The opera and symphony crowd that frequents the Music Center might not recognize Patti Austin's name or face, but they probably do know her voice.
Austin, who plays a rare Dorothy Chandler Pavilion pop-jazz show tonight with pianist David Benoit, has been the singer on hundreds of TV and radio commercials for the past dozen years. Among her current spots are commercials for Burger King and Mazola; she's also the voice of the sexy blond that coos "I like a man with a slow hand" on a shaving commercial for Schick.
Even her fans, who know Austin as the pop singer with such hits as "Baby, Come to Me"--the Quincy Jones-produced duet with James Ingram that reached No. 1 on the Billboard pop charts in 1983--and the Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis-produced "Heat of Heat"--which was a No. 1 R&B; single in 1985--don't really know Patti Austin.
"I don't feel the music I made was true to what I am," Austin, who as an actress had a brief part in Francis Ford Coppola's "Tucker," said during a recent conversation at the Four Seasons Hotel. "I love working with these producers but it ain't me."
Austin believes that the music on her new Qwest LP, "The Real Me," which is comprised of pop standards from the '30s, '40s and '50s, is the real her.
The singer, 40, says it's about time she's back on the right track. "You have to know your strengths," she said, "and this music on 'The Real Me' is my strength. The other music was not as substantive as my voice, and by making that product, I feel I had betrayed my own cause, that I had betrayed music, and that I had denied my vocal ability."
Austin had to persuade both Qwest head Quincy Jones and Warner Bros. president Lenny Waronker (Warner distributes Qwest) that a project of standards was a sound move. Foreseeable problems included that it would be aimed at a new audience, there would be limited access to radio and record promoters would have trouble marketing it.
In the end, Austin didn't have to do a lot of arm twisting. "After Lenny listened to some of the demos (of such songs as "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," "Cry Me a River" and "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most") that David (Benoit) and I made, he said, 'Come back when you're finished'," Austin recalled.
The idea, which Austin started developing "several years ago," has paid off, but then Austin figured it would--out just a few months, "The Real Me" is selling briskly. "There's an audience out there that loves Frank Sinatra, Liza Minnelli and Barbra Streisand that's starving for this kind of music, and that's not being addressed by the record companies," she said. "They're 25 and over, they've got a lot of money, they're yuppies and buppies who are tired of hearing loud rock 'n' roll."
Still, Austin wanted to make the LP appealing to listeners of all ages. "I tried to hybrid the material so that maybe I could reach a younger audience," she said. "Hopefully ("The Real Me") has enough of the elements of what they hear today that it will draw their ears."
Because of her success as a jingle singer, Austin doesn't perform in public that often. Right now, she's on a cross-country tour that has two dates: tonight's show and later this month in New York's Carnegie Hall.
Pop and jazz shows at the Pavilion are almost as rare as an Austin live date, not that Music Center officials object to pop music.
On the contrary, said Gordon Jenkins, booking manager of the Music Center Operating Company, which serves as landlord to the companies that perform at the Center. "We are very much open to that kind of event," he said. "Back before the pop and rock acts discovered the arenas, we had many more of them. But now our problem is availability, because of our resident companies."
The Pavilion is booked solid almost year round, and in particular between October and April, when the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Music Center Opera and the Joffrey Ballet all schedule performances there. But when Lu Snead--vice president of Ken Fritz Management, which manages Austin--and Ted Cohen, who manages Benoit, came to Jenkins, he managed to find a date.
Jenkins likes the idea of tonight's show. "I'm delighted," he said. "It gives us a break from the norm of so much opera, ballet and symphony. It's nice to have something of quality on the jazz side."
With the making of "The Real Me," Austin's career has come full circle. A child prodigy, Austin sang standard material with Dinah Washington (her godmother), Sammy Davis, Jr. and Jones and appeared in such broadway shows as "Finnian's Rainbow," all before she was a teen-ager. She's recorded for CBS, Decca and CTI, and with the latter label, recorded tunes similar to the ones she does on "The Real Me." "But CTI never did a thing for me, so I felt I had to do what was mainstream (pop/R&B;) to become recognized enough so I could get back to doing, ironically enough, what I had been doing in the first place. Which was being true to my talent."