We move on. Many rock and roll fans regard Patti Page as a sickness that had to be cured. For them, the rock and roll revolution was the just in time prescription. It consigned to a shameful past trite calculating sentimentality. And, according to rock and roll historians, there was no better example of what had to be swept away than her single, How Much Is That Doggie In The Window. This million seller not only had the excruciating lyric, ‘How much is that doggie in the window, the one with the waggly tail’, but also a contrived chorus from a too interested canine. But, like the equally awful Wooden Heart by Elvis Presley, it sold millions. Doggie even inspired a cover by Lita Roza in the UK, a record that the Scouse warbler later disowned.
Patti Page was born in Oklahoma in 1928 just ahead of the rock and roll revolutionaries that took doggies out of the window and threw them in the dustbin. There is confusion about her birthplace. Some sources say that she was born in Claremore but others claim that she was a native of Muskogee. The latter suggestion may be untrue but Muskogee is a tempting notion because, of course, the great Merle Haggard identified the town as his heart-warming example of American conservatism. As Merle said, ‘We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee.’ Well, perhaps not then. So Muskogee sounds like the kind of place that should have spawned Patti Page, a woman who was established in the fifties as a TV star and a regular feature in American living rooms including the very best.
Her TV career reveals the best and worst of Patti Page. Too often she is clearly being manipulated and presented for uncritical mass consumption. As with the Elvis Comeback Special, the weakest moments are invariably the dance routines. Normally, Southern musicians handled compromises quite well. They managed to be compliant but remote. From the Sons of The Pioneers onwards there is a tradition of performers from the South who gave the public what they wanted but also insisted on reminding the same audience that they had other listening responsibilities. The TV shows of Page can often be mechanical. There are, though, memorable moments. Patti Page had pedigree. Before the pop music there were stints in a Western Swing Band in Oklahoma and she also worked for the talented and jazz orientated Benny Goodman. Patti Page is rooted in music and is more than the bland warbler identified by narrow minded rock and rollers. Her TV two-hander with Nat ‘King’ Cole is a fine example of what can be achieved in the medium and it presents two talented musicians being allowed to share their mutual respect and express their talent and taste.
Patti Page was born Claire Ann Fowler and was of the people she was always willing to entertain and please. The father was a railroad worker who had a large family to support. Their home had no electricity. Page can be forgiven if she saw her career as opportunity rather than compromise. Her success was rooted in pop but her career also remembered the country music of her childhood. Her memories ensured that country influences could be heard on some of her pop hits. She also created a handful of listenable country albums.
The country music of Patti Page lacks the bite of the music of someone like Patsy Cline but it is not because Page did not understand the experience of the American working class. Put simply, she had a different kind of talent. Page is capable of singing about sadness. Indeed, she performs torch songs very well. The sadness in the music of Page might indicate a broken heart but the effect on the spirit is disappointment rather than defeat. Cline captures despair and bitterness. The two singers might remind us of a review of Wild 90, a rare film by the writer, Norman Mailer. The critic complained that Wild 90 took us to where we live and that this was a mistake because the cinema existed to help us live. This is the difference between singers like Cline and Page. Patsy Cline takes us to a sad spot in our existence while Patti Page helps us to stay alive.
A beautiful voice lifts the spirits or for many people there was a time when it did. Now, folk want Madonna and Lady Gaga. Today, we stay alive in different ways. Our natures, though, are constant, and this should be remembered by those who are quick to condemn Patti Page for How Much Is That Doggie In The Window.
Despite her country roots, there are more similarities between Patti Page and Doris Day than with Cline.
Both were blonde and pretty and were groomed to look polite and be like the woman Don Draper in Mad Men thinks we should all want to marry. Although her music was sweeter, Day had a more forceful delivery. This provides an interesting paradox. Page, because of her roots, could handle country material beyond Doris Day, yet on Secret Love Day shows a lack of inhibition that is not in the repertory of the more guarded Page. Both women are complicated and had careers beyond the stereotypes created by the unthinking. Although Peggy Lee often runs it close, Move Over Darling by Doris Day is the sexiest American record ever, and those who are quick to dismiss the talent of Day should listen to her recorded version of The Black Hills Of Dakota which has truly beautiful moments.
If Page was willing to remember her country roots, those who look for the jazz influence of Benny Goodman in her subsequent recordings may be disappointed. Jazz does not feature much in her catalogue. We have to remember, though, that the singers in the swing bands were often an interlude in the jazz entertainment. Their job was to provide the lighter stuff and stop the audience becoming bored. Gospel music is also important to the people Page knew in her childhood. Page copes well with the odd gospel tune, probably because piety suited her unpretentious conformity. Her version of The Lord’s Prayer may not be the equal of the classic by Mahalia Jackson but Page delivers a fine interpretation of What A Friend We Have In Jesus.
Patti Page was nicknamed the Singing Rage because the rhyme made sense. The name Patti Page she took from the sponsor of the radio show where she made her debut. It is a chilling echo of the power of men like Don Draper and the dangers of too easy compliance with our masters, as can be the plastic smile of Page. Few people, though, talk badly about Page. Her disposition like her music had warm appeal. The country music has lasted better than the rest and contains genuine classics like her versions of Go On Home, Dark Moon and the ubiquitous Tennessee Waltz which is so good it inspired numerous covers. Elvis thought about doing covers of Dark Moon and Tennessee Waltz but the Hillbilly Cat was no slouch in knowing the polished tonsils of rivals. Sensibly, he withdrew and he kept his distance.
Patti Page is not sexy like Peggy Lee but neither are her best musical moments confined to the unaffected girl next door of country music. She was especially gifted at harmonising with her own voice, and, when she double tracks, you can hear, as an echo, an alternative and perhaps suppressed masculine ego. Whatever the cause, it is wonderful. Old Cape Cod is dreamy and seductive and benefits greatly from her harmonies. She also is great on the bluesy You Don’t Know What Love Is so maybe I should rethink what I said about her contribution to the music of Benny Goodman. More listening is required and, of course, recommended.
If you want to see and hear Patti Page and Patsy Cline and compare, have a look at these 2 clips: