Patti Austin was four years old when she first performed on stage. If there’s anyone who was born to be on the stage, it’s her—and not just because of the early stage appearance. Her vibrant, show biz personality lights up a room, especially when that room is a theatre for hundreds of people.
She gave that performance alongside her godmother, Dinah Washington, at New York City’s Apollo Theatre. Her father, Gordon, was a jazz musician himself.
“I’ve been doing a private survey,” said Austin. “At least 80% of musicians I know came from a household where music was prominent.” Music, she says, draws you in in a “soulful, spiritual way.”
“It’s a different level of passion,” she said. “There’s nothing more exhilarating.”
Austin brings a soulful, vibrant performance to the Cabot in Beverly later this month, as part of the Cabot’s year-long 100th birthday celebration. “An Evening with Patti Austin,” on Thursday, January 23, will be what Austin calls a “hybrid” show. “A little jazz, a little pop, a little bit of stuff I just like to do,” she described. “With the usual amount of goofiness and storytelling.”
After touring with Harry Belafonte in her teens, she then worked as a club singer with the InterContinental hotel chain for three years. Though she recorded copious jingles for companies like J. C. Penney and Kleenex and did background vocal sessions for the likes of James Brown, Billy Joel, and Paul Simon, it was her 1983 chart-topping hit “Baby Come to Me” with James Ingram that brought her to the national spotlight.
Austin won a Grammy in 2007 for her ringing, gorgeous vocals on her jazz album Avant Gershwin and has been nominated another six times. Her most recent album, For Ella, which pays tribute to the iconic jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, was nominated for a Grammy in 2004.
Austin’s Cabot show this month is presented by Over My Shoulder Foundation, a mentoring organization co-founded by Austin and friend Dawn Carroll, a North Shore-based designer.
Austin had a private passion for design for years before it was discovered by her friend Carroll as Austin was working on a storyboard for a friend’s apartment. “Dawn said, ‘What is that?’” recalled Austin. “‘You sing, and you do that, too?’”
The wheels started turning after that discovery. Carroll asked Austin, “You have two different passions—where do you go for mentoring?” They decided to start a mentoring foundation connecting those in the design world with those in the music world. The foundation works with other mentoring foundations to connect mentors with mentees and make sure they’re “all communicating with each other,” said Austin.
“I know what the world needs right now is love, but we really need a lot of mentoring,” said Austin. “We need to lift each other up.”
Lifting each other up has been how Austin describes much of her experience developing her music career in the ’80s. “If you talk to anyone else from that period, they’ll tell you the same story. It was a tough business to be in then [as a woman]—it’s a lot easier now.”
Austin credits women like Linda Ronstadt and Madonna with pushing the boundaries of being a woman in the music industry. “Talk about focus and follow through!” said Austin of Madonna, with whom she used to share a manager. “I watched her fight powers constantly. She wouldn’t ask—she would just do it.”
Austin described success in the industry (and how she’s had so much of it) as “forced evolution.”
“I figured out how to sustain,” she said, adding that she’s constantly evolving and working on a range of unexpected projects. One of her upcoming ventures will send her to Russia to record with a young “Sinatra-like” singer, who she says has a “voice like velvet.” This is part of a video series she hopes to put together in which she travels around the world singing with different types of people, in a sort of Anthony Bourdain-style show.
She’s also set to release a sequel album to her 2002 For Ella tribute this year. “Ella from another perspective,” as she describes it, dives deeper into Fitzgerald’s more obscure repertoire.
“I’m still evolving and singing music people don’t expect me to sing,” Austin says of her forthcoming projects. “I’m very much about using my pulpit in a nurturing, loving way. If I can use whatever talent I have to make things better,” she said, “then that’s what I’m going to do.”
To purchase tickets to Patti Austin’s Jan. 23 show at The Cabot, sponsored by SV Design, Over My Shoulder Foundation, The Cabot, Northshore Magazine, Cumar, Inc., and J Barrett & Company, visit thecabot.org/event/an-evening-with-patti-austin-cabot-100.