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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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.

PATTI AUSTIN: 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.

AUSTIN: Something like that.


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.

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.


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

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.


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.

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.


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.


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.


STAMBERG: You're not permitting that.

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.


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.

AUSTIN: 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.


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

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?

AUSTIN: That's why.

STAMBERG: I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.


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

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

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