By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
A wise man--perhaps it was James Brown, or maybe it was Don Rickles--once said that when someone calls you a legend, they just mean you're looking for work. It's a title writers give to the has-beens and never-weres, the guys who had their shot, watched it fall just short of the mark, then languished in obscurity--"the place where fame repeats its own name," as Nick Tosches once wrote--for the rest of their lives. "Legend," the opposite of "survivor," is what they call the guys whose names you can't remember.
Bobby Patterson, then, is no legend: He's just one of so many talented musicians who never found success when they deserved it most, who crawled toward fame too elusive to grasp. He has spent his entire adult life knowing he could have and should have been as famous as James Brown or Wilson Pickett or so many of his heroes, and listening to his own records knowing they were as good as anyone else's, and yet few recognize his name or his voice. He's one of those greats doomed to boxed sets and their liner notes, a paragraph who deserves a novel of his own.
Patterson, who was born 51 years ago on Baldwin Avenue near Spring Street in South Dallas, and who looks not so different than he did 30 years ago, boasts impressive credentials for a forgotten man.
He had a couple of modest hits in the 1960s for the long-forgotten Abnak Records label in Dallas, a few more would-be classics for the Jewel/Paula label out of Shreveport, Louisiana, in the 1970s. At Jewel, where he was employed from 1970 to 1973, he was labelmates with John Lee Hooker, Lightnin' Hopkins, and Charles Brown, and he produced and wrote for the likes of Fontella Bass (best known for "Rescue Me" at Chess Records), Little Johnny Taylor, the Montclairs, and Bobby Rush.
He has had his songs recorded by the likes of Albert King ("That's What the Blues is All About" for Stax) and the Fabulous Thunderbirds (who twice recorded "How Do You Spell Love?"). Now a rendition of Patterson's 1972 song "She Don't Have to See You (To See Through You)" sung by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy can be heard on Golden Smog's Down by the Old Mainstream. It's a version of which Patterson heartily approves: Hearing the song for the first time, he nods his head and taps his foot, impressed.
"They kept it simple," Patterson says, "and soulful, just the way I wrote it."
Though Patterson has never heard of Golden Smog--or the Jayhawks, Soul Asylum, Wilco, or any of the other bands from which Smog members hail--the soul singer wishes nothing but success for the boys. That way, maybe Patterson can make some of the royalty money he's been owed since Warner Bros. and Capricorn Records released the Jewel/Paula Story boxed set two years ago. The box features Patterson's four great contributions to the label--"Right on Jody," "How Do You Spell Love?," "She Don't Have to See You," and the astonishingly funky "Quiet! Do Not Disturb (While I'm Making Love)"--but Patterson says he hasn't seen dime one from sales. Such is the life of the journeyman R&B singer who possesses a wealth of talent but few riches.
Patterson now sits in a Deep Ellum Vietnamese restaurant pondering his musical past and possible future. It has been 18 years since he released anything, almost two decades since he quit singing and writing to promote records made by other people, but now he has the itch to stand in front of the microphone and strap on a guitar and rekindle a career.
"I don't want to come back too big, and I don't want to come back too small," Patterson says. "I wish it'd come somewhere in the middle. I don't want to come back too small, playin' those little hole-in-the-walls. I want to play Hard Rock Cafe, House of Blues, B.B.'s club in Memphis. I'm kind of nervous about it, having been gone so long, but I'm excited about it, too. I had to start playing again. I hadn't played guitar for so long my fingers were starting to freeze up on me."
Patterson wears a black leather jacket and matching hat, something of a trademark (as is his captain's hat). He carries with him a test-pressing CD of his comeback album, appropriately titled Second Coming. A good hunk of the material was recorded in the 1970s with the same backing band Bobby Bland continues to use, and the record recalls the lost sound of Muscle Shoals, huge horns and swelling string sections giving the music that bigger-than-life feel they used to come up with at Stax in Memphis and at Paula. Patterson will have no synthesized soul, even if it costs him a little extra to redub a new vocal over the never-used brilliant old instrumental tracks.
The amazing thing about the record is the way Patterson's voice sounds: young. Perhaps because he has not sung in 20 years, save for the occasional guest appearance somewhere along the rapidly shrinking "Chitlin' Circuit," Patterson has managed to save his voice instead of wearing it ragged. Amazingly, he still sounds as he did as a young man recording for Abnak's soul subsidiary, Jetstar, back in the '60s when Patterson was writing and performing such songs as "T.C.B. or T.Y.A.," "What's Your Problem Baby?," "I'm Leroy, I'll Take Her," "My Thing is Your Thing," and "Broadway Ain't Funky No More."