By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
As half a dozen gaudy koi fish shimmy beneath a blue glass dolphin that appears to leap from the mosaic fountain dominating the front bar of Rancho Mirage nitery Basin Street West, a crush of flashy suits and svelte furs crowd to their tables. Semifamiliar faces from bad-trip '70s television drift in: moon-faced sitcom pop Dick Van Patten, lacquer-haired Hollywood Squares MC Peter Marshall (a co-owner, with Jack Jones, Hal Linden and several others, of the just-opened club). Someone brags, "Ernest Borgnine was here a coupla nights ago." Soon, veteran nightclub habitues like Gloria DeHaven and the Copacabana's Norby Walters join in; the room is packed, and vibrates with anticipation. When Patti Page accepts a nightclub engagement, it is, for this crowd, big news.
Page looks wonderful, strong and graceful, yet her show gets off to a clunky start. Though she's initially derailed by a well-intentioned resistance to going the nostalgia route (this translates into versions of "Ain't No Sunshine When He's Gone" and the appalling Elton John confection "Can You Feel the Love Tonight"), once Page gets down to the serious business of selling a good tune, the world ceases to revolve; all is beauty. She seduces the crowd with a lush "The Nearness of You," then plunges into postwar hillbilly favorite "Detour," probably the only time that song has been heard in this town outside of a ramshackle beer joint. At age 70, her voice is essentially the same instrument - now a bit deeper, but also richer, and mellow - that conquered the Billboard charts for five consecutive decades. The sustained standing ovation she receives at the set's end is no act of decorous respect - it's downright passionate.
Ah, Patti. No bigger than a nickel, impossibly blond, achingly beautiful, with a voice so sinuous and dead-center ideal that it beggars description. Page was one of the essential pop voices - and major crushes - of the 1950s. It was she who coveted that "Doggie in the Window" and struck gold with musical real estate all over the map: "Allegheny Moon," "Tennessee Waltz," "Mockin' Bird Hill," "Oklahoma Blues," "Mister and Mississippi" and "Old Cape Cod." This familiar catalog of overplayed novelty and "territory" hits makes it all too easy to consign her to that dusty Sing Along With Mitch corner of the cultural thrift store, but to leave her there would be a significant error. Get it straight: Patti Page is one of the most remarkable song stylists in America, one who has also enjoyed a unique vantage point that's allowed her to consistently score hits in both pop and country while never compromising either idiom's artistic requirements or audience expectations.
Now, on the occasion of her 50th anniversary in the business and the release of a four-CD Mercury retrospective, Patti Page: A Golden Celebration, it's clearly time for a major rediscovery.
Page is surprisingly aggressive about her career - she recently parted ways with Jack Rael, who had managed her from her earliest days - and assertive about her stature as a pop-music innovator, the first singer ever to parlay studio overdubbing into million-selling records. Despite this ambitious streak, Page is almost painfully shy, prone to stage fright and always nagged by a pesky notion that, as she recently said, "I owed the audience more than I was giving them."
Considering that Page has sold tens of millions of records, headlined all over the world, hosted her own prime-time television series and managed to place records on the charts from the late '40s to the mid-'80s, her desire for more than the adoration of old fans is intriguing. Does she consider hits like "Doggie," which she often opts not to sing all the way through onstage, detrimental to her image? "Not really, no," she says. "It's just that things can go on too long, and I feel that's enough of it! But I have never been ungrateful for those hits, because they gave me the chance to sing the other songs."
Those other songs, collected on the Golden Celebration set, make a breathtaking case for Page as interpreter; the once-banned-from-the-airwaves Cole Porter classic "Love for Sale" and the Tin Pan Alley erotomaniacal moan of "Paradise" are sizzling examples of her artistry, going way deeper and getting quite a bit hotter than the tra la la twiddle-ee-dee-dees by which the world at large remembers her. Page has all the natural instinct a 20th-century singer requires, with a gift that extends even to jazz and its big sister, the blues.
Her success was nothing short of spectacular. The rewards that "Tennessee Waltz" brought to Nashville jump-started an entire new commercial era for Music City. Released in November 1950, by May '51 Page's recording had grossed $330,000 for publishers Acuff-Rose. Hillbilly music had never made that kind of dough before. (By way of comparison, Nashville's other commercial titan, Hank Williams, grossed 200 grand a year at his hit-churning peak - a figure that included B.O. receipts from personal appearances.) But "Tennessee Waltz" was only the beginning of a remarkable career.
Born Clara Ann Fowler on November 8, 1927, in Claremore, Oklahoma, Page grew up singing in church and with her sisters. "We had a trio," she says, "and we just sang. We thought it was perfectly natural to sound good. And we all had pretty good pitch, so we never had to worry about being in 10 keys at the same time."