For Patti Austin, who has lost her label, there's always real life ART SCAPE 1995

July 21, 1995|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Sun Staff Writer

You would expect a woman with a raucous sense of humor like Patti Austin -- who, during a nationally televised awards show called Olivia Newton-John "Olivia Neutron-Bomb" -- to be able to take anything in stride.

So as Ms. Austin copes with the absence of a recording contract for the first time in about 20 years, she's doing it with the typical aplomb that she's used to deal with everything in life.

"I guess at this point, I should be on the ceiling screaming because not only am I label-less, but I'm 45 [in three weeks], black and hefty. These are like four things that people kill themselves over," said Ms. Austin in a telephone interview earlier this week.

"But as I say to all of my friends who are going through a mid-life crisis, 'What in God's name made you think that whatever that joy ride you were on was going to last forever, and that you were not going to have to stop at some point and retool and regroup?' This is what life is all about."

Her name might not be immediately recognizeable, but Ms. Austin's voice has been widely heard -- ever since her father, Gordon, a jazz trombonist, took a 4-year-old Patti backstage to meet Dinah Washington, who proclaimed herself Patti's godmother, then took her on stage to sing "Teach Me Tonight."

Ms. Austin, who performs tonight at Artscape on a bill with Peabo Bryson, did some recording while in high school as well as some nightclub gigs but got her first big break in the mid-1970s when she signed with producer Creed Taylor on his CTI label.

Those CTI albums earned her the reputation of being a jazz singer, which she appreciates but doesn't completely accept.

"As a singer, you sing whatever you want and people say, 'Why is she doing that? I thought she was a jazz singer.' " said Ms. Austin, who has also done commercial jingles for companies like J. C. Penney and Kleenex as well as session singing with artists as varied as James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon and Steely Dan. "I've constantly fought that label. I've always been on these labels that have been considered jazz labels. But I've always been brought on to these labels to do pop music."

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Ms. Austin teamed with music impresario Quincy Jones, her musical godfather.

Mr. Jones featured Ms. Austin prominently on two of his own albums, then produced two of her albums, one of which produced her biggest hit, "Baby, Come To Me," which hit No.1 after being featured on "General Hospital."

She left Mr. Jones' label for a five-year association with GRP, which ended late last year, when the company dropped her.

Ms. Austin thinks her release is part of a recording industry trend -- older, more sophisticated singers getting bounced for newer, hip-hop oriented bands. She said this is much like what happened to Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney in the 1950s, stars who were let go for doo-wop groups that made money in the short run but fizzled out quickly.

"Now it's worse because the record companies aren't even run by music people any more. They're run by bean counters, accountants and lawyers," said Ms. Austin. "Forget that in about five years, these people aren't going to have any catalog. They [recording executives] don't care about that. It's like, 'Let's make it now.' "

She and some friends are developing a recording label for people in her situation, said Ms. Austin. Meanwhile, she is keeping busy by writing, doing theater and developing a line of clothing for full-figured women that will be sold on the Home Shopping Network and BET.

"I've seen so many people get their heart broken in this industry because they don't have a life. That's something I have," said Ms. Austin. "If you look at the people who are most successful in this industry, they're always able to reinvent themselves because they have other things that they can do, other things within the industry and other things outside. I try to remain an interesting person who's capable of reinventing herself all the time."

The ultimate

To hear excerpts from Patti Austin's "The Ultimate Collection," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6149 after you hear the greeting.

To hear excerpts from "Larry & Lee," by Larry Carlton and Lee Ritenour, punch in the four-digit code 6148.

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