestingly enough—and this is a great question, because it brings up that today, we don’t have quite the same mechanism in place as used to be with the way record companies were set up; the way systems of collecting royalties were set up. The new paradigm has its plusses and minuses, and one of the minuses, of course, is that we don’t have that mechanism in place when people are downloading, which has become the common practice. So I’m glad that “Forget Me Nots” came out when it did, because had it come out in the new paradigm, I don’t know that I’d be able to say—
DN: To say what you just said [laughs].
DN: Now in terms of your own recording career, I know of course after Elektra you did record—am I correct, was it one or two albums for Arista?
PR: I just did the one. I was on Arista for three years, and we recorded the album within the first fourteen months or so of being there. And it sat for a couple more years while Mr. Clive Davis waited for the big hit. We didn’t find the big hit, to my knowledge. But anyway, during that time, people were like, “Where are you? What’s going on?” It was, again, a very revealing time for me, because for me personally it was the beginning of the possibility of a type of career that could be qualified, I guess, for lack of a better term, as reaching a certain kind of superstar status. This was the last rung of the ladder, is to have somebody who… where you’re not chasing the record, but they believe so much out the box that they’ll do everything—anything—to make sure that it hits, and then it spins on itself. And this is what Mr. [Clive] Davis was willing to do, because I think he did honestly believe in my talent. But while I was waiting for this hit, I was dying out here, just thinking, “Man, can you really make a hit like this, and know?” That had not been my experience previously. So after waiting for a long time, and the record company and then people receiving it and going, “This is not the record that we expected from you.” That was the feedback that I got.: “Good record and it has some great stuff on it, but this is not the—this is not the Patrice record we’re waiting for.”So again, lessons to be learned in every situation, and I asked to be released. And the compliment [Clive] gave me was that he let me go. Because I think he realized that if I wasn’t happy as an artist that there wasn’t going to be any point in getting anything… The cat was already out the bag. I had so lovingly been received for music that was organic to me. And to do something that was different than that just wasn’t quite as— comfortable for anybody.
DN: I gotcha. And then was that essentially the last record you made for a, quote, major record company?
PR: That was the last one. I took a break, because remember I wanted to be this film composer? And I wanted to kind of get back to…I can’t say get back to, but I didn’t want to lose my connection to jazz; to the music; to classical music—to everything else that was giving me a vocabulary that would have allowed for me to be to be able to go comfortably from one type of music to the other in one musical setting. And I liked to play. I liked to play with other people— I enjoyed and enjoy being a leader, but it’s sometimes nice to just show up and play—and sing and contribute. And I love to write. And I saw myself faced with the possibility of getting further from that, chasing the last rung of the ladder, if you will. And I chose to kind of use that as a way to kind of pull back, and enjoyed doing some more films and TV, and things like this.
DN: And how was that, then? How have the last couple of decades been?
PR: It’s been great. It’s been a mixed bag. I’ve obviously continued to record with different people. I’ve started… I have some symphonies and music that are in other genres, that people don’t know about these aspects of my musical personality. I am also teaching; I have an Honorary Doctorate from the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
DN: Well, that’s pretty—that’s pretty significant, yes.
PR: Yes, it is. I am the ambassador for artistry in education there. I also teach at the University of Southern California as a curriculum consultant and as one of the artists-in-residence in their brand-new popular music program—which is an amazing thing to say, because I went to college at the University of Southern California when they had no jazz, no popular music; it was all very classical. A wonderful department, an amazing musical environment—but now it can incorporate more music, and I think that that’s marvellous.
DN: Do you perform very often as Patrice Rushen?
PR: I’m getting back to that.
DN: You are?
PR: Yes, I am. I haven’t in a long time. But one of the things that becomes increasingly obvious to me, as somebody who’s fortunate enough to be able to play with people like Lee [Ritenour], is traveling in different parts of the world, you get to find out that people really, really want to hear what you’re doing. And people keep asking. And so now I’m in a position to make some things happen. So I have a couple of new projects, one is called Patrice Rushen and Friends. It’s a collective of so many of my friends, most of whom are well-known entities in their own right as far as music is concerned. And we periodically get together and just go out, and each one contributes a couple of tunes to the set. I do about four or five of the hits—and we go play it just like we did on the records. We used to play together all the time on records, and this would be, like, Paul Jackson Jr. and Freddy Washington and Ndugu Chancler or Will Kennedy or Alphonso Johnson, or… just different players that I can draw from and say, “Hey, are you available to go and do so-and-so?” “Yeah, I can do these three; I can do these two. And if Gerald Albright can’t make it, I’ll call Kirk Whalum; if Kirk can’t make it, I can call Eric Marienthal. Eric can’t make it….” It’s so great to have so many friends who know each other. And we just learn each other’s book and then pull things from each other’s books and get out. I think that for the salvation of the music—and now that live music has become, again, the premier platform for the presentation of music—
PR: —that having this kind of consciousness among the musicians, I think, is wonderful. I think it’s great for the people; that means every concert—the potential is for every concert to be a little mini-event in itself, to see that interaction between players is amazing. And certainly, music that they want to hear, for us, is an opportunity to get together and play, and to do it in such a way that it’s great bands, all the time.
DN: Yes. So when does Patrice and Friends kick off?
PR: We’re ready. We have done a couple of things; tried it out last year in the States; did a couple of festivals, did a couple clubs—worked out great. We did a live recording; we’re going to add some more to that and put it out.
PR: And one of the added benefits of being out here to be with my good friend Lee is that as I’m here, I’m able to also make some contacts and some connections that will allow for me to come back under my own name and do it.
DN: Good. And you said there were two projects; that was one.
PR: Yes, that was one. The other one is a duo project with my friend and colleague and brother, Ndugu Chancler. He’s a wonderful drummer—
PR: —and people know him from George Duke and Santana and all kinds of stuff, but they don’t seem to see him play vibes very much. He’s a vibraphonist.
DN: I didn’t know that; okay.
PR: And so what he’ll do… what we do with this duo format is we prerecord some of the music, and then we switch instruments. I’ll play drums, I’ll play guitar, I’ll play keys, I’ll sing; he’ll play vibes, he’ll play drums… it’s a show. We occasionally get out, and we call that One Plus One. and we occasionally get out to do that as well.
DN: Are you going to be doing a recording under that name?
PR: I think so, yeah, because we’re creating some new music. It’s primarily being used as a vehicle to be able to play all kinds of music in one setting. But we are going to create some new music and do something to it.
DN: Well, let’s bring you to London, November 5th, 2010. You’re here with—
PR: Sounds like a date [laughs].
DN: Yes. Well, you’re here with Lee Ritenour. And are you guys on a European tour?
PR: Yes. Yes, we’ve done about four cities in the Netherlands; of course we’re doing London; we’re going to play in Dublin. We’re playing Manchester.
PR: We are going to do a couple cities in Italy, and a short run in Germany of a few cities. So it’s been a three-week tour. It’s been great; it always is. Lee is one of my favourite people, a wonderful individual, as well as a great musician. And his music… we kind of grew up together in the States, and played—back in the day, we played little parties together; all kinds of gigs. His vocabulary and my vocabulary are in sync, you know? We came up listening to the greats, and then had the studio experience also, because Lee did so many studio sessions and recordings with people, in addition to records, film and TV. So our paths just continue to have crossed over the years. So it’s really nice to have an opportunity to be out here playing with him; I’m enjoying it very much.
DN: And how are European audiences responding to you all?
PR: Oh, fantastic. Fantastic. I mean, it’s always a great feeling to play for people who like what you do. But when you come here and you get this overwhelming passion that says, “We not only get it, but we’ve been there with you. We’ve been waiting to see you.” Wow, it’s amazing. And it’s really, really thrilling. And I think as the world becomes smaller and people can be in closer communication, it’s very, very important. And I think the musicians and people who surround the music industry as we know it today, it becomes very, very key that we’re able to ommunicate and have this connection, so I’m very proud and I’m very happy to be here.
DN: All right, well, last question: should we expect to see Patrice and Friends, or some version thereof, in Europe or in the UK sometime in the near future?
PR: I believe so. We are working very hard to establish that it is real; that we want to do it. I’m hopeful for maybe even as soon as this summer to be able to pop in on some of the festivals as Patrice and Friends, and circulate and do some of the dates of clubs and things. Again, you know, reaching the people and getting that feedback has been really important in order to build that kind of confidence with promoters and with booking agents—and I think that we’re ready to go, so see you soon!
DN: Well, good. Well again, on behalf of the Soul Music.com community, I want to thank you for taking time before the show to talk to us and to share with us about what you’ve been doing; Of course, you’ve shared with us some insights into your career. Are there any last thoughts that you’d like to pass on?
PR: Yes. I would like to say a huge thank you to you for your years of just tracking and following and encouraging, and being there for not only me, but so many of the artists who have done R&B and soul and jazz, and who have found the commonality in that mix because that is who we are. We are all of those things, and everything that we do brings forth those different elements at any one time. That you get that, and that you have spent so much energy and time bringing that information to the people is really important to us, so thank you—
DN: Thank you very much.
PR: —and thank you all for listening.
DN: All right. Thank you, Patrice Rushen.
Click here for Patrice’s website
Transcription by Penelope Keith
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.