PATTI AUSTIN / “Calling You”

MP3 19 Calling You (Austin).mp3 (6.50 MB)

It’s like this: some songs are owned by their creators. Trying to top the originals is almost certainly an exercise in futility. But y'all know we created the category of covers for a reason. Even so, in the case of “Calling You” going for covers verges on utter madness.

This is Jevetta Steele’s song. She wrote it. She sang it. End of story. Except… Well, ya know, maybe there is more than one way to call you.

Before we see/hear the covers let’s start with raising the bar above most everybody’s head.
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First up is Ms. Steele doing the original for the soundtrack to the movie Baghdad Café (also on her album Here It Is). Jevetta’s voice. Man, what a voice. There is grit, there is sweetness. There is determination and naked yearning. There is a little accent difficult to place and crystal clear enunciation so you can understand every word. There is the fragileness of her call and (need I say it?) the steel strength of her vocal chords.

Jevetta don’t ever have to sing nothing else for the rest of her life, she got her page in the book of song. So here it is. The original. The standard.

What follows are not all of the versions I could find. Indeed, most of the covers ain’t nothing but paper thin imitations, at best, but there were a couple that struck me and one that was a total surprise.
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I never would have thought of it at first but it seems if you want the job done you better call mama—mama Etta James. Etta’s voice is exactly, precisely the last one I would have thought of for this song, especially in the twilight of her long career. She can’t reach that high no more. But then again that’s the thing about pros. What they lack in raw talent, the step or two they have lost, the high notes now beyond them, they make up for it with rope-a-dope cunning and craft.

On her 2006 All The Way album Etta plays with the song, right down to sounding like a trombone and an interlude ending. I actually enjoy this version even as I’m clear it’s not in the same category of otherness as Jevetta’s original. So, no, this doesn’t take the cake but it’s some hip ass candles. You gotta laugh and like it for what it is.
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Gabrielle Goodman (from Until We Love) approaches this on the sly, like tacking against the wind in a sailboat. She’s in the stratosphere singing in what sounds like a soprano falsetto, if there is such a thing. Then there’s that percussion. Gone is the yearning. We’re no longer lost in the desert. We’re maybe in Navajo country, a black Indian chant. Gabrielle has gone into a trance and the “you” she is calling is the great spirit within. We’re on a mountaintop, the air is thin, her sound is wispy, alluring. Disappearing into the atmosphere. Again, like Etta James, Gabrielle Goodman offers an original take. She doesn’t so much top Jevetta, it’s more like a side step, a fancy move and then she passes. Even though it doesn’t go head on with Jevetta, we do get an interesting move and I like it for the atmosphere she creates.
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Next comes the first direct challenge. Jevetta did it as a ghostly R&B/Gospelish supplication. On Calling You Imani goes the jazz route. Everything is full throat. She hits the notes. I especially dig the backing trio.

While I really, really dig the arrangement and love her voice, what I don’t hear is the utter desperation that Jevetta digs into on the out chorus. This is close but no ringer in the sense of topping Jevetta. Maybe it’s impossible because Imani has brought the goods and the critic in me says Jevetta still has it even though the jazz head in me really digs this version.
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And now here comes Ms. Patti Austin, a lady who is one of the queens of studio recordings. She’s been on so many sessions covering so many different genres working with so many different producers it’s crazy, yet she has never become a noted soloist with plantinum sales. Always on call but never pushed as a star. In fact, I forgot about Patti Austin and then I heard her version (from Street of Dreams).

First thing Patti did was strip search the song. She ain’t got nothing but a lone little keyboard backing her playing that plaintive melody over and over with a wobbly vibrato. There’s no other instrumentation to lean on or hide behind.

I just didn’t remember that Patti had the voice to pull off this unplugged version, but damn if she don’t do it. Here we have it, a genuine challenge. Note for note, moan for moan. Jevetta’s voice is more distinctive, but Patti, oh my lord, she knows how to read a lyric, how to micro bend a note. She absolutely emotes like she’s trying to cry out across the desert. She sounds like she’s in agony, which, after all, is the point of the song. She’s calling for help.

Don’t bet against pros. This is just full body pain, an end of the rope plea. After hearing it, I go back to Jevetta and ask myself which one am I hearing more deeply.

I can’t really decide and that’s not a concession, it’s admission of how good both version are; a right hand, left hand thing. I don’t feel complete without both hands.

What do you think?

—Kalamu ya Salaam


          Gabrielle Goodman, I really like          

I want to like this song more than I do. (I'm talking about the original version.) It's just about impossible to be unmoved by the way Jevetta Steele sings the chorus. For some reason though, the rest of the song just doesn't grab me as much.

I remember Kalamu playing this song years ago when I used to sit in with him on his Thursday night (at least I think it was Thursdays) Kitchen Sink radio show. Everytime he played "Calling You," the switchboard would light up with people wanting to know what song was that and who was singing it. Even if I'm not crazy about the song personally, I know how much people respond to it and I know why. It really is a powerful performance.

On a different subject, some of the remakes seem pointless. Patti Austin has a great voice - everyone knows that - but why bother remaking the song at all just to copy the original performance almost note-for-note? It's funny that Kalamu likes Patti's version enough to make it the feature. The way I hear it, Patti's is the least interesting because it's the one that most copies the style, tone, rhythm and notes of the original.

I do like Imani's cover. I don't love it, but I like it. The use of the acoustic piano and stand-up bass definitely helps. One of the things I don't like about the original is the heavy reliance on the shrill-sounding keyboard. These days, it sounds dated. Imani's band warms the song up.

I'm not crazy about Etta's version either, but like Kalamu says, Etta does at least do something different with it. She sings the song as if it's hers. It's not and if you've heard Jevetta sing it, it never could've been, but Etta at least goes for it.

The Gabrielle Goodman, I really like. I probably like this one better even than the original. I love the percussion and I love the way Gabrielle goes off into those whispering high notes. Notes so high that they disappear into raspy implications instead of actual sounds. I'm glad Gabrielle doesn't have the freaky ear-shredding range of a Mariah Carey. That Gabrielle can't hit the notes makes the record just that much better. The bass solo is happening too. Great record....

—Mtume ya Salaam

This entry was posted on Monday, November 19th, 2007 at 2:20 am and is filed under Cover. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Response to “PATTI AUSTIN / “Calling You””

Qawi Says:
November 21st, 2007 at 4:14 pm


This was an interesting pick. Interesting in the sense that the lyrics of the song don’t really resonate with me. Still, listening to the pure vocal qualities of Ms. Steele made me anticipate what, if anything could be covered with this song. As the sequence in the BOL Jukebox is a TRUE BIAS 🙂 , hearing Etta afterwards was like a smack in the ear drum. It’s almost like listening to Stephanie Mills followed by Michelle NdegeOcello. The vocal styles and range are almost extreme, yet feminine. What’s up with the trombone and phone conversation at the end. Etta calling her son by mistake was…well hilarious!

Ms. Goodman’s version has the longing, but it doesn’t resonate with me the same way the previous ones did. It’s almost too sensual…to Minnie Riperton. But yet, remember I’m still not crazy about the lyrics.

The Imani and Patti Austin versions are true COVERs, not an interpolations. However, in the Imani version’s case, the instrumentation can put you in a different mood than the previous ones. No disrespect to Imani, but this is what I’d call the Nancy Wilson version. Had I heard this one first, it would’ve spoiled everything. Once again, the sequence of the Jukebox is important. 🙂 Patti Austin of course adds her vocal strength to the cover and nails each note in her own special way. Thanks for the exposure once again.

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