If one tried to concoct a mystique around a mercurial artist, one could not dream of doing better on purpose than Patty Waters did just by living her life. If you’re not familiar with her or her work, there is one and only one place to start. Be advised, you’re probably not ready for this. Almost nobody is, first time.
A literal Iowa farmgirl, Waters was gifted with a breathy, coolly expressive singing voice. She began singing for audiences at age three, and toured with regional orchestras before finishing high school. Touring brought her into personal contact with the likes of Miles Davis and Albert Ayler, and her association with Ayler brought her into the orbit of Bernard Stollman, owner of ESP-Disk, a pioneering free jazz and freak-rock label that released crucial works by Ayler, Sun Ra, the Fugs, the Godz, and Ornette Coleman. And for that label, Waters recorded, in 1965, Patty Waters Sings.
The album cover is remarkable for its plainness—it’s a black and white photo of Waters, all of 19 years old, not particularly engaging with the camera, not really quite smiling, and looking for all the world like a blandly pretty, utterly average corn-fed Midwestern girl. At the drop of the needle, though, the listener was immediately in the grip of chilling, compelling, emotionally-charged and deeply lonesome songs, revealing and personal but very nearly amelodic original compositions that were clearly in the realm of conventional “vocal jazz,” but with an unpolished starkness that lent immense weight to her lovelorn-teenager lyrics. But there was still another surprise to come—Side B sported only one song, the take on an 18th Century folk song called “Black is the Color of my True Love’s Hair” that we linked for you above. After Nina Simone began performing the song in 1959, many subsequent versions of it stayed more or less within her template. But Waters’ rendition, only a few years later, subverted that newly-set standard—it’s disorienting right out of the gate, opening with ominous, discordant piano swirls. It goes on for fourteen minutes, turning from a creepy but still low-key jazz standard into a cathartic, howling cyclone of inchoate anguish that flattened everyone in its path and made it her defining song. Downbeat compared her vocal performance to Ornette Coleman’s sax playing, and The Village Voice called it “The most perfect realization of jazz song as siren song.” They were both right, of course, and it is no exaggeration to say that without Waters to open the doors to such primal, immediate expressiveness, Patti Smith and Diamanda Galas would have lacked a pivotal template.
In 1966, she released College Tour, her second and final album for ESP. The cover photo suggested a stark transformation—gone was the girl-next-door with the mysterious half-smile, replaced by a dead-eyed, opaquely hippie-ish mystic wearing a slightly demented expression and a forehead adornment that combine to foreshadow Charles Manson’s disciples. College Tour is every bit the unsettling must-have that Sings is. Standout tracks are opener “Song of Clifford,” the title a reference to Sun Ra drummer Clifford Jarvis, who fathered Waters’ son; the original composition “Wild is the Wind,” on which she again thrusts her ability to voice transcendent madness squarely into listeners’ faces; the Nelson Riddle/Frank Sinatra standard “It Never Entered My Mind”; and two damn spooky transformations of the Southern lullaby “Hush Little Baby,” another song that had a place in Nina Simone’s repertoire.
Waters soon left New York for Northern California, not only bailing on the New York jazz scene, but inadvertently making herself mythic by pretty much dropping out altogether. Her albums were reissued, and her reputation grew among outré types after she was singled out for Nick Tosches’ unrestrained praise in Rolling Stone in 1971 (”... one of the best fucking singers alive”), but she didn’t release another note of music again for thirty years. Though her reputation as a recluse has endured, it’s not really justified. Her life’s story since her late ‘60s disengagement has been thoroughly told, so there’s no need here to try to penetrate the mystique. In fact, Waters has lately returned to public performance, reuniting with Burton Greene, her pianist on Sings. Among her most recent performances were a two-night stand in London which was recorded for the digital-only release Patty Waters 6.12.17, and a Blank Forms show in New York which saw her and Greene teamed up with bass god Mario Pavone (Thomas Chapin, Anthony Braxton) and legendary free jazz drummer Barry Altschul, a lineup that played another show in Houston.
And it is via NYC’s Blank Forms that we are able to show you some AMAZING lost footage today. According to Jazz Times, Waters performed only two shows in all of the 1970s. I am unable to determine if that count includes a solo performance she gave to a class at San Francisco’s Lone Mountain College in 1974—a performance that was filmed, but it has never been seen by the public until today. The performance footage is cut with interview segments shot in Waters’ home later the same day—an incredibly intimate look at the life of an artist whose veil was once thought impenetrable.
We are very grateful to Ms. Waters for being so kind as to take some time on the phone with us to fill in the blanks on the circumstances of the film’s creation, and why it stayed buried for over 40 years.
In 1970, I moved from New York City with my baby boy to quiet, peaceful Marin County. We lived there at various locations, first in Mill Valley, then Fairfax, then Stinson Beach for a summer, during which time I raised my son nearly through his high school years. In 1986, we relocated to Santa Cruz. But there was one brief time when I lived in San Francisco, behind a coffee shop called Blue Unicorn on Hayes, near the corner of Masonic. Richard Dworkin lived on that corner, and he knew I lived there and that I’d recorded the two albums for ESP-Disk, and he thought I could be a subject for his film class. So he introduced himself and took me to Lone Mountain College for one of his film classes. I did the three songs, there were probably 10 or 12 people there.
The footage was never seen because the sound wasn’t good, Richard gave it to me and I kind of tucked it away. It resurfaced in the last ten years or so, and I told Richard I found it, and he was glad to hear I found it, but he didn’t know how to fix the sound. Just about a year ago Eric Terino offered to clean it up digitally. Before that, it was hopeless! [laughs] So now the sound can consistently be heard. It’s still not perfect, it has lots of flaws, but before there were lots of places where you couldn’t understand what was going on.
I thought it was interesting, because it is the only time I played piano for myself and sang. As I recalled it, I played all of side one of Sings, but as we listen to it, I’m only playing two from side one, and the middle one was released in 2003 as track 8 on the You Thrill Me CD. The interview segments were shot after the performance, in my apartment behind the Blue Unicorn with my son and his dog, as a rehearsal was going on in the coffee house.
BONUS! Here’s Waters performing “Wild is the Wind,” from just this last December in London.
Immeasurable gratitude to Aaron Dilloway for facilitating this post.
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
‘I always hope that people will have some kind of orgasm’: Patti Smith on ‘The Tomorrow Show’
That time Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones and demonic diva Diamanda Galas made a badass album
Noise artist Aaron Dilloway is raising money for the Nepalese earthquakes with his field recordings