Still the Rage

Even at 73, Patti Page isn't ready to fade away just yet

One of k.d. lang's favorite summer songs is Groove Armada's "At the River" from the techno group's 1999 album, Vertigo. Of the song, which samples Page singing "Old Cape Cod," her homage to sand dunes and salty air, lang told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, "It's so beautiful." Page would probably agree; of her more than 160 singles--hits as diverse as "With My Eyes Wide Open I'm Dreaming," "Confess," "Mockin' Bird Hill," "Allegheny Moon," and "Doggie in the Window"--"Old Cape Cod" was her favorite.

Nevertheless, she acknowledges that the song that made her, that made history, is "Tennessee Waltz," the namesake of her new album. "Tennessee Waltz" is the third-highest selling single of all time, behind Elton John's "Candle in the Wind 1997" and Bing Crosby's "White Christmas," and the song, co-written by Redd Stewart and Frank "Pee Wee" King, was adopted as Tennessee's state song. It's been performed by hundreds of artists, everyone from Pee Wee himself to Sam Cooke, all of them smitten with a simple song about love lost.

Most surprising, it was a B-side. In 1950, Mercury Records suggested that Page, who'd had a few big chart hits for the fledgling Chicago label, record a Christmas tune at her debut performance at the Copacabana. The tune was "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus." As flip-side filler, she recorded "Tennessee Waltz." Shortly thereafter, concert crowds began screaming at her to "play the waltz!"

Patti Page's new album, Brand New Tennessee Waltz, brings her long career full circle.
Patti Page's new album, Brand New Tennessee Waltz, brings her long career full circle.

"At first," Page says, "I had no idea what they were talking about."

They were talking about a phenomenon, a song that went to No. 1, stayed on the charts for 30 weeks, and made Page a crossover sensation in the C&W world. In his book Country Music USA, C&W historian Bill C. Malone goes even further than The Blackwell Guide, citing this song in particular as having revolutionized the pop/country industry, saying, "The 'Tennessee Waltz' alone must be given much of the credit for country music's commercial surge and the future integration of America's popular music forms."

To this day, her success annoys as many as it enchants. Because, so conventional music-crit wisdom goes, it's unfair that a songstress who preferred strings and lush melodies to real hillbilly stylin's should be the one who made country music mainstream. Her entire career is often cited as an example of the evil scourge of white folk who bleached all the soul out of heretofore devilishly good tunes. She is, to them, the icon of a plastic age.

Now, at this point I should note that I am slightly biased, since Patti Page is my great-aunt. She is my grandmother's sister, the grandmother who helped raise me, the sweetest woman God ever put on this planet. So, I'm not exactly a neutral figure in this discussion. That said, such opinions amuse me.

Their subtext is that Patti Page, because she sings in a lovely vibrato and prefers beautiful jewelry and gowns and speaks with a perfectly clipped mid-Atlantic accent, is some sort of aristocrat making money off the hardscrabble souls who penned songs about love gone bad and such. That is less than funny, because Page was a typical Depression-era small-town Okie: She was dirt poor. She was born Clara Ann Fowler, a young girl who would sometimes have to walk to school barefoot, to save her one pair of shoes for Sunday. When times were tough for the family, they would return for a brief time to the cotton fields, according to my grandmother, where Mrs. Fowler had once worked. Much of their food came from their garden, and during the summer they would can hundreds and hundreds of quarts of corn and peas and peanuts to eat in the winter. When they needed to bathe, they would draw water from a well, heat it on the stove, and then pour it into a larger container so that they could all hurry in and scrub before the water turned cold.

Such an upbringing went a long way toward keeping Page humble. But, she says, the thing that prevented her from succumbing to the trappings of success was that the media still dismissed her even when she was on top.

"I was never a media favorite," she says. "No one made me a big star who no one can talk to. And I feel sorry for these people who can't even move. I saw that very close up with Elvis. Elvis, Frank Sinatra, and the Beatles. All through that, all those boy stars had the girls swooning. But now, with television and the hype and the media, the girl singers can't move. I doubt if Britney Spears can go outside her own door."

It's a status she has mixed feelings about. "I'm very glad of it, yes. Because I got to lead a quasi-normal life, and I got to be a normal person. You do that, and you get to enjoy it, and the accolades don't go to your head. And what I've accomplished in this business, I'm very proud of.

"But yes, I should get more recognition for it, but I haven't. I was there in the beginning, and the innovative things I did, I felt I was rewarded for at the time." Page was the first to "multitrack," or record herself singing backup on her own songs. "Still, people seem to forget.

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