PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
April 4, 2006

The New Patti Austin

by Jim Newsom

If you haven’t seen Patti Austin lately, you’re in for a big surprise.

“I just lost 140 pounds,” she told me recently. “I had gastric bypass surgery a year and a half ago, and my life was saved by it.

“I went to a doctor for a complete physical because I had a torn meniscus in my knee. He said, ‘You’ve got to lose this weight—you’ve got diabetes type II, you have asthma and you’re menopausal. You’ve got to get rid of this weight and you’ve got to get rid of it fast. This is the best way for you to do it.’”

Austin, who performs with the Count Basie Orchestra Friday night at the Ella Fitzgerald Music Festival, was in Cologne, Germany, when we spoke, recording her next album with the WDR Big Band, a tribute to George Gershwin. She’s been in the music biz a long time.

“I started when I was four,” she said, “professionally when I was five. I was doing a TV series on local TV in New York called Star Time, a show that was where Connie Francis and Bernadette Peters got their start. We all did that show together, and we were up against another show that ran on Sunday mornings, a children’s variety show called The Children’s Hour that starred Leslie Uggams. We all started at the same time in New York City on live television.

“I went from doing Star Time to doing a nationally broadcast show called Ray Bolger’s Washington Square, and I did that for about two years. That was a Saturday evening show; we’re talking ’55 and ’56.

“It’s funny—I just recently got to see Good Night and Good Luck. It really blew me away because I was doing TV in New York when that stuff was going on, and the film so brilliantly depicts that period. If you weren’t there, trust me when I tell you that it is exactly the way New York City and the whole studio scene was laid out at that time. The rhythm, the look—it’s so much like the world that I was living in at that time. My childhood was passing before my eyes as I watched that film.”

She laughed when I pointed out that she had been a part of the “golden age of television.” Ironically, her schoolmates were unaware of her television stardom.

“My dad was a jazz musician,” she said. “My mother had tried her hand in the business and absolutely loathed it. But because my parents had both been in the business, they were very savvy and protective of my civilian status, and that I have a regular childhood. I was only allowed to work on weekends, and the rest of the time I went to public schools.

“I was living in Bay Shore, Long Island, and people weren’t that sophisticated about what was on TV in those days. And I never talked about it; I was like The Scarlet Pimpernel, I had two totally distinct lifestyles. My friends never knew that I was in the business until I was about fourteen and I had my first hit record.”

She spent the 1970s doing studio work, singing backup vocals on albums by Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Roberta Flack, Steely Dan, Michael Jackson and a zillion others. In 1983, she scored on the pop charts with “Baby Come to Me,” a duet with James Ingram recorded under the tutelage of her godfather, Quincy Jones. But her heart had always been in jazz, and her 1988 disc, The Real Me, found her foraging through the Great American Songbook.

“At the time that I started,” she recalled, “big band music was in its final death throes, but it still existed to some degree. Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey had their show on TV; there was still Rosey Clooney and Patti Page; Nat King Cole was still making records and hits. So I got to grow up under the tutelage of all those amazing innovators, and that was the music of the day. I really grew up singing what is now called jazz, but in those days was still part of the pop scene.

“My silent mentor, Rosemary Clooney—who I got to know very well in the early ‘80s—one year she grabbed me by the collar and pushed me up against the wall and said, ‘You must continue to sing this music. This is your baby.’ And it kind of became a mantra for me.”

Her last album, For Ella, was a magnificent romp through the fertile fields of pre-rock popular music. She’s given a lot of thought to the value of those songs:

“You have to look at the time in history when this music was created. It was a powerful time in the history of the country—you’re talking about songs that were written from the Depression through the Second World War. These were very profound periods in our history and in creating our culture and our social structure. The art is reflective of the time.

“I think the music that’s happening now is reflective of what’s going on now with the youth culture. It’s very rhythm based, it has very little meaning lyrically, no melody…what does that say? You’re talking about a very disposable generation, and now they’re starting to feel physically disposable because of what’s going on in Iraq.

“Look at the body of music that our generation has been touched by. We come in on the tail end of the Great American Songbook, so that’s still in the ether. Then we have The Beatles, Elvis, the Rolling Stones; and we have Motown and the Philadelphia sound—we have Otis Redding, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, the Mamas and the Papas, Yes. And at the same time you turn on the radio and hear Louis Armstrong singing ‘It’s a Wonderful World,’ or Sinatra, or Peggy Lee singing ‘Is That All There Is?’ All of that stuff going on at the same time!

“And now,” she laughed, “we’ve got Beyonce!”

As she enters her late 50s, Patti Austin is feeling like a svelte new woman, healthier than ever, exuberant about this time in her life.

“My first lightbulb moment came when I was running through an airport,” she said excitedly, “and I realized I was running. I realized that if this was last year, I wouldn’t have been able to do this. It has been life saving, life affirming, life changing, totally renewing, the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

copyright © 2006 Port Folio Weekly. Used by Permission.