TV vocals make Austin's a familiar voice

August 06, 1991|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Evening Sun Staff

If there were more performers like Patti Austin, who realizes that there is more to life than having a string of hits and has governed her life accordingly, there might be more news-talk stations across the radio dial to make up for the absence of music.

To date, Austin, who is proud of the fact that she can walk down streets unmobbed, has had a decidedly unworried philosophy about the definition of success in the world of pop music.

"Here's the thing. You have to decide what success is to you," said Austin, who is in Baltimore for tonight's "Night On The Town" concert with James Ingram at the Pier Six Concert Pavilion.

"You have to look at people like Madonna and Janet Jackson. They don't have lives. They have careers. I have always worked overtime to have a life. I figure that if I can maintain my humanity, I'll come out all right."

And, in fact, by a reasonable standard, Austin's career, which began at the age of four when she sang with jazz legend Dinah Washington, has come out all right.

Austin, the daughter of jazz trombonist Gordon Austin, contributed four lead vocals to "The Dude," Quincy Jones' 1981 classic album that put her and Ingram on the musical map. She has been nominated for two Grammy awards.

In addition, her duet with Ingram, "Baby, Come to Me," hit the top of the pop music charts, and a subsequent collaboration, "How Do You Keep the Music Playing?" yielded another Grammy nomination.

With all of that as a track record to build on, the question persists: Why isn't Patti Austin a bigger star?

Austin herself provides a partial answer through a vignette:

"I was in a studio getting ready to do vocals for a commercial with Valerie Simpson [of the duo Ashford and Simpson] when this young singer comes in and says, 'Oh, Patti, I love your stuff and I don't understand why they don't play you more on the radio.'

"And this goes on and on for a bit and finally, Valerie says, 'The reason is because you make too much money doing this [commercials]. Well, girlfriend, think about it.'

"I grumbled off into the sunset and thought about it and she was right. I had gotten really comfortable doing this. I had neglected my solo career for almost six years."

For all the relative anonymity that her solo career has yielded, Austin's journey down the path of commercial jingles -- a walkway that has produced such pop notables as Luther Vandross, Michael Bolton and Barry Manilow -- has kept her voice in the limelight.

Yes, that's Austin's voice on the Kleenex, J.C. Penney and Maxwell House commercials. Heck, she's even a voice in one of those Energizer bunny ads (the one for Alarm soap).

But the comfort that jingle singing allowed became a sort of crutch, to the point that Austin wouldn't tour very much. When she left Jones' Qwest label last year for GRP records, Austin pledged to "put the pedal to the metal" in terms of promoting herself and her music.

"Nobody takes you any more seriously than you take yourself and I guess the perception out there was that I didn't take myself seriously," said Austin. "So, we decided to get some higher visibility with the first album and we're getting even more with the new album."

That new album is due for release in October, and it includes what Austin calls "retro stuff," with reworkings of material from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the Mamas and the Papas, and a cover of "Soldier Boy."

"What I wanted to do was material that was near and dear to me," Austin said. "Nobody does melodies anymore and there's no guarantee that stuff like the Mamas and the Papas will survive. I have been encouraged by the reaction that Natalie Cole's album is getting. It's a sign that everybody wants some melody in their lives."

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