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Patti Austin, Singing Gershwin's Praises

(Soundbite of song, "There's a Boat that's Leaving Soon for New York")

Ms. PATTI AUSTIN (Singer): (Singing) There's a boat that's leaving soon for New York.


Singer Patti Austin is back with a CD that she calls "Avant Gershwin." It features big band renditions of some of George Gershwin's classic and sometimes controversial music. Now, Patti Austin was barely out of diapers when she started in the music business. She's the goddaughter of two musical legends, Quincy Jones and Dinah Washington.

She told NPR's Tony Cox that growing up in that world gave her a deep respect for the classics. She says her love for entertaining is in her blood.

Ms. AUSTIN: I call it the ham gene. It's from the womb. I loved to perform. And my mom would go to Woolworth's and she would inevitably go to the sewing department. And they always had Muzak in the stores. And I knew pretty much every song ever made because my dad played music all the time in the house. So I knew all kinds of music.

And I would begin to perform with whatever the Muzak was. And inevitably, my mom would return from the findings department of the sewing section and there would be about four or five people standing around me. I'd be building a nice crowd and working my show.

TONY COX: Just singing and doing your thing.

Ms. AUSTIN: Singing my little heart out. Looking for an audience. Just a ham.

COX: Now, I understand that your first professional, let's put it that way, debut was at the Apollo.

Ms. AUSTIN: Yes. And that was completely by accident. In those days they used to do six shows a day and the show would usually consist of a female vocalist, male vocalist, big band, some kind of dancer and a comedian. On this particular day, the singer was Dinah, and Dinah Washington was one of the people that my dad had worked with when he was a jazz musician. Because by the time we moved out to Long Island, there were no more big bands really to speak of. So he stopped playing, stopped being a musician completely at that point.

And so we went backstage to meet Dinah. And Dinah dared me to sing. She was really being facetious with me. She leaned over and she said, hi, I'm Dinah Washington and I'm a singer. And everybody in the dressing room laughed and I said, well, I'm Patti Austin and I'm a singer too. And everybody just kind of looked at me like Scooby Doo, particularly my parents who were like what is she doing? And Dinah said, oh really? Well, if you're a singer, then you're going to go out and you're going to sing on the next show.

And I said, okay. And totally fearless and precautious, and her musical director walked by the door and she stopped him and said, this is Patti Austin and she's a singer and she's going to sing on the next show. And he leaned over and he continued being facetious, and said, what are you going to sing? I said, Teach Me Tonight. So everybody started laughing and he said, yeah, what key do you sing it in? And I said, B-flat.

COX: Oh my.

Ms. AUSTIN: Because at that time I knew more about music than I knew about reading words. Because I would sit with my dad when he would practice for hours and he would show me what every note meant, and he'd put a metronome on and he'd make me keep time with the metronome and he'd play notes and have me sing them back.

And so Dinah calls me onstage and I go out to sing the song and the band starts playing the intro, and the musical director forgot to tell them that I was doing it in a different key and so I stopped them. I said, you guys are in the wrong key. And the audience went wild.

COX: Oh, gosh.

Ms. AUSTIN: And they started the song up again in the right key and I sang the song in the right key, and everybody loved it and I ran off the stage and into the arms of Sammy Davis Jr., who was waiting on his knees. So I thought he was actually my height. And I ran to him, and he almost was my height actually at that time. And he grabbed me and picked me up and said, oh my God, you've got to do my show next week. And he took me out into the hallway off the wings of the theatre and went up to my parents and said, can she do my show next week?

(Soundbite of "Swanee")

Ms. AUSTIN: So that's how I got started in showbiz.

Ms. AUSTIN: (Singing) Swanee, how I love you. How I love you, my dear old Swanee...

COX: Let's talk a little bit about this new CD that you have, the Gershwin. There are some songs on there that you have - how should I say this? - Patti Austinized?

Ms. AUSTIN: What a fabulous term!

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. AUSTIN: I shall use that forevermore. I'm going to Austinize it.

COX: I guess you did.

Ms. AUSTIN: My goodness...

COX: "Swanee" was one of the songs that you've made what I thought was an interesting change to. Tell us about that.

Ms. AUSTIN: Yeah. Everybody's kind of - it's interesting that it's interesting to everybody that I did it. And I was hoping that it would get that response, because one of the things I wanted to accomplish with this project was to take Gershwin tunes that have really kind of become hackney for people to hear. Take those tunes and give them a different spirit and a different meaning. And, of course, you know, many black people tend to shudder when they hear "Swanee."

COX: Yes.

Ms. AUSTIN: They get very nervous. They think that they're going to hear a lot of banjos and they start freaking out. They think of lynchings, the South, segregation...

COX: Al Jolson.

Ms. AUSTIN: Al Jolson, blackface. All of that goes with that song. And I have the exact same impression of the song because the only versions I've ever heard of it, people have been either looking like they're in a minstrel show or actually are in a minstrel show.

So my intention was to reconnect that song to what's happening now and the way people feel about the South now. And a lot of the battles that were fought there were resolved in the South before they were resolved in the North, because the racism that existed in the South was very blatant. You never wondered if somebody didn't like you because you were black. You knew immediately.

COX: So you changed the...

Ms. AUSTIN: So...

COX: You changed the words.

Ms. AUSTIN: I wanted to change the perception of the song and make it a joyous celebration of the South, and that's really what the song is about. It's somebody talking about, I love and cherish my homeland, my home place, because my parents are there and my roots are there and my life is there. And that's really what "Swanee" is saying. But unfortunately, it had that word in it. That mammy word.

COX: The M word.

Ms. AUSTIN: The M-word. The mammy word, just took all of that out of it and that, you know, as a black person, your ears went what? With my who? I don't think so. So that is mama now. And we - and in changing that, just changing that word automatically changed the connotations that are in there.

(Soundbite of song, "Swanee")

Ms. AUSTIN: (Singing) Going home. Won't be long.

And then, on top of all of that, musically I wanted to put a hump on it. I wanted it to a have groove because the South has a groove. The South is all about a rhythm. And the rhythm isn't...

(Singing) Swanee, how I love you, how I...

No, no, no. No, no, no, no. That's not the rhythm of the South I know. The rhythm of the South I know is grooving. So that's why we put the groove under it that we did.

(Soundbite of song, "Swanee")

Ms. AUSTIN: (Singing) How I love you, how I love you. Take me to that good old Swanee shore.

COX: You sometimes have fun singing what you have described onstage as the male version or the male part of a song.

(Soundbite of song "Porgy and Bess Medley")

Ms. AUSTIN: (Singing) Jonah, he lived in a whale. Whoah, Jonah, he lived in a whale. For he made his home in that fish's abdomen, oh, Jonah he lived in a whale.

Ms. AUSTIN: We have a "Porgy and Bess Medley" and I decided in the medley that I would do most of the guy's parts because most of the women's songs in "Porgy and Bess" are about, Lord, don't leave me, oh, my life is horrible. Don't go away, Oh Lord Jesus, don't take him away. So, it's like, we do that enough in real life. I figured I wanted to play the villain. And so "Sportin' Life" has all this great villainous, creepy, wonderful lyrics. And so I decided that was the character I wanted to portray more than the suffering woman. So I do "Ain't Necessarily So."

(Soundbite of "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin")

Ms. AUSTIN: (Singing) It ain't necessarily so. I got plenty o' nothing. And nuttin's plenty for me. I got no car, I got no mule, got no misery.

Ms. AUSTIN: And Porgy sings like I got plenty of nothing, which is kind of like my mantra of life. And so I wanted to do that because I love what that lyric says and represents.

(Soundbite of "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin")

Ms. AUSTIN: (Singing) I got no lock on the door. That's no way to be...

COX: It's hard to imagine the great Patti Austin having a - what did you say? -a whole lot of nothing?

Ms. AUSTIN: I've got plenty of nothing.

I do, but I think the point of the lyric is that nothing is everything. You know, the stuff that we think is everything is really nothing, and the stuff that's nothing is really everything.

(Soundbite of "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin")

Ms. AUSTIN: (Singing) I've got my guy, got my song, got heaven the whole day long.

CHIDEYA: That was Patti Austin speaking with NPR's Tony Cox. Her latest recording is called, "Avant Gershwin."

(Soundbite of "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin")

Ms. AUSTIN: (Singing) Got my song. Oh, I got plenty o' nothing. Nothin's plenty for me. I've got the sun, got the moon, got the deep blue sea. The folks with plenty o' plenty got to pray the whole darn day. Seems with plenty...

CHIDEYA: That is our show for today, and boy, didn't it swing? And thanks for sharing your time with us. To listen to the show, visit NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

Tomorrow, a new take on ending domestic violence. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.