Patti Dahlstrom: Loving Life In London

Originally posted May 5, 2008

Observant readers will recall that a few weeks ago, after I posted Patti Dahlstrom’s second album, The Way I Am, Patti herself left a note here, asking me for an email address. I answered, of course.

And that spurred a fascinating exchange, one that answered a few questions I had from her first two albums and offers some insight into Patti and her recording work of the early 1970s.

As I surmised – but did not actually say – she’s living in London now, has been since early this year. “For my birthday last year,” Patti wrote, “I came to England for two weeks.” She’d been there before, but “this time, I fell in love with it. I sold everything I owned, followed my soul . . . and moved here in January. It felt parallel to moving to L.A. in ’67.”

She said she’s taking a master’s course in professional writing at London Metropolitan University, and she’s living in St. John’s Wood in the heart of London. (Being a music fan and a map fan, I did some looking on Google Earth, and from what I can tell, Patti lives no more than a few moments’ walk from the famed crosswalk the Beatles used for the cover of the Abbey Road album.) In one of her notes to me, she mentioned the reader who left a note here, insisting that she was still living in Houston.

He was right and wrong, she said. “I did move back to Houston in 1990 and became a college professor at the Art Institute of Houston,” which she said was one of a chain of colleges around the U.S. “It was a wonderful experience and I worked with thousands of young ones.”

She started out teaching songwriting, she said, and then moved to other courses. “My favorite course to teach,” she wrote, “was Critical Thinking, which I taught for six years. I was also head of the department, which I did not like. I liked being in the classroom with all of those great young minds.”

After twelve years at the institute, she said, she left, choosing to teach younger children, which was another “amazing experience.” Her young students, she said, were “so aware, so trusting, so smart.”

And then it was off to London. As to the reader who insisted she was still in Houston, she said, “he’s young, and this is a big lesson for all of us . . . life is not static. Things change.”

It’s obvious from her notes that Patti is blooming in London, but she still has fond memories of the years she spent in L.A. as a songwriter and then as a performer. She spent the years 1970-72 – just prior to beginning her recording career – as a staff writer for Motown’s Jobete Music. “It was an incredible experience, like going to college to write R&B,” she wrote. “Berry Gordy was an amazing man.”

It was during that time that Russ Regan signed Patti to the Uni label; during that year, she notes, he also signed for their first albums Elton John, Barry White, Olivia Newton-John and Neil Diamond. A pretty good haul!

As noted here earlier, Patti recorded her self-titled debut on Uni in 1972, and followed that with The Way I Am in 1973, on 20th Century. In my comments on The Way I Am, I said that I could not find musician credits; I did find them on the ’Net, but Patti assured me that the credits had been included on an insert (the one that had been in my copy evidently had not survived the years). “I always gave credit to everyone on my albums,” she said. “For The Way I Am, it was on the lyric sheet, with each person credited for each song. I never could have accomplished anything without a great deal of help. Earthly and otherwise.”

Her final two records, both on 20th Century, were Your Place Or Mine in 1975 (the album I’m sharing today) and Livin’ It Thru, released in 1976. After that, she continued songwriting, working with such writers as “Tom Snow, Kerry Chater, Glen Ballard, Gary Puckett, David Penn and others,” with her songs recorded by – among others – Anne Murray, the Captain and Tenille, Riders in the Sky and Michael Johnson. (Patti sent me a demo of the song “Dialogue,” which she wrote with Tom Snow and which was recorded by Michael Johnson. She also sent me CD burns of her four albums, which are about as clean-sounding, she said, as can be found without actually getting to the masters.)

Patti’s California days wound up with a two-year stint, starting in 1988, for E!, the cable entertainment network. “As an assistant to the two heads of the network,” Patti said, “I created programming [and] did still photography of interview guests with Greg Kinnear. We all wore a lot of hats getting that off the ground.”

She still writes, as is evident from the course of study she’s following in London. “The bulk of my writing,” Patti said, “has been non-fiction spiritual prose.” She’s working on a book, and she said that several pieces from it have been read at funerals, conventions and other events. The book, she said, “is my definition of Christianity as had been shaped not only by my upbringing, but also by my metaphysical life experiences, which have helped me know, not just believe.”

I asked her if she ever saw her records in the used-record stores. “I have seen my records in bins from time to time, though not lately,” she wrote. “I’m still shocked [they’re] so prevalent on Google and Ebay, which my students turned me on to. The funniest is that they would order [a record] online and bring it in to me to sign and they didn’t even have turntables!”

As I discovered when I first learned about Patti a few months ago, it’s fairly easy to get hold of her records, and in generally pretty good shape. For today’s share, most of the mp3s are ripped from the CD Patti sent me and a few are ripped from the vinyl I found online.

If there is a theme to Your Place Or Mine, it’s one of loss, hard-earned truth and acceptance. Sometimes musicians sit down with themes around which they plan their next work. (The most famous example of that might be Pink Floyd, whose members purposefully sorted out topics about which they wanted to write before embarking on Dark Side of the Moon.) Other times – and I think this is far more frequent – musicians and songwriters simply go about their work and when they gather their new songs together, they find links and commonalities. I get a sense that’s what happened with Your Place Or Mine.

Three of the songs on the album, Patti told me, were written for her good friend, Jim Croce, who died in a Louisiana plane crash in the autumn of 1973. She wrote “Louisiana” with Al Staehely, “Good To Be Alive” with Severin Browne (a constant writing partner whom she’d originally met at Jobete) and “Sending My Good Thoughts” with Artie Wayne.

Of those three, “Louisiana” is the one that works best musically and lyrically, and it seems to me to be the centerpiece of the record. Over a simple piano base, Patti sings:

“Louisiana, you’re takin’ the life out of me.
“Louisiana, you are shakin’ the light out of me.
“Claimin’ a close friend I leaned a lot on,
“I learned more about standin’ alone since he’s gone.
“Louisiana, I’m lookin’ at life differently.”

And drums and a sweet fiddle (played by David Lindley) join the piano as Patti heads through the second verse and then reaches the bridge:

“Everybody’s waitin’, wastin’ precious time
“And hoping for the glory as if it’s not a state of mind.
“Blamin’ man and circumstance for what they themselves begin.
“When the only chance of holdin’ on is lettin’ go within.
“Lettin’ go within.”

The song is elegiac without being syrupy. Of the other two tributes to Croce, “Good To Be Alive” is a celebration of release, but its music is maybe a bit too bouncy for the tone of the lyrics. “Sending My Good Thoughts To You,” which closes the album, is a superb song.

After several listens, I’ve come to the conclusion that, even though “Louisiana” is the heart of the record, the album’s themes as I hear them – loss, hard-earned truths and acceptance – are summed up during “Sending My Good Thoughts” when Patti sings: “All we can do is all we can do.”

Other standouts on the record are:

The opener, “Used To Be In Love With Love,” a propulsive song highlighted by horn accents and runs that provide a hint of early Chicago or Chase

“If You Want It Easy,” which has a nice full sound based on piano and organ and topped off by what has to be Lindley’s guitar. It’s not hard at all to imagine this coming out of radio speakers in 1975. To my ears, if there were a hit song on the record, this would have been it.

“He Did Me Wrong But He Did It Right,” which has a more rhythmic sound than the rest of the record, being laid on a sorrowful bed of swooping strings and a bass pattern than hints at funk. A great saxophone solo tops it off.

“Runnin’ Out Of World,” which has the same propulsive sound as “Used To Be In Love With Love.” I love the moment when the background singers chime in: “Runnin’!”

Through it all, of course, there are Patti’s distinctive and somewhat idiosyncratic vocals, which are engaging enough to me to make the entire album worthwhile.

As on her first two records, Patti wrote some of the songs on her own and some with other people. Songwriting credits went to Staehely, Jimmy Howell, Andy Cahan, Jimmy Seals (of Seals & Crofts), Browne and Artie Wayne.

Musicians on the album were Larry Knechtel (“an outstanding talent, a great human being,” Patti says), Michael Utley, Andy Cahan and George Clinton on keyboards; Jack Conrad, David Hungate and Klaus Voorman on bass; David Kemper, Gary Mallaber and Jim Keltner on drums; Dean Parks, Al Staehely, Art Munson, Freddy Tackett, Steve Cropper, Jay Graydon and Al Casey on guitar; David Lindley on banjo, fiddle and slide guitar; Nick DeCaro on accordion; Jim Horn, Chuck Findley, Jackie Kelso and Lon Van Eaton on horns; Jim Horn on flute; Steve Foreman and Milt Holland on percussion; and Patti Dahlstrom, Don Dunn, Ray Kennedy and Chuck Higgins on background vocals.

Track listing:
Used To Be In Love With Love (Dahlstrom/Staehely/Howell)
If You Want It Easy (Dahlstrom)
Break Of Day (Cahan/Dahlstrom/Seals)
Painter (Dahlstrom/Browne)
Louisiana (Dahlstrom/Staehely)
He Did Me Wrong But He Did It Right (Dahlstrom/Staehely)
Runnin’ Out Of World (Dahlstrom/Wayne)
When It Comes To You (Dahlstrom)
Good To Be Alive (Dahlstrom/Browne)
Sending My Good Thoughts (Dahlstrom/Wayne)

Patti Dahlstrom – Your Place Or Mine [1975]

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