Following In Ella's Footsteps

Singer Patti Austin Brings Jazz Legend To Life

Patti Austin just might be the greatest singer you've never heard of, even though you've probably been humming along with her for years.

She's had an occasional hit, and as 60 Minutes II reported last winter, she has an album of songs associated with her idol, Ella Fitzgerald. Correspondent Charlie Rose reports.

Austin's claim to fortune, if not fame over the years, is radio and television jingles, particularly a Cat Chow commercial in which she sang, “Meow, Meow.”

In fact, she's done so many jingles that when she's on tour, she sings a medley of them.

But now, Austin travels around the country trying to bring the dazzle of jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald back to life onstage.

“She was able to sing everything,” says Austin. “She could sing jazz, she could sing bebop, she could scat. She could tear a ballad up, and just touch your heart and grab it and rip it out.”

The scatting, ad libbing like a jazz player, is where Fitzgerald left all the others in the dust. And only a singer like Austin could ever hope to duplicate it.

Preparing herself for the project, Austin immersed herself in Fitzgerald’s music.

“We were living together for a couple of months there,” says Austin. ”And I could just kind of feel her presence, you know, kind of feel her in the room going, ‘It’s all right, baby. You’re going to be all right. It’s going to be OK.’"

Her first concert of Fitzgerald's music - in Cologne, Germany, in the summer of 2001 - brought down the house. For years, Fitzgerald had astounded European audiences. Now, in a way, she was back.

“Ella was in the room,” recalls Austin. “It was like this out-of-body, inner-body experience. And then it was, like, when you finish the song, Ella said, ’Bye.’ And it freaked me out completely because that's the way it feels to me every time I do this music.”

With band leader Patrick Williams, Austin has taken Fitzgerald’s music all across the U.S.
Austin grew up in the jazz world. She was 4 when she went on stage for the first time, singing "Teach Me Tonight." Her dad was a trombone player. Her Godmother was jazz legend Dinah Washington. Her Godfather was an up-and-coming young trumpet player named Quincy Jones.

“When I first heard her sing, I thought there was a little midget thing going on,” says Jones. “I didn't believe somebody that little could sing with that much maturity. But this was the real thing, when I saw her little bony knees there, I knew she was a real 4-year-old.”

By the time she was a teenager, she was already a veteran of the music world. And there was no question where life was going to take her.

The only question seemed to be: Would she opt for fame or fortune? Fame came briefly with “Baby, Come To Me,” a big hit in the 1980s. But Austin had no illusions about how cruel the business could be to one-hit wonders.

So when James Brown needed a background singer for a recording session, Austin took the job and made a nice living over the years, singing in the shadows on other peoples' hits.

“It was the session that he recorded “This Is a Man’s World” on,” she says. “And when I walked into the session, James said, 'Patti! Patti! What you doin' here?’

“And I said, ‘I'm here to sing backgrounds with you.’ [And He says] ‘Patti Austin! Patti singin' backgrounds for me!’ He’s going crazy. So I did the session. I get home. Two weeks later, a check comes in the mail. A nice check. It was a good check. And that's how I became a background singer.”

Austin later found the checks for singing TV and radio jingles were even better.

“The jingle circuit keeps you moving and Patti was one of the best that ever did it,” says Jones. “One time almost 100 percent of the things on television were Patti.”

And so, she came to a workable compromise in her life: Jingles for the money, and live performances to satisfy her musical self. This was something even her idol, Ella Fitzgerald, might understand. Fitzgerald, after all, did a famous commercial for Memorex tape.

At 52, her zest for life is evident, her playful nature neverending, even when speaking about personal matters like never settling down or having children.

"I had regrets for two weeks, I swear to God. Two weeks, two years ago," says Austin. "I said, 'I'm menopausal, I'm barren, I've never been married, it's horrible, I want to adopt.' And then I looked at all my friends with teenage kids and said, 'I'm okay. I'm fine.'"

But for Austin, the mysteries of life and laughter, music and fate converged on Sept. 11, 2001. She had been scheduled to travel that day aboard United Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania. A last-minute change in plans saved her life.

“It was very heavy for me to duck that bullet, because it just made me feel that there's some stuff I'm supposed to continue with here," recalls Austin. "There's some singing I'm supposed to continue doing.”

And so these days, Austin performs with a legend looking over her shoulder - Ella Fitzgerald herself.

No wonder that she has no regrets: “I am famous in my own mind. And good in my own mind, and happy in my own mind. And I have music, and, man, when you’ve got that, you got the universe in your hands.”
  • Mary-Jayne McKay

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