PATTI AUSTIN tells why she prefers shoe polish to the bright lights
DO FAME and fortune go hand in hand? Not for the versatile Patti Austin who doesn’t seem the least bit bothered if fame takes a back seat. She’s making a fortune doing commercial jingles.
She also does backups for people like Paul Simon, Phoebe Snow, Frankie Valli and Roberta Flack. Her songs are recorded by people like Sarah Vaughn, Blood Sweat And Tears and Robin Kenyatta.
Her CTI debut End Of The Rainbow was one of last year’s most delicately crafted late-night soul albums. And her newest LP Havana Candy is rolling off the Polydor presses at this very second.
But It’s going to take a lot to persuade Patti Austin to spend more time on-stage and less time singing jingles.
Still, she happily consented to do a phone interview at eight in the morning from her northern New Jersey home.
“I’ve been a singer since I was four,” she says candidly in that matter-of-fact voice you often hear on Rhoda.
“I always led a double life. I’d do my homework at rehearsals for shows, do a performance and then slip into my pyjamas and sleep in the car on the way home. I loved it. I was a big ham and it was great.
“When I got older, I did supper clubs all over the place but it became a big drag and a hassle. No roots, no home, no security.
“I would go home and end up staying with my parents. So much for gunning for fame.
“I got into back-ups through another singer and eventually into jingles.
“The thing about jingle work is that although it doesn’t get your name in lights, it’s one area where you can have a secure future, a lot more security than in being a performer.
“If I’d depended on my supper club bookings to pay the mortgage, I’d have been up the creek,” she laughs.
“Jingles are a lifesaver. I have the option to do what I want. I’m not at the mercy of what the record company wants because they pull the financial strings.”
Jingles also force vocalists to explore every possible comer of their vocal abilities to produce any of several different-sounding voices.
Perhaps that’s why Austin’s End Of The Rainbow was such a marvellous album. There was an early Streisand-like sophistication to her airy voice, but there was also an assurance without hysteria which has long been missing from albums.
Patti Austin has learned that diversity pays. And irrelevant of whether anyone ever sees her perform, that confidence is unshakable on record.
“I got compared to Streisand a lot on the first album,” she continues. “Probably because the production was very lush and most black artists don’t go in for that.
“Even Diana Ross has gone disco in some respects. But just because black vocalists have abandoned sophistication and strings doesn’t mean it can’t be done. It just isn’t being done. There’s a difference.
“The new album to me is hotter. It’s got more material. It has some silly moments. The production is different and I let down my cool a bit.
“I’m a funny person and I think the humorous side of me comes out a bit more. ‘Havana Candy’ is a silly song. It’s a Latin rumba that sounds like Bette Midler goes Carmen Miranda.
“‘Golden Oldies’ is a rock song about the death of rock and roll, as most of us knew it. There’s a tongue-in-cheek Barry White take-off called ‘That’s Enough For Me’.
“But then I’ve also gone in for a touch of classical — I’ve done ‘Lost In The Stars’. To the best of my memory the only other woman who has done that is Sarah Vaughn. I wanted to include it on the last album but it didn’t fit. I used to sing it when I was five.
“There’s a song I wrote called ‘I Need Somebody’ which Quincy Jones says sounds like ‘Steal Away’. It was the first song I ever wrote.”
Patti explained that there’s an entire network of jingle singers. Some of the best-loved names in soul music are involved with it.
Rhetta Hughes of ‘Relight My Fire’ fame is a jingle singer who nearly blew her commercial-making career when she spent six months out of New York touring with Harry Belafonte.
Valerie Simpson of Ashford And Simpson does ‘tons’ of jingles. Ron Dante, the Archies’ voice on ‘Sugar Sugar’, is a hot jingle singer and works with Barry Manilow.
The biggest problem with the jingle scene is becoming too famous. It’s bad if your voice is too recognisable. The famous singer becomes an endorsement for a product. Out have gone Barry Manilow and Melissa Manchester.
So lucrative is the jingles field that Austin turned down singing on the latest Paul Simon effort because she was too busy singing jingles. But that’s Patti on ‘Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover’.
With times as hard and as competitive as they are, die-hard soul fans (not necessarily meaning disco) may have to relegate themselves to the fact that their favourite female vocalists may give up the centre stage or second billing to sing enthusiastically about beer, shoe polish and perfume.
We may have to accept that Patti Austin’s determined attitude to do albums in her own time may be the way soul singing will be in the future.
“My ego isn’t bothered to sing anonymously with three girls into a mike and not be seen. As the American comedian George Carlin observed about performing: ‘What is it anyway? People pay money to come here and watch me do my job’.
“I’d survive if I never performed live again. My ego has other requirements. And knowing the rent is being paid is one of them.”
© Robin Katz, Record Mirror, 21 January 1978