Remembering Patti Page with a 2003 interview

The singing rage, Miss Patti Page, age 85, died on new year’s day in her Encinitas, CA, retirement community.   She was born Clara Ann Fowler on Nov. 8, 1927, in Claremont, OK, near Tulsa.   Her early Mercury singles such as “Detour,” “Back in Your Own Back Yard” and “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus” showed her talents with country and light swing, but in the wake of the huge success of 1950′s “Tennessee Waltz” ( “Boogie Woogie”‘s flip side) and, subsequently, “Changing Partners” and “I Went to Your Wedding,” Mercury steered her singles toward soft pop (with exceptions such as “Steam Heat”), leaving her country and jazz/pop skills for her LPs — some of which Sepia Records in London has reissued.

Here’s the complete text of a March 10, 2003, phone interview I did with her after the release of her kids CD “Child of Mine,” produced by Jon Vezner (Kathy Mattea’s husband).   An abridged version was printed in Goldmine at the time.

On the phone, she seemed just like her recordings: pleasant, intelligent, and calm, cool and collected.

RIP, Patti.

Goldmine magazine:  How have you kept your voice in such good shape into your 70s?

Patti Page:I thank God every day.   I was just trying to sing this morning, getting together a show we’ll be doing in North Carolina.   It’s a two-hour show with an intermission.  I said, “Wow, this is going to be a lot of singing.”   I worry about it all the time.   It’s not something where I just say I can do it and go out there and do it.   Through my career I’ve worked.   You keep your voice if you use it.   The less I work, the harder it’s going to be.

Are there foods you’ve avoided or sought out?

No.   I stopped smoking 30 years ago, and I’m sure, had I not, I wouldn’t be singing today.  I don’t drink.   Maybe the caffeine in a diet Coke isn’t good,  but I like it.   I haven’t really avoided any foods.   I don’t eat before going on stage because it would make me short of breath, even when I was younger.

Why did you decide to do a children’s CD?

We are raising two grandchildren.  They’re now seven and nine; they came to us five years ago, so we’ve had a lot of retraining to do as far as parenting is concerned.   Just in seeing what they like, I noticed that they’re more sophisticated than I remember from raising my two kids.   Some of the movies they see have very sophisticated soundtracks, like Trazan and Mulan.  The music is kind of like classical.   A friend of ours in preschool put together an album that she’d played for her little one that included a lot of Kenny Loggins’ Pooh album, “A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes” and some other Disney songs, and my kids just loved it.   And I thought, “Well, if I ever record an album, I’ll try to include some of those songs,” and that’s how I did it.   I included a few that no one had ever thought of putting in a children’s album, but I thought Kenny Rogers’ and Lionel Richie’s song   “You Are So Beautiful”    was a beautiful way to explain how you feel about a child, though they’d had a girl in mind when they did it.

I’ve read that there’s a strong market for children’s CDs.

Is there?   Looking for them with my kids, there’s quite an array of them.

The press kit mentions “The Patti Page Show” on the Music Of Your Life network.

That’s been going for five or six years now.   It was originally handled by the guy who started the shows.   They hired me to do an hour or two-hour show from my home.   They’ve been running the same ones over and over again for the past two years.   They haven’t renewed any contracts and they haven’t paid me to begin with.  It wasn’t anything big, but they have a reputation of not paying, and I don’t know who took over the stations after Al Ham passed away [name OK?}.   I don’t mind because that’s how people have heard me in the past five years.

What is the network?

It started with the songs of the 40s, 50s and 60s.   That’s why it was  named “Music Of Your Life”—the old-time songs.   Now the music of your life is the 90s.

How did you get the name Patti Page?

I was working on a radio station in my hometown of Tulsa, OK.   They had a weekly variety show where I went by my real name.  I was born Clara Ann Fowler, but they called me Ann Fowler.   They were also running a show called “Meet Patti Page” sponsored by Page Milk.  The girl who was doing the show was leaving to try her hand in the big time.  They asked me to audition for it, and I said, “Sure.”  I started the show the summer after my freshman year of high school, so they called me Patti Page.   I did the show my last three years of high school and a year after I graduated.   When I left Tulsa, I asked the radio station if I could take the name.  They checked with the sponsor and said, “Yes.  We won’t  have another one.”   I’ve had the name ever since.   I had it legalized.

What happened to the first Patti Page?

I don’t know.   She didn’t quite make it, I don’t think.

Have you heard the story of Phoebe Snow’s name?

No.

It’s a stage name, and when she left her record company, they claimed that they owned the name, and she had to go to court to establish that she could keep on using it.   You came out lucky compared to her.

Well, I was lucky.   I went through a suit with Jack Rael, my partner who heard me sing on that station in Tulsa.  We became business partners for 50 years.   When we separated, he said he owned the name.  All they had to do was check the records.   He did not own the name at all.   It could have been scary.   In fact, since he was a 50 percent partner with me, he wanted to take the maple syrup business and all that happened after I got married 13 years ago.   He wanted half of my pension from AFTRA.   I didn’t think that was quite fair.   It gets kind of scary.

Could you say something about your early use of overdubbing as The Voices Of Patti Page.   Les Paul is credited with pioneering it Mary Ford, but the notes to your box set say that you did it before he did and that Sidney Bechet did it in the 1940s.

Well, it was quite innovative.   Some great engineers were responsible for that sound.  I enjoyed singing with myself.  It wasn’t hard.  It came naturally.   I never studied music so all the parts that I did sing were just three-part harmony.   It’s easy to add a voice and add a third one on top of it.   I did a few records—“Once In A While,” “And So To Sleep Again”—where parts were written out for me, and I had to really learn those parts.  “With My Eyes Wide Open I’m Dreaming” was the first.   Mitch Miller was at Mercury at the time.   I had to record eight bars of the song in four voices to convince Mitch that we should do it.   It came naturally to me.   The musicians union strike of 1948 was coming up so everyone was recording as much as they could until midnight.   They were in any studio they could get into.   I was there with a quintet doing “Confess,” and it was an echo—the two voices.   I didn’t have any singers, and we didn’t have time to go out and get any since it was New Year’s Eve and the session had to end at midnight.   So it was suggested that I sing the second voice, and that’s how it happened.

Could you talk about how “Tennessee Waltz” came to be recorded.

Jack and I had an office in the Brill Building in New York, where Billboard was too.   Jerry Wexler was a reviewer for Billboard  and told Jack, “We reviewed a rhythm & blues record that’s a country song.   I think if somebody like Patti got hold of it, it would be a smash.”   He sent us a copy of Erskine Hawkins’ version.   It probably didn’t give Jack a thrill as to what it could be like if I did it.   I loved it.   I’d heard it before when Peewee King and Red Stewart did it.   I loved country songs.  I grew up with them.   We put it on the other side of a great Christmas song called “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus.”   Mercury wanted something nondescript on the other side of it because they did not want the disc jockeys to play it.   They wanted only “Boogie Woogie Santa Claus” to be played.   It was released around Thanksgiving, when they said nothing but a Christmas song would sell.   It proved all of them wrong.

I had no idea that anything was happening with the song until I played the Copacabana in New York, opening up for Joe E. Louis.   I had five songs and no more.  I’d had a hit with “With My Eyes Wide Open” so they wanted someone semi-well-known as an opening act, and I filled the bill.    And somebody said, “Sing the waltz.”  I didn’t know what they were talking about.  I went upstairs to my dressing room in the old Hotel 14, which was connected to the Copacabana.   Jack came in and I said, “Do you know what they could have been talking about.”   In the first show, they asked, “Sing the waltz” as I was leaving.   I wasn’t allowed to do an encore so I just kept walking.   So he called Harry Rosen in Philadelphia.   Although it was at night time, we had the privilege of calling some of these people because we’d become friends with them.   He said, “I can’t believe you don’t know what’s happening to that song.”   Jack said no.   He said, “Well, we have ordered it for the third time.”   He usually ordered about 250,000 each time he ordered it.  It was that quick.   It really was.

What do you think accounts for its popularity?

I think it had to be the time it came out.   All of those things go into what happens to a song or a record.  It was before the time when you could make a hit just by promoting it.   It was five years or so after World War II ended.  It’s been called a placid time.   I think the simplicity and the way we recorded it.  It was not a big thing.  It had no arrangement.   We just added the song as a fifth side to a record date.   The musicians just played it by ear, making up the arrangement as they went along.   Buck Clayton, who played the trumpet, was so proud because he was featured as it went into the second chorus.   He had the solo, and his parents were so proud of him for it.   He was a great jazz musician, but they didn’t know any of the things he’d done before.   He hadn’t had a solo on a pop  record before.   When I played Kansas, his family all came out to see me.

Did you often use jazz musicians on your pop recordings?

I can’t think of them all now.   I did an album with Pete Rugulo.   He used his favorite musicians out in California.    They were on most everybody’s record dates.  I recorded with Don Costa.  It was quite a treat.   He was a fabulous arranger.  Billy May.   Nat Cole was around in those days; we used the same musicians.

Were there any singers you grew up hearing who influenced your style?

No.   We weren’t allowed to listen to the radio much, because the electricity was expensive, my mother said.  We heard the Grand Ole Opry and the Barn Dance from Chicago on Saturday nights.  My mother liked Eddy Cantor’s show, which had Dinah Shore.   Dinah and I laughed about it years later.   We didn’t think we sounded the same at all.    I didn’t listen to many other shows because my mother thought the electricity was very expensive.    I didn’t have a record player.   My two older sisters bought some big-band records during the war.   One was in the Marine Corps and would bring records home with her.   That’s where I heard Jo Stafford and Helen O’Connell and the other girl singers with the bands, but I did not grow up being a fan of anyone, really.   Later I became a fan of most of your jazz artists:   Ella [Fitzgerald], Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington.   Carmen McRae was fabulous.

Do any singers today reflect your influence?

Anne Murray does.  She says it too. Patsy Cline’s husband, when I met him in Nashville, he said, “I just wish Patsy could have met you because she just adored you and listened to you all the time and wanted to be like you.”

You and Patsy competed with “A Poor Man’s Roses.”

I recorded it first.   Her husband told me she wanted to record it, so she did.

It seems like Mercury tried to clone your hits.   It seems like “I Went To Your Wedding” and “Changing Partners” sound like attempts to clone “Tennessee Waltz.”

Oh yes.   They did it all the time.   I used to get confused and start singing “Tennessee Waltz” when I was supposed to go into “Changing Partners.”   They were the exact same almost.    Everyone was trying to write another “Tennessee Waltz.”   And I did not know it at the time, but probably, maybe 10 years later, that’s when Jesse Winchester did write “Brand New Tennessee Waltz,” which I recorded a few years ago.

What do you do for fun?

My husband and I love to play bridge.   We find ourselves doing a lot of young children’s things.   It’s getting a little hard to move around the tennis court.   We are so busy.   We love to look at the old shows on television:  “Cheers” and “Designing Women” and “Golden Girls.”   We don’t do much really, but we enjoy life.   We have a lot of friends and we spend time with them.

Anything you want to talk about here?

My first introduction to Goldmine was through a fan of mine who was head of my fan club.   I did not believe what I saw when I saw the magazine.   I had no idea that there was a magazine like that out there in the world.   It was unbelievable.   I said, “They’ve got all that information there.”   We used to use it all the time for references.   It’s been a very dear magazine for me because we’ve used it authentically for so long.

What convinced me that the magazine was worth something was meeting La Verne Baker’s intellectual property lawyers, who told me how helpful it was in marketing her life story.

Could you say something about your friendship with Elvis and his mother.

I didn’t know her personally.   I just know that she was a fan of mine.   Whenever he was around me while his mother was still living, he would bring her in to see the show.   That happened a couple of times in Las Vegas at the Desert Inn and once in, um, not Nashville,  somewhere in the South, Columbia, South Carolina, maybe.   Elvis was passing through with his mom and dad.  I just met her; never had any acquaintance other than that.

Did you get to spend much time around Elvis?

Yeah.   I like him a lot.   I thought he was a very talented actor.   They never really used him to his fullest ability there.   He reminded me of Rudolph Valentino.    Whoever was the powers that be did not utilize his talent there.   They just put him in schlock things.

Do you want to say anything about your maple syrup and pancake mix line?

Well, yeah.   You can only get it through the (www.misspattipage.com).   It’s all done organically.  We have a specific way to clean the lines from the maple tree going into your syrup house and the arch that you boil the syrup in.   They have to be stainless steel for it to be organic.   There are no preservatives, which is why you may find at the end of a couple of years, the syrup reverts back to sugar.   The pancake mix is one of the best I’ve ever tasted.  It’s unbelievable.   And everyone I know who adores pancakes says the same thing.

Where in New Hampshire is it?

It’s in Bath, New Hampshire, which is right on the Vermont border on the Connecticut River.   Seven miles away.   We’re about an hour and a half from Canada, so we’re kind of far up north.

Is there more that we should be talking about?

Well, I think the most important thing is that we get some info out there for the children’s album.   I think children of all ages will enjoy it.   I’m very proud of it.

I liked it.   I really liked the live album that you got the Grammy for.

Oh, yeah?   Oh, good.

 

About Bruce Sylvester

Bruce Sylvester is a regular contributor to Goldmine magazine.

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