Patti Austin Spins New Stories from Old Classics Patti Austin is best known as an R&B singer. But on her new album, she reinterprets the American standards of George Gershwin — including the controversial song "Swanee," made famous — and infamous — by Al Jolson.
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Patti Austin Spins New Stories from Old Classics

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Patti Austin Spins New Stories from Old Classics

Patti Austin Spins New Stories from Old Classics

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George Gershwin died on July 11, 1937, but I don't have to believe it if I don't want to. Those are the words of the novelist John O'Hara, one of Gershwin's many fans. Almost 70 years after Gershwin's death, his music is still performed and recorded, most recently by Patti Austin.

Here's NPR's extra special correspondent Susan Stamberg.

SUSAN STAMBERG: Her dad was a jazz trombonist. She made her singing debut at age four at Harlem's Apollo Theatre. It was a fluke. Her father took her backstage to meet Dinah Washington. Patti told Dinah she was a singer, too. Dinah said you go out right now and sing. Okay, young Patti said, and informed Dinah's musical director.

Ms. PATTI AUSTIN (Singer): And he says oh really, and what do you want to sing? And I paused for a moment and I said "Teach Me Tonight." And what key do you sing that in, ha, ha, ha. And I said B flat.

STAMBERG: Alas there's no recording of that four-year-old debut, but Patti Austin can recreate it.

Ms. AUSTIN: (Singing) Well, you say I've got a lot to learn.

Something like that.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. AUSTIN: (Singing) I love your funny face, your funny, funny face, you…

STAMBERG: All grown up and 57, Patti Austin has done sessions work, solo albums, duets with Luther Vandross and Johnny Mathis, and sung every style of music. Rehearsing for the Gershwin album, Austin's manager helped her find the right approach for this tune.

Ms. AUSTIN: And he said, let me be Svengali for a moment. And I said, what is it, Sven? He says, here's your point of view: You're singing this to George Clooney. I said, okay, leave now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STAMBERG: Patti Austin says she always wants to spin a story when she sings.

Ms. AUSTIN: You find out what that lyric is and you figure out how you're going to tell that story and you figure out what you're going to draw on from your own personal experience to make that happen.

(Soundbite of song "Ain't Necessarily So")

Ms. AUSTIN: (Singing) It ain't necessarily so, it ain't necessarily so. Things that you're liable to read in the Bible ain't necessarily so…

STAMBERG: In her medley from "Porgy and Bess," Patti Austin sings songs Gershwin wrote for men. Porgy (Unintelligible). The women's songs, she says, are mostly about suffering. The men are more interesting.

Ms. AUSTIN: I just wanted to approach those songs - "Ain't Necessarily So," "I Got Plenty O' Nuttin" - which is, it's an affirmation of my mantra in life, which is I love to hear people talk about what's theirs and you die and leave it all. So that means to me that we're all renting around here. And that's pretty much what this song is saying, and I love that message.

(Soundbite of song "I Got Plenty O'Nuttin'")

Ms. AUSTIN: (Singing) I got plenty o' nuttin', nuttin's plenty for me. I got no car, got no mule, got no misery. The folks with plenty of plenty, they got a lock on the door…

STAMBERG: The most controversial cut on the album is Patti Austin's rendition of this song from 1919.

(Soundbite of song, "Swanee")

Ms. AUSTIN: (Singing) For me, how I love ya, how I love ya, my dear old swanee…

STAMBERG: When Al Jolson sang it in blackface, it became George Gershwin's first big hit. Over the years this song took on racist overtones that echoed through segregation, desegregation, the civil rights movement. It's seen as king of a minstrel, Uncle Tommy-sort of song. Or has been for a long time.

Ms. AUSTIN: Yeah.

STAMBERG: You're not permitting that.

Ms. AUSTIN: Time for that to be over. Because the South nurtured, cradled and was the birthplace and the home for many, many, many, many, many black people.

(Soundbite of song, "Swanee")

Ms. AUSTIN: (Singing) The D-I-X-I-Even though my mama waiting for me, praying for me…

STAMBERG: And so Patti Austin turned "Swanee" into an ode to the South. She changes lyricist Irving Caesar's mammy to mama. Says these days most black people don't know what a mammy is.

Ms. AUSTIN: So I wanted to make the word universal, I wanted to make the song universal, I wanted to put a groove up underneath it. Because there's a tremendous rhythm and pulse in the South that is nowhere else, as opposed to a vaudevillian-kind of swanee, how I love you, how I love you, which at that time was the rhythm of the South.

But now it's gumbo. And I wanted to change the perception of that song, because it's a great song that's not a difficult thing to do.

(Soundbite of song, "Swanee")

Ms. AUSTIN: (Singing) Swanee, you're calling me…

Ms. AUSTIN: I love the challenge of taking something that's perceived one way and creating a different perception for it. I think we have to do that with so many things around us in our lives to continue to grow and learn and expand and change. And I think if material is really, really good, it can take all that bending and stretching and survive whatever time does to it.

STAMBERG: Patti Austin, I think you've really given me the answer to my last question, which was why do these old songs again?

Ms. AUSTIN: (Singing) Cause everything old is new again.

That's why.

STAMBERG: Patti Austin's CD is called "Avant Gershwin." Avant as in before or forward.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. AUSTIN: (Singing) I've been away from you a long time…

INSKEEP: And you can hear more music from "Avant Gershwin" and compare Patti Austin's version of "Swanee" with Al Jolson's 1943 recording by going to our Web site,

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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