One of the most underrated vocalists of her generation, Patti Austin has survived countless pop trends in her 50-plus years in music. The category-defying singer-songwriter, 58, made her professional debut at the famed Apollo Theater in New York when she was only 4. The next year, she was signed to RCA Records and guided by her "godparents," the illustrious Quincy Jones and legendary Dinah Washington.
In her teens, Austin became an in-demand New York session musician and jingle singer. Her pop career peaked between 1969 and 1991. She charted 20 hits, including "Baby, Come to Me," a ballad with James Ingram that topped Billboard's pop charts in 1983. In the past decade, California-based Austin has focused on traditional jazz.
In 2002, she released For Ella, a tribute to pop-jazz titan Ella Fitzgerald. Four years later, Austin underwent gastric bypass and lost more than 150 pounds. She's svelte and glowing on the cover of her most recent CD, 2007's Avant Gershwin, which won the artist her first Grammy last year for best jazz vocal album.
Austin performs tomorrow and Saturday night at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
You sound as if you're stylistically right at home in the American Songbook. What do you feel you bring to these songs now that you may not have had, say, 20 years ago?
Hopefully, I bring a whole heck of a lot more experience now. The lyrics tend to be very sophisticated, because a lot of the material is from theater. It's very specific. The more you experience, the more you live, the more you have to bring to the lyrics.
You're doing a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald at the Meyerhoff. Did you ever get a chance to meet her?
I met her in the '80s at a benefit show for Rosemary Clooney. Somebody introduced me to her. That was the first and last time I met her physically. But I was introduced to her music when I was a little girl. She was very much on the pop scene then.
Quincy Jones and Dinah Washington were very versatile in their careers. I imagine a lot of that rubbed off on you.
At that particular time, you had to sing everything and do everything. Dancers sang and did movies; singers danced and did movies. Everyone was multifaceted.
That really hasn't changed much, especially in today's fragmented pop climate. You see so many of today's artists doing a little bit of everything, even if they're not that great at everything.
Right. I teach master [vocal] classes at Berkelee [College of Music], and I tell my students to be versatile regardless of the climate. I don't see the business going away. There's just a readjustment going on.
Rashod D. Ollison