Still the Rage
Sometimes she tells herself that no one remembers, convinces herself that everybody has forgotten her songs and her three network television shows and every last one of her 84 Top-40 singles. On those days, she's certain the era of Vic and Frank and long, luxurious gowns and singing in tune is relived only at family gatherings or on the History Channel. Although she still plays a dozen or so dates a year, Patti Page, known in the 1950s as "The Singing Rage," understands that her career belonged to a pre-rock age that few of the kids who run MTV or Nashville understand. She knows that to most she's now just a square 73-year-old grandmother who makes her own maple syrup, not the crossover queen who made Nashville what it is today, the refined Okie who made Faith and Garth and the Chicks and Shania possible.
Then she's proven wrong. Again.
Page's manager called her in 1999 and suggested she get in touch with Nashville singer-songwriter Victoria Shaw to see if Shaw would be interested in helping Page put out a new album. Shaw said she'd love to but she couldn't produce it. Instead, Shaw suggested her producer, Grammy-award-winning songwriter Jon Vezner (husband of Kathy Mattea). When Page talked to Vezner, she found someone who was not only willing but excited by the idea. Because Vezner remembers. Remembers Page, remembers his father, remembers how the two of them came together.
"We hit it off," Page says, "and he wasn't only excited because of my recording career, but also because there was a personal story there. Jon's father had always spoken of me very lovingly. I was in Minneapolis shortly after the Korean War, and I was asked to go to a hospital and sing to some of the soldiers. Jon's father was one of those soldiers, and he never forgot it. He would tell his wife and Jon about this lovely lady who came and sang to everyone. He would tell them, 'She nursed me back to life.' And when Jon told me that--well, it's those moments that make it all worthwhile." This record, then, Vezner told Page, would be a gift to his father.
A present that received its official unwrapping this week with the release of Brand New Tennessee Waltz. It's a tranquil, sometimes jazzy, orchestral take on classic and new country and western songs, one that despite its very un-Eminemesque flava has already garnered praise from trend watchers like Entertainment Weekly, which said that Page "reminds [us] that age needn't dull a spectacular voice or good taste in material."
The album marks a small resurgence of interest in Page's career, a stunning 50-year success story that largely had been forgotten until 1999, when she won her first Grammy, for best traditional pop vocal performance for Live at Carnegie Hall. On it, Page, who first hit it big as a crooner of simple, swaying big-band ballads, returned to the country-tinged style that begat some of her biggest hits. She covers the Don Williams standard "I Believe in You," and takes her turn at the Anne Murray hit "Could I Have This Dance." ("I wanted to do it because I know Anne," Page says, "and that was the song that played for our first dance when Jerry [Filiciotto, her third husband] and I got married.") She also takes on Vezner's Grammy-winner, "Where've You Been," as well as new ones like "Hope Chest," "Paper Dolls," and "One Less Rose in Texas."
Victoria Shaw, who ended up as executive producer on Brand New Tennessee Waltz, called it a "joyful project. ...It's really touching how so many people have been so excited about this album. Everyone involved said yes without a moment's hesitation."
By "everyone involved," Shaw primarily means the backup singers. By "backup singers," she means a trove of Nashville's best vocalists: Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, Suzy Boguss, Trisha Yearwood, and of course Kathy Mattea all lent their voices to the project. Vezner had little trouble persuading them to participate, most saying they were thrilled to be a part of it.
Understandable, when you consider what Page's success meant to country music. As Bob Allen and Pete Loesch wrote in The Blackwell Guide to Country Music: "At the outset of the '50s, country music was still very much a rural cult music in terms of its...'demographic appeal.' Even in the late '50s, sales of 25,000 on a country hit were deemed respectable. Yet at the same time, artists like Patti Page and Rosemary Clooney were having million-sellers with country songs...recorded in a pop style. Thus the sound of ringing cash registers and the allure of the more lucrative pop-crossover market became the inspiration for the 'Nashville sound'...[which] shaped the course of country music ever since."
With her new album, Page was not trying for anything so grand. "Our aim was to be contemporary while remaining true to what Patti is and has always been as a vocalist," says Vezner. "She's just an honest singer. She isn't about vocal gymnastics; she just gets in there and sings."
For proof, Page offers a breakdown of her November 1999 recording schedule. "I had one day in the studio," she says, chuckling. "We put down most of the songs that day. They were really surprised that I did it like in the old days. You just do it. Now, they spend weeks in the studio. But they didn't have to spend any time making me sing in tune." She laughs. "So it was quite a thing for them. The first song we recorded was 'Tennessee Waltz.' And I did it in the same key as I did it 50 years ago."
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!"
"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.
"And if you think about it, they don't call Barbra Streisand 'antiquated.' And she has the same type of songs. And all the time that Elvis was on the chart--well, on the same chart were songs like 'Allegheny Moon.' And I think this is where I get a little angry that the media has not given me the credit that was due me for some of the things that I did."
That's as close as Patti Page comes to approaching upset. Even her Web site has a courtesy title--www.misspattipage.com. She is as her music has always been: refined, polite, on the mark...and remembered most for one song.
For it is "Tennessee Waltz" that brings her full circle, that closes her new album and reaches back five decades into a post-war bliss to which she gave voice. It brought her last year to the storied Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, where she debuted the songs on Brand New Tennessee Waltz for the appreciative crowd. She had never done a solo show there. Oh, she had performed on that stage, on the Johnny Cash television show, years ago. But never a concert. The crowd made loud during all her songs, the old ones and the new. But at concert's end, when she began singing the waltz, that's when they jumped to their feet. "I got something in my throat at the end," Page says, laughing. "They were applauding at the beginning of the song, in the middle. ...It was quite emotional.
"You know," she continues, "I've never stopped thinking about the magic of this song, because I've never stopped performing it, and people still ask me about it wherever I go."
Because they remember. And so does she. She remembers when crowds used to rise like that when she sang, all those touching, welcome memories. She remembers that it was these people who blessed her life. But also, she remembers that of all the songs Clara Ann Fowler sang, "Tennessee Waltz" was her father's favorite. It was, it is, her everlasting gift.
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