Born on August 10, 1948, in New York, NY; daughter of Gordon and Edna Austin. Addresses: Record company--Playboy Jazz/Concord Records, Inc., 270 North Canon Dr., Ste. 1212, Beverly Hills, CA 90210, website: http://www.concordrecords.com. Website--Patti Austin Official Website: http://www.pattiaustin.com.
A sophisticated vocalist firmly grounded in jazz, Patti Austin enjoyed a period of stardom during the heyday of smooth, expertly produced rhythm-and blues music in the 1980s. Both before and since this period in the limelight, Austin continued challenging herself, balancing more introspective and/or artistic work with the commercial. Austin has been, in short, a professional's professional.
Austin was born in New York on August 10, 1948, and grew up in show business. Her father was a professional trombone player at the time. The family lived in Bayshore, Long Island. At the tender age of four she made her performing debut, singing a song called "Teach Me Tonight" on the stage of Harlem's famed Apollo Theater during an appearance by vocalist Dinah Washington, who was also Austin's godmother. A child star, she appeared on Sammy Davis, Jr.'s television variety show, worked on stage with such stars as Ray Bolger of The Wizard of Oz, and when she was nine she went to Europe with a group led by bandleader Quincy Jones, who would become an immensely influential figure both on Austin's own career and on popular music.
"My friends didn't know I was in show business until I was 16," said Austin. "The rest of the time, I never talked about it, because I wanted people to accept me for me, not based on whether I had a hit record or was highly visible or all that nonsense."
Toured with Harry Belafonte
Austin's first major series of appearances as a mature singer came when she was 16, when she went on tour with pop vocalist Harry Belafonte, then near the peak of his fame. This tour led to a fresh round of television appearances and to a three-year stint as a lounge singer for various international locations of the posh Intercontinental hotel chain. Austin's first recordings were made during this period as well--for Coral Records in 1965. This material was reissued in 1999.
With this wealth of professional experience under her belt before she could even vote, it was not difficult for Austin to decide on a musical career. Recording executives and producers valued the young singer's know-how, and session-work opportunities began to flow her way.
"The first session I did was for James Brown's hit, 'It's a Man's World,' and when I got a nice juicy check from that," Austin recalled in a biographical sketch released by the Concord Jazz label. "I said, 'Hey let me do some more of this stuff.'" Austin became one of pop music's leading session vocalists in the early 1970s, backing both R&B and pop vocalists such as Paul Simon, Roberta Flack, George Benson, and Cat Stevens. With her vocals included on the soundtracks of hundreds of television commercials, Austin became one of America's most heard but least known singers.
That began to change when Austin was signed to the jazz-oriented label CTI in 1976, thanks to contacts with industry veteran Creed Taylor and Belafonte's former musical director Bill Eaton. The four albums Austin recorded for CTI helped to raise her profile in the industry and were widely appreciated by the architects of the "Quiet Storm" turn that black popular music took in the early 1980s. One of the albums, Havana Candy, was reissued in 1997 and favorably reviewed by Down Beat. The magazine pointed to "Austin's appreciation of the jazz legacy as well as her love of various pop styles."
Signed by Quincy Jones
The dawn of the 1980s brought Austin some especially high-profile session assignments: she sang on Gaucho, the rock group Steely Dan's complex exploration of the possibilities of soft rock, and, on a lighter note, appeared on the Blues Brothers album. She also enjoyed a hit single with "Razzmatazz" on Quincy Jones's Grammy-winning 1980 LP The Dude, and in 1981 was signed to Jones's Qwest label. That year, Austin's Qwest debut album, Every Home Should Have One, finally brought her stardom thanks to her chart-topping duet with James Ingram, "Baby Come to Me." The album was produced by Jones and Rod Temperton, the same team that would soon be responsible for Michael Jackson's epochal Off the Wall and Thriller albums.
"Baby Come to Me" was a perfect showcase for Austin's vocals, which had taken on an exquisite silky quality that blended nicely with the smooth instrumental textures of the period. The song appealed to pop and urban listeners, and was adopted as the theme song of the television soap opera General Hospital. Austin and Ingram followed it up in 1983 with another successful duet, "How Do You Keep the Music Playing?"; part of the soundtrack of the film Best Friends, the song was nominated for an Oscar, and Austin and Ingram performed it on the Academy Awards television broadcast.
Austin's next Qwest album, Patti Austin, was released in 1984, but its assemblage of six separate producers failed to bring together a cohesive whole, and Rolling Stone complained that "except on the ballads, Austin's powerful and technically proficient voice lacks distinction." Two more albums for Qwest failed to reach the chart levels of Every Home Should Have One, and Austin's career took a dip. She was also shaken by a house fire that destroyed nearly everything she owned and came within seconds of killing her elderly parents.
Strongly Affected by Fire
The accident made Austin reexamine her priorities in life. Recalling her life atop the charts in the early 1980s in an interview with Essence, Austin said, "My main concerns were looking good, the parties I would attend and the size of the limousine that would take me to them." Her star-studded circle of associates suddenly seemed less attractive: "Yes, they were the 'happening' people--on the charts and in the news--but they were miserable in their persistent bed-hoppings. They were all doing too many drugs and too much booze. They all had lots of stuff but not much soul or heart." Austin scaled back, built a new home in upstate New York, and reconnected with some of her former jazz associates.
Austin recorded a series of albums for the GRP label in the 1990s. One of them, Love Is Gonna Getcha, reunited her with Havana Candy producer and keyboardist Dave Grusin, and included the hit "Through the Test of Time." Austin enjoyed a moderate radio presence through the decade, kept up a steady stream of television appearances, and reveled in praise from such luminaries as opera star Kathleen Battle. In 1998 she recorded the In & Out of Love album for the Concord Jazz label, and the following year moved to Intersound for Street of Dreams, a disc that allowed her to showcase her interpretations of some of her own favorite compositions. Stephen Thomas Erlewine of the All Music Guide called the album "a fine latter-day effort from a fine singer."
On the Way to Critical Acclaim
On the Way to Love was released in 2001. "The songs indulge in street argot here and there, but this is an upscale effort for the most part," wrote William Ruhlmann in an All Music Guide review. "It's not bad, but Austin can do much better."
In 2002, Sacramento Theatre Company premiered a production with the same title--On the Way to Love, a one-person show about Austin, starring Austin. This purportedly "grew out of a meeting with Peggy Shannon, the current artistic director of STC," who had first met Austin a decade prior while working on Shakespeare's Pericles for National Public Radio, according to Sacramento News & Review. "My challenge in this show is to tell Patti's stories and dramatize them so that it's not one long monologue with songs--because that's a concert." The production was scheduled to be performed in a couple of regional theatres with the goal being a Broadway run.
Of her 2002 release For Ella, a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald recorded in Germany with the WDR Big Band, reviewers were more enthusiastic. "Austin had always had an ear for great material, and she possesses the interpretive tools to makes something special," wrote Jazziz reviewer Mark Holston. Austin's previous efforts at recording standards from the jazz canon he says "were compromised by cheesy, popish orchestrations.... There's no scarcity of arresting performances on For Ella."
Ruhlmann said he considers this a sequel to The Real Me. "Austin does not, for the most part, attempt to sing in Fitzgerald's style, giving listeners her own interpretations that, in Williams' neo-swing arrangements, nevertheless hark back to the 1950s. ... Austin is better off putting her own stamp on the songs; that she does very well." She was nominated for a Grammy Award for this project and continued to tour in support of it into 2004.
by James M. Manheim and Linda Dailey Paulson
Patti Austin's Career
Made debut appearance at age four with vocalist Dinah Washington, her godmother; traveled to Europe with bandleader Quincy Jones, age nine; toured with Harry Belafonte; became leading session and advertising-jingle vocalist, early 1970s; recorded debut LP, End of a Rainbow, 1976; recorded four albums for CTI label, late 1970s and early 1980s; signed with Qwest label, 1981; recorded smash Every Home Should Have One, which included single "Baby Come to Me," a duet with James Ingram, 1981; released four albums on Qwest, 1980s; signed with GRP label, 1990; signed with Concord Jazz label, 1998; signed with Intersound label, 1999; premiered biographical one-woman show in Sacramento, 2002; released For Ella, 2002; nominated for a Grammy, 2003.
- Selected discography
- End of a Rainbow CTI, 1976.
- Havana Candy CTI, 1977; resissued, 1997.
- Live at the Bottom Line Epic, 1979.
- Body Language CTI, 1980.
- Every Home Should Have One Qwest, 1981.
- In My Life CTI, 1983.
- Patti Austin Qwest, 1984.
- Gettin' Away with Murder Qwest, 1985.
- The Real Me Qwest, 1988.
- Love Is Gonna Getcha GRP, 1990.
- Carry On GRP, 1991.
- Live GRP, 1992.
- That Secret Place GRP, 1994.
- In and Out of Love Concord Jazz, 1998.
- Street of Dreams Intersound, 1999.
- Best of Patti Austin (Japan), WEA, 1999.
- Take Away the Pain Stain--The Coral Recordings Body & Soul, 1999.
- The CTI Collection Connoisseur, 2000.
- On the Way to Love Warner Bros., 2001.
- The Very Best of Patti Austin Rhino, 2001.
- For Ella Playboy Jazz, 2002.
- Clarke, Donald, editor, The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Viking, 1989.
- Graff, Gary, Josh Freedom du Lac, and Jim McFarlin, MusicHound R&B: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink, 1998.
- Larkin, Colin, editor, The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze UK, 1998.
- Asia Africa Intelligence Wire, January 4, 2004.
- Billboard, September 26, 1998, p. 25.
- Down Beat, December 1997, p. 94.
- Essence, March 1993, p. 67.
- Jazziz, August 2002.
- Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service, March 31, 2003.
- People, May 7, 1984, p. 30; May14, 1990, p. 26.
- Rolling Stone, March 29, 1984, p. 74.
- "Honey for the bees: STC takes a gamble and puts together an original revue, based on the life and times of singer Patti Austin," Sacramento News & Review, http://www.newsreview.com/issues/Sacto/2002-01-17/arts.asp (January 21, 2004).
- "Patti Austin," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (January 21, 2004).