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.”
Her development of a vocal style occurred in the classic folk manner – as family fun and games, virtually untouched by any outside stimuli.
“Well, I'm not sure anyone did influence me,” she says, “because, growing up in Oklahoma, we didn't have a radio that we could listen to all the time – my family wouldn't let us, because it was too expensive. We were allowed to listen to the WLS Chicago Barndance, and we also heard The Eddie Cantor Show, which featured Dinah Shore. When my sister came from the service, she brought some big-band records with her, and then I heard Jo Stafford and Helen O'Connell. But there were no singers I aspired to be like.”
In her late teens, Page, billed as Ann Fowler, worked with Al Klauser & His Oklahomans, then got a job singing several daily programs on Tulsa's KTUL. Sponsored by the Page milk company, the source of her nom de guerre, she was soon also standing before the microphone at KVOO, radio home of Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys. “I did a noon show on KVOO,” she says, “and Leon MacAulliffe [Wills' legendary steel guitarist] had a country show, and I did that with him. So I was doing both – at noon I was doing a country show, and singing pop at 3:15. The interesting thing about it was, I never knew there was a difference.”
After Chicago saxophonist Jack Rael (Benny Goodman's cousin) heard Page's KTUL show by chance in 1947, he wooed her away to the Windy City. Rael signed on as her manager that same year and immediately got her a deal with Mercury that resulted in the Top 15 smash “Confess,” the first hit record ever to feature a double-tracked vocal. This was before anyone was using tape – Page had to record one vocal onto an acetate disc, then sing along to the playback during a second take. It was an innovative technique that left no margin for error and was, in fact, dictated by circumstance – the Mercury budget wouldn't accommodate another vocalist.
Matching the melody acetate with a live harmony vocal was incredibly demanding, and it could not have been easy to get through a take. Any flub meant starting from scratch – the easily degraded acetate was only good for a single play. “That's another instance of doing something without thinking about it,” Page says. “And had I known that I was doing anything innovative, I might have worried more about it!” When Les Paul and Mary Ford got into piling up vocal tracks on reel-to-reel tape several years later, it was a vastly simpler undertaking.
“Oh, I definitely feel that I haven't been given some of the recognition,” Page says. “None of the innovation with the overdubbing has ever been attributed to me – I had never thought about who was first and who was second, I just knew that I came out with it before. And when this author working on a book about Les Paul contacted me to find out exactly how and when it was done, that kind of put this bug in my ear.”
While Page is perhaps overlooked as a studio innovator, and the Golden Celebration set highlights her extraordinary recorded catalog, the emphasis ought to be on what is really important: her outstanding evolving artistry. Page herself hesitantly agrees that she has only improved with time:
“I guess I am a better interpreter now. I conjure up things while I'm doing a song – it may not have anything whatsoever to do with the lyrics; they're experiences that can bring on a reaction within one's self. I think that has to be done with any kind of creative medium that you're involved in. It's a natural technique . . . I never thought about it, really.”