After more than five decades in the music industry, R&B and jazz singer Patti Austin knows her role. She's not a pioneer or a trailblazer, she's a just a singer -- one who has recorded duets with Michael Jackson, Paul Simon and James Ingram, recording 17 solo albums and winning her first Grammy in 2008. Not a bad resume for a career that began when she signed her first record deal at 5.
Patti Austin returns to Richmond on Jan. 21 to pay tribute to jazz legend -- and Virginia native -- Ella Fitzgerald. For this, she'll be backed by no less than the Richmond Symphony.
Style: Why Ella Fitzgerald's music?
Patti Austin: It's the music I grew up hearing and singing. It's kind of comfort zone for me as far as performing is concerned. I started in the business at 4 years old, my dad was a jazz musician, and so I really grew up hearing that music and the time that I was listening to that music, it was still actually being made. It wasn't something that came from before, and [I was] kind of hearing it with historical ears, I was hearing as the music was being recorded. Sinatra was still alive, Ella was still alive, Nat King Cole, Mel Torme, Rose Clooney, Sarah Vaughan all those people were still alive, they were still making music. So it was familiar to me at that time as the music of this time is to the kids today. It's a form that I was very familiar with and I was singing as a kid, because that was the music of that time.
You mentioned the music of today. Are there any singers out there now that you enjoy listening to or inspire you?
I pretty much listen to everybody. I listen to all kinds of music. … I'm always very much about how the lyric gets interpreted as much as I'm about having someone sing in tune and do material that has some depth to it. I also want them to be able to tell the story and sell the story. I find that tends to happen with vocalists that are either in the country market or the gospel market. Those are the kind of the singers that, for me, really emotionally nail what they're doing.
So no R&B singers on the scene now touch you or. …
It's hard to get touched when you've already heard Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin. And Stevie Wonder and all the people that invented this stuff. There are innovators and imitators, and I'm a lover of innovators. I consider myself to be an imitator, because the forms were already there for me to try to reinterpret, but the foundation was already there, so you got some tough acts to follow. I'm talking about people that are iconic and will be here another 100 years. … Everybody else is just studying it at this point, as far as I'm concerned.
But again, when I hear singers in the gospel market, the Fred Hammonds of the world, to me their sound is the most innovative, the most moving and touching. I just use him as an example and again the same thing in the country-western market, there's just a lot of sincerity in the voice, interesting and unique voices going on and great interpretations of the material. And also I think richer material, than what's happening in the kind of general pop market … [which is] tremendously monotonous to anyone who has a cultivated sense of music.
You mentioned innovators. Tell me about recording that duet with one of the greatest innovators, Michael Jackson.
Michael was always very, very, very, very professional. That's the best way I could describe him. A true pro, very serious in the studio, which I am not, so I drove him a little bit crazy, because I refuse to let him be like "The Old Man and The Sea," and kept kidding him and making him laugh between takes. When he wasn't working he was sillier than I ever hoped to be, I mean he would like jump out from behind furniture and go "Boo!" That's how silly Michael was. But when he went to work, he went to work, he was very focused.
Tell me about your latest CD, "Sound Advice."
I kept getting people asking me to do a more of an '80s kind of project, like the music I was doing at that time, because I'd been really submerged in the classical jazz world for the last five or six years. We've got a little bit of R&B, a little bit of just piano-vocal standard stuff, it's a wider range. It's fairly contemporary I would say.
Getting back to pop music, a recent performance by Lana Del Ray on "Saturday Night Live" has been described by critics as one of the worst ever on that show. Have you ever had bad moments on stage?
I've been doing this for 54 years now, so hell yeah. What, do I look like Jesus? Of course I have screwed up on stage after fifty-some odd years of doing this. Definitely. And will screw up again.
I hope all goes well when you come here to Richmond.
It will not happen in Richmond. That I can promise you. It will never happen in Virginia.
Patti Austin performs at the Carpenter Theater on Jan. 21 with the Richmond Symphony. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12-$76. For information, go to richmondsymphony.com.