Dim Sum Diva

Why is R&B veteran Patti Austin making her comeback singing in Mandarin?

Austin chuckles at her own joke, as she tends to; Bagaman and Liu don't laugh much at her antics. Even while she reviles the station for its liberal range, Austin is, like many musicians, irritated by radio's obsession with genre. "R&B is the best way people know how to define black artists, but you're not singing R&B unless you're B.B. King. Gladys Knight had pop hits, not R&B hits. Same with Stevie Wonder. They have me down as smooth jazz, soft rock, R&B, quiet storm, but '"Baby Come to Me' was a No. 1 pop hit," she says. "My music hasn't changed, but my definitions certainly do. That's why I hate being defined, because I sing music."

In the 1970s and early '80s, Austin sang hit songs with Michael Jackson, Roberta Flack, and George Benson. Quincy Jones produced her solo music. She even vocalized Marvin Hamlisch lyrics for the Academy Award-nominated song "The Girl Who Used to Be Me," from the 1989 film Shirley Valentine. Yet she has no illusions that she ever reached the popularity level of someone like Aretha Franklin. Then again, Austin points out, "Aretha's not selling any records now, either. All the major, old-school black artists eventually got dumped from their labels. That whole market has been taken up by hip hop and rap."

She seems irritated by the truth of her own comments as she lashes out at today's stars.

Diva of the East: Hong Kong's legendary singer 
Frances Yip.
Diva of the East: Hong Kong's legendary singer Frances Yip.
Diva of the East: Hong Kong's legendary singer 
Frances Yip.
Diva of the East: Hong Kong's legendary singer Frances Yip.

"The American audience is very fickle and segmented. We're all about the flavor of the month," she says. "American success is Britney Spears, who I'm waiting to see get kicked off the mountain any minute now. They're rounding up the swing for her ass. I hope she's ready, because that's what happens here."

In Asia, Austin sees a different attitude. "They definitely have their flavors of the moment, but they also want to hear someone who has chops. They don't so easily forget a consistent artist with proven quality, like we do in America," she says. "I have a much bigger, [more] loyal audience in Asia. I get a sense of respect there I don't get here. And it's not that Asia is my personal gravy train -- others go there, too. So would Aretha, if she'd ever get on a plane and fly."

Being an African-American singer helps, Austin says.

"What's American is revered and coveted in Asia, at least when it comes to entertainment. And in Asia, so-called 'black music' is seen as indigenous to America," she says. Yet Austin thinks the fascination has less to do with color than with sound. "Perhaps Asians think they want 'black' music, but what they're really craving is something great they haven't heard before. Isn't that what we all want? We assume it's the packaging that makes us want something, but it's really the talent of it that keeps us coming back for more."

Liu believes that Austin's staying power is due in part to a lack of originality in the music produced in Asia today. Much of it, he says, is a weak attempt at Western imitation. "Chinese pop music is very patterned, everything coming from one mold," Liu explains. "Even though American pop music is also patterned, it is still more creative than the cheesy songs coming out of Hong Kong."

The music that Austin learned to sing in Mandarin comes from Chinese compositions of the 1940s and '50s, before the market became driven by MTV-weaned teenagers. Frances Yip sings these old standards, too -- gorgeous ballads with simple, elegant melodies. Liu's job is to take the best of Yip's music and update it -- make it a little more hip -- and then blend it with Austin's affecting and expressive style. "I consider myself more of an American musician," Liu says. "I don't always approach the things I do in a Chinese way."

With just a few days to go before their first rehearsal, Austin says she's excited to work with Yip because they have so much in common. Both women are in their 50s, and they've had similar career trajectories. In fact, Yip's biggest hit was from the soundtrack of Asia's version of General Hospital, a wildly popular TV soap opera from 20 years ago called Shanghai Beach. "We're going to have a lot of notes to compare when she gets here," Austin says.

The first time Austin sang in Mandarin was at an event organized by Bagaman last November. The one-night show at the Herbst Theatre was designed to test the feasibility of a longer concert. Austin practiced her single Mandarin song for weeks, eventually mastering the lyrics. Onstage, there was no band -- just Liu at the piano and Austin front and center. The venue was sold out. San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown heard about the performance a few hours before show time and made a surprise appearance.

"There was this sense of curiosity in the crowd," says Liu. "'"What's this black singer going to do in Chinese?' Everyone was very surprised to hear what she did. So was I. She not only demonstrated her versatility, but how good she really is."

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