Monday, January 24, 2011

Women's Work Week:Another Prodigy From Gary, Indiana-Kellee Patterson

Right around the time Michael Jackson and his brothers were tearing up talent shows in Gary, Indiana, there was a teenage woman named Pat Patterson who was providing stiff competition to the soon-to-be famous siblings.  Pat parlayed her talent show experience into a brief pageant career that saw her become Miss Gary, and then, in 1971, the first black Miss Indiana.

The Jacksons, went on to their well documented career, but Pat's story is pretty interesting,too. Upon returning to Gary after Miss America she secured a job as a host on a Chicago public affairs program (Harambee- all pull together in Swahili) and continued her singing career. She also contemplated an acting career, turned down an offer to record for Motown, traded pat for Kellee, and moved to California.

When she was in LA (I surmise) she met the man who would be a big part of her career for the next 10 years, keys player and record exec, Gene Russell.  Russell, founder of the seminal afro-centric urban jazz label, Black Jazz, would have a hand in each of Kellee Patterson's 4 albums, as a player or producer. He would also marry the former Miss America contestant.

Here's how Black Jazz describes itself:
Black Jazz Records was introduced to the public in the early 70’s by internationally renowned jazz pianist Gene Russell. Mr. Russell recognized the need for a jazz music record label which would produce and distribute quality recordings targeted toward the growing market of African centric awareness.
In it's heyday, Black Jazz Records represented a new and fresh alternative to traditional jazz, embodying the spirit of the black/urban awakening of the civil rights period. During it's six year existence, the record label made a major impact on the jazz world, both domestically and in foreign territories.
The Black Jazz roster consisted of ten superior instrumentalists and vocalists that included:
Gene Russell - Piano
Rudolph Johnson - Saxophone
Calvin Keys - Guitar
Walter Bishop, Jr. - Piano
Chester Thompson - Organ
Henry Franklin - Bass
Doug Carn - Piano, Organ, Keyboards
Jean Carn - Vocalist
Kellee Paterson - Vocalist
The Awakening - Instrumental Group

Kellee was a long way from Gary on quite a different path than the Jacksons. Perhaps the least out-there record in the Black jazz catalog, Kellee's Maiden Voyage (1973) is still a pretty cool jazz vocal record, including the first time I've heard words to the Herbie Hancock penned title cut.

Kellee's Maiden Voyage...

Black Jazz closed shop in 1976, so Gene Russell inked a deal for Kellee with Shadybrook. A peek at the Shadybrook-subsidiary of GRT (an early proponent of cassettes)- catalog shows the beginnings of the disco outfreakage. Kellee's 1976 offering (Kellee) was definitely leaning that way, but still retains some of the jazz feel of the first record.  That jazz/groove sound is probably what drew beat diggers to this record in the 90's, as Kellee's version (one of a bunch of covers on the LP) of Barry White's I'm Gonna Love You Just A Little More, Baby began to be compiled extensively. It's kind of cool to hear Kelle's high pitches interpreting the baritone of the Big Man. Another highlight, is the vocal version of Grover Washington's Mister Magic.


1977 saw Kellee fresh faced on the album cover, but with a leaner funk sound and grittier vocals on tracks like Moving In The Right Direction and If It Don't Fit Don't Force it (not a George Clinton cover). There's a bit of disco and pop too, but the jazz is pretty much gone.

Be Happy...

Two years later, still on Shadybrook, but looking very sophisticated, Kellee released All The Things You Are..a full blown disco record with some ballads thrown in. She would not make another record and as far as I can tell, her movie career didn't pan out either. I dunno how her relationship with Gene was going, but he passed away in 1981 at the age of 49 (Kellee was 32 then).
Let Go,Let Go

Kellee's Last Stand...

Besides losing a spouse and mentor at an early age, the Kellee story has always seemed a little sad to me. Beyond the  personal loss, her career follows a path that a lot of music did  in the 70's. You can almost see the promise of the time (the community oriented Black Jazz) being consumed by the ever present need to make bucks, stay current, and be a part of the music industry. Was it Kellee that got Gene Russell thinking Berry Gordy/Diana Ross dreams? Or did they both just see the writing on the wall?


OMacacoAquatico said...

OOoo, cody? New content?! Looking good and a characeristically deep dig, man. Keep up the good work!

Cody B said...

Thanks, breau. I did post on her before, but this is expanded...My Joe Farrell post from a few days back was new-new.

OMacacoAquatico said...

That version of Maiden Voyage was tres dope! I tipped the rdio Associated Jazz Cats on a Herbie-oriented covers-playlist, so that'LL spread some word about Funk or Die and may precipitate some new readers.

Cody B said...

Dyno-mite, Ape! The more the merrier.