Patti Parks is a multi-dimensional woman, who has accomplished much in her life. She is a trained nurse and a professional cellist who sought a philharmonic position early on in her career, but was drawn to performance by her life long admiration for Liza Minelli. Eventually she established her career as a Blues vocalist. Her first album, Cheat‘n Man, released in 2013, still garners international acclaim. This year has been a very difficult one for Patti personally. Her son passed away and her husband survived a severe case of Covid. Her collaboration with Kenny Neal and release of “Whole Nother World” marks a creative milestone in her career, as well as her healing journey.
Interview by Maria Passannante-Derr. Photographs courtesy of Patti Parks.
Maria Passannante-Derr: Please share your experience and professional collaboration with Kenny Neal.
Patti Parks: Kenny and I were involved two music opportunities, one was a symposium where I was asked to speak with Kenny Neal and Walter Trout about the healing power of Blues. After that, I performed at a big Blues Festival for my Blues project that uses the Blues to treat chemical dependency. Kenny came to perform and we spoke about this upcoming idea and he said “You know you need to come down to the studio to record”. It took about thirty seconds for me to enthusiastically agree. What was really wonderful about our collaboration was the choices of the music that’s on it. He had sent me some material that was originally recorded by a female artist, Erica Guerin and that was maybe 25 years ago. Unfortunately, this talented woman passed on early in her life. After listening to her vocals, I connected with the music and decided to start with that content.
PP: There are several songs, the majority of which were written by Bob Greenlee. “Don’t Play Me Cheap”, for example and the track that sounds like a train, “Stickin’ to My Guns”; but, I really love “More Than You’ll Ever Know” because the syncopated rhythm, it’s very beautiful.
MP-D: All of the intros on each song grab the listener’s attention and then you take command. For example, “Don’t Play Me Cheap” and its great lyrics, “Would you like to get in trouble with me?”
PP: Perfect, ‘cause you know I’m an instigator.
MP-D: Let’s talk specifically about the album. What is the overall significance of this album in your artistic journey since “Cheat’n Man” was released in 2013?
PP: Wow, they’re completely polarized. This recording is in unfamiliar territory. We are all into our shell where we are in control, in studios where we frequently record, with the musicians we already know; but, then you go to the heart of the music as it relates to Blues so that’s one thing. What evolved with the vocals was because of the experience. From the point where Kenny met me at the airport and pick me up, he took me through the neighborhood where he grew up and I started to get the vibe of the community and the sense of music and all of that involvement I’ve never felt before. I thought I had a handle on the Blues, let me tell you something, not so much, and when I went down there, I met his friends. It was unbelievable like I was warped in time. I saw his friends still playing in their garages and you know and smiling and engaging me. Then to record right his studio where Kenny Neal grew up; and, as I walked into the studio, there was this influence of all his memorabilia of his entire family who’s been involved with music for a lifetime. That was another connection I had right down to this beautiful portrait of a sister Jackie, right there in the studio. She had passed and I was feeling all of the vibes. I am an empath so I can feel all of these things. Then the musicians come in right and the level of musicianship was nothing I have ever heard. Here is what was different too. I did not practice the back tracks. It was live. I heard these musicians record live, totally different. I really experienced things I’ve never had before and that’s why we call it a “Whole Nother World”. People have said what they heard on my vocals was something they have never heard before and I think it’s because of all those elements and of course Kenny Neal is the arranger. He’s awesome.
MP-D: So there has to be a lot of trust between you and Kenny during the collaboration process because he is leading you somewhere where you’ve never been before creatively. By bringing you to his neighborhood and showing you the memorabilia and giving you the history of Kenny Neal, he was establishing that trust; and, of course you picked up on it and an allowed yourself to go with the process.
PP: Right, be free, exactly, sing this song. There were two songs on the album I didn’t know I was going to record till I went down there; and, I think it’s important to say, very spur of the moment. So “Baby Bee” was the acoustic duet that he and I sing. I learned the lyrics in real time and we recorded it and I’m so proud of that acoustic recording. Honestly, I don’t regularly do acoustic but once I heard this soulfulness of his voice, I was in character responding to it. The other one was It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World” which I’ve recorded and performed before. He said “pick a song” and then he said “Let’s do it”. I was a little bit on edge at the moment but I love this song and what he did on it really puts you in a different mode when you’re listening to it.
MP-D: Your rendition of this is so powerful. You are up there with all the greats who covered this song: Christina Aguilera did it at the Grammys one year; Celine Dion and Etta. It’s a great rendition and I’m sure people are going to really, really like it. Any other songs that maybe you weren’t so sure of or any songs that you were really sure of?
PP: Well, I’ll tell you, “Don’t Play Me Cheap” is a big song. I wanted to make sure that I brought it alive. I really took some time on the ending making sure that it was done properly and not overdone. Another song that I ended up falling in love with was “No Means No” for a lot of reasons. It’s a very contemporary message. I like the double entendre and the fact that it is an original tune so no one else has recorded it.
MP-D: Who influenced you musically or personally?
PP: Let me tell you something, I’ve got a long history of being hit by lightning about three times in my life meaning that every time I try to go one way, something directs me another way. I was “Miss Performer” at 4 years. At 16 years old, I was a serious cello player and studied for a position with the Philharmonic; but, I was a closet singer meaning I would go to my closet and sing for hours to Liza Minelli. My mother loved her and she would take me to see her when I was a little girl. I love how she performed and that’s what I am known for. Then I took another direction in the early part of my life. I got married very young and music wasn’t part of my life unfortunately so after those experiences, I met up with someone who was in my first band and he encouraged me to sing the Blues. Then, because of my initial life experiences I had a lot of pain and there was turbulence. I think it helped me in terms of delivering the lyrics and so I fell in love with the Blues. Shortly after, I went to the International Blues competition and then I went to the National Women’s showcase in Memphis. Right now, I am constantly listening to others and the way lyrics are delivered, so I would say I am who I am by all of those people that I’ve listened to over time.
MP-D: You were inducted into the Buffalo Music Hall of fame. How did you feel about this recognition?
PP: It was an honor. I was very appreciative of that award and I’m very honored by it as there are a lot of well known people that are in the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame. At that point “Cheat’n Man” had already come out and there was a lot of recognition of that album.
MP-D: How did you approach this album? Any push and pull with Kenny or did you know going into this album some ideas of what you wanted to put down on tracks?
PP: No push back at all. There was a little bit of self doubt at times ’cause he would change the key. Sometimes, I was really hung up on lyrics and he would say, “Just sing this song, just sing” and I know that he believed in me and that’s the main thing. Not only is he an amazing artist, he’s just an amazing person. What’s really important is that he is a mentor to his community. If you went into his recording studio you would see a lot of young men coming in and talking to him while he’s recording and he encourages it.
MP-D: Who are some of these people playing on the album?
PP: First of all on the keyboard is Kenny Neal’s brother On the organ, that’s my husband. He is the guy who said “You better start singing the Blues again”.
MP-D: You are a performer and vocalist, do you compose?
PP: My husband and I work on some lyrics for some of our material but my husband writes a lot of material. For example, “I Can’t Think “ is on the album and my husband wrote that. He got up in the middle of the night and started writing, you know how when somebody who angers you, is your friend, it’s like “forget it”. That is where the song came from, “I can’t think I need a drink. I can’t believe you talked about me the way you did”.
MP-D: So your life experiences are your are creative sparks?
PP: Yes, and you know that everybody has got a story. There is always something in my life that is painful. Last year was very blistering for me, first, not only because of music but I’m a nurse so I had to deal with the start of Covid and then I lost my son and then my husband got a severe case of Covid and ended up on a ventilator. That was very painful. It was a difficult decision to go back into the music after what happened; but, I also know in my heart of hearts in order for me to heal, I need to do what I do best therapeutically for myself and that’s to deliver the music.
MP-D: I am very sorry about your loss. Will there future projects with Kenny?
PP: Yes, I signed to his record label and we’re already reviewing new material.
MP-D: People are craving music again. Are you going to be touring?
PP: I will be touring with my band. I will meet up with Kenny along the way. Event owners, however, are reluctant to open. You never know, I mean, we could get a spike and be locked down again. My shows initially are completely booked. That is another indicator that people are dying for music.
MP-D: Is there anything else you’d like to share with the readers about you or about this album?
PP: I just want everybody to know that it was an album that was done in purity, meaning there was no rehearsal. If your audience wants to really engage and understand and get to know me I would ask them to listen to “Whole Nother World”.