Patty McGovern: The muse never stops singing

Randy Smith tracked down an unsung singer from the 1950s, recently brought to light by Fresh Sounds revelatory 'The Best Voices That Time Forgot' series

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The demise of big bands in the 40s gave way to the 50s era of the solo vocalist. Mostly women, a few like Ella, Billie, Sarah, Dinah and Carmen need no surnames. Yet for every one of these are scores of canaries little remembered today. The folks at Fresh Sound Records have been releasing a series of twofers on CD presenting some of these, called appropriately, “The Best Voices that Time Forgot”. One paired LPs by Marcy Lutes and Patty McGovern. (Nic Jones reviewed this in JJ in April 2019.) The McGovern album, Wednesday’s Child, originally appeared on Atlantic in 1956.

Ms. McGovern recently celebrated her 92nd birthday at home in Wisconsin. I am indebted to Canadian jazz singer Diana Panton for bringing her to my attention. Not only is she a fine singer, Patty McGovern writes songs herself, one of which – I Like Snow – Panton covered on her 2017 album Solstice/Equinox.

Wednesday’s Child features the writing of overlooked arranger Thomas Talbert, credited as an early proponent of Third Stream elements in jazz. Talbert’s spare, classically oriented charts frame McGovern’s rich alto fittingly, supported by some of New York’s finest session players

Wednesday’s Child is remarkable on several counts. First, it features the writing of overlooked arranger Thomas Talbert, credited as an early proponent of Third Stream elements in jazz. Talbert’s spare, classically oriented charts frame McGovern’s rich alto fittingly, supported by some of New York’s finest session players, notably Joe Wilder and Barry Galbraith. As for Patty’s composing, two songs – I Like Snow and Love Isn’t Everything – have both her words and music, while two more are collaborations with Talbert. Standards make up the remainder.

I Like Snow illuminates the talents of the two principals. Talbert begins with a classical fugue – French horn first, then joined in turns by bass, guitar and flute – that serves as a contrapuntal introduction. McGovern enters confidently, and in tune, singing in a “direct, unembellished” style, to quote the Jones review. The song’s unconventional yet attractive melody supports lyrics laced with visual imagery of snowfall, snowmen, a winter moon, and getting warmed by the fire in a lover’s arms. Barry Galbraith’s subdued guitar solo enhances the mood of this poignant snowy narrative. (Kudos to Ms. Panton for discovering and breathing new life into Patty’s creative winter anthem with her sensitive interpretation.)

No stranger to snow, Patricia Jean McGovern hails from St. Paul Minnesota, born February 1928. Responding to questions through her daughter via email, Patty told me she was raised in a musical family. “Very much so, especially my brother, Tom. He was 12 years older. [He] always played out, a piano player. He was very talented. Musicians came over to our family home. I soaked it up – listening”.

She began writing songs early on. “Even at eight or nine, I knew music was my thing. When my mother asked me to dust, I’d find myself picking out things on the piano, looking for new harmonies and chords. [I] didn’t have a teacher. I think I composed my first song at seven – music and lyrics. Later when I learned to notate, I wrote it down. The song title was Why and began “Why am I blue?” I was kind of a melancholy kid”.

Melancholy or not, singing came naturally. “We didn’t have much during the Depression and WWII, so we’d sing together around the kitchen table. I started singing with my cousins Betty and Jerri, and my sister, Elaine. I was the organiser and harmoniser. I found an old record, On The Beach At Bali-Bali and we learned the music. We’d listen to the radio a lot and sang old standards. We even sang on local radio in St Paul, Minneapolis when I was 12”.

In 1948, McGovern married Minnesota broadcaster and radio personality, Leigh Kamman. By this time she already had professional performing experience with her brother’s band, and partly due to Kamman’s connections, her career blossomed. In 1950, she joined the Honey Dreamers, a mixed vocal quintet who were riding high at the time. As she tells it, “During this period, I auditioned for the Honey Dreamers and became lead singer. The Honey Dreamers went to New York, turning down an offer to sing with the Stan Kenton band. On the road we played hotels, nightclubs and theatres. We did live commercials like Tide and Camay soap [and] 55 Kinescope, [also] CBS TV, working with Johnny Mercer and Stan Kenton”.

By now based in New York, she sang on many of the major television programmes, either solo or with the Dreamers. Guest spots included appearances with Mel Tormé and solo shots on the Eddie Fisher Show, Celebrity Time, the Steve Allen and Perry Como shows, and the Jackie Gleason Show, among others. The Honey Dreamers recorded frequently for Capitol, Decca, Mercury and RCA. Independently of the quintet, Patty did the Atlantic record under the musical direction of Tom Talbert, himself a native Minnesotan.

Her songwriting began to attract attention. “Composing and writing continued between jobs. I got positive responses from Marian McPartland who played my songs, but didn’t record them. She particularly liked one called In October”. Two more who did record her songs were jazz pianist George Wallington and cult vocalist Jeanne Lee.

I must admit, I found more recognition as a singer and often felt underrated as a female composer . . . women weren’t given any acknowledgment when it came to writing music. Women were singers who were expected to look pretty

Despite these successes, gender discrimination remained an unfortunate reality of show business in the 50s. “I must admit, I found more recognition as a singer and often felt underrated as a female composer . . . women weren’t given any acknowledgment when it came to writing music. Women were singers who were expected to look pretty”.

Patty and her family returned to Minnesota toward the end of the 50s, and the music continued, at least a few more years. “There were occasional club dates and collaborations with local jazz musicians. Notable artists continued to visit from near and far. Ella Fitzgerald came to town for a club date. I worked up the lead sheet for Mack The Knife. It was the first time Ella considered it, later performing it in Berlin. George Shearing sat down at our piano after hours and immediately knew: ‘This is an Acrosonic’. I continued to write music”.

Though club gigs dried up in the 60s, Patty feels and lives music to this day. “The musical muse never stops. I’ve continued to direct singing groups, teach piano and compose”.

Not to mention inspiring a younger singer in the talented Diana Panton. Long may Patty McGovern’s muse sing!