I FIRST MET Patti Dahlstrom in 2007. To celebrate her birthday, she had treated herself to a vacation in England. We spent a couple of good evenings with some pals eating curry, drinking beer and talking about her years as a singer-songwriter. At the time I’d heard only one of her records, ‘Emotion’, her best-known song. A few weeks later a package arrived from Patti in Texas containing a copy of her fourth album. Before too long I’d tracked down copies of the other three. When Patti told me that she had enjoyed her trip to London so much that she planned to move here permanently, I replied that she would “get over it.” I was wrong. Within a few months we were out eating more curry and drinking more beer to celebrate her moving into her new London flat.

Patti was born in Houston, Texas, the second of Nina and Billy Dahlstrom’s five children. Growing up, she spent a great deal of time with her grandparents, Ollabelle and Frederick “Slimdaddy” Dahlstrom, who owned a ranch, Fort Clark, in West Texas. “Fort Clark was the last active cavalry fort and many Hollywood types came there to make films – The Alamo, Arrowhead, etc. Slimdaddy gave Lyndon Johnson his first job; they were like brothers. I also spent time with my maternal grandparents, Honey and Papa. Papa’s great-nephew was the Big Bopper, but we didn’t know this until recently. Honey’s romantic philosophy was the inspiration for ‘Wait Like A Lady’. I never ascribed to this view, but it made a good Motown song.”

At family parties a young Patti would insist everyone be quiet so she could sing. A big number for her, which she could not perform without crying, was Patti Page’s ‘Tennessee Waltz’. “When I learned to write my name, I changed the spelling from Patty to Patti, as knew I wanted to grow up to be a singer!”

Patti, her sisters Nina, Cheryl and Ollabelle and their brother Frederick all attended River Oaks Elementary, Lanier Junior High and Lamar High Schools. “In high school I belonged to the Choralettes, an elite girls chorus. We performed all over Houston and once a year took a trip on a private plane to NY for the Worlds Fair, or Washington DC, where we sang for the Senate, including Teddy and Bobby Kennedy. I was also on the dance team. Four of us would step out with umbrellas and dance a soft shoe to ‘Singin’ In The Rain’. The Senators seemed to get a kick out of this!”

Houston was not well served by radio and Patti’s primary access to music was her parents’ record collection. “I’d sneak in and play ‘The Wayward Wind’ by Gogi Grant or ‘Wheel Of Fortune’ by Kay Starr. Then my older sister, Nina, got a record player and that’s when the Platters, Rick Nelson and Elvis entered my daily life. ‘Rock Around The Clock’ came out in ’54 and I couldn’t get enough of it. I was lost in music now, putting another nickel in the nickelodeon and fantasising love won and lost to ‘Chances Are’, ‘I’m Sorry’ and ‘Sweet Nothin’s’.”

Patti was not yet a teenager when she wrote her first song. Her grandfather had made her a scaled down Model-T, which she used to get around the ranch. One day she was giving some other children a ride to the pool when she drove over a large rattlesnake. The snake kept going, but it scared them all. To calm the kids she started singing a song on the spot, ‘Rattlesnake’. “That was the first song I wrote. By 16 I was writing regularly. I had a dear friend in high school, Robbie Leff. We were obsessed with the whole English music scene. He had a reel-to-reel and we would tape in his bedroom at his parents’ home. Robbie was a much better guitarist than I, so he would play my songs and I’d sing. Later we began writing together and two songs, ‘Weddin’’ and ‘Comfortable’, appeared on my first album.”

While most kids in high school wanted elite universities in the East, Patti opted to enrol at the University of Texas. “I chose UT because they had amazing parties, plus my grandparents had a ranch in Austin. I spent the next two years writing, attending classes by showing up for tests, partying and planning my escape. By the end of my second year, it was obvious the place to be for music was LA. The Beach Boys, Mamas & Papas, Doors, Byrds – it was where everything was happening.”

In the summer of 1967, with the help of Ollabelle and Slimdaddy, Patti took off for the West Coast in her ’65 Mustang, a naïve 20-year-old in search of her dreams. “On leaving Texas, my grandmother gave me one last piece of advice: ‘Don’t mix business and pleasure.’ It served me well. They gave me the summer to figure out what I was going to do. If I liked LA and wanted to stay, come Labor Day I had to get a job and begin supporting myself. If it was not what I hoped, I could return to the University of Texas. A very loving open-ended deal. So off I drove.”

To pay the rent, Patti took a job at Tiger Beat magazine. She wrote songs at nights and on weekends and shopped them to record companies and publishers during her lunch hour. “I went to every major label and many minor ones, including Capitol, RCA, Island and ABC-Dunhill. They all had A&R and publishing divisions. In those days one could just walk into a place and leave a tape or play live. I usually left tapes. When they would see me immediately, they would listen and reject my songs. Some were kind and said, ‘I’m not interested.’ I remember one man saying, ‘What did you do before?’ I responded, ‘I went to school in Texas.’ He said, ‘Go back. You have no talent. You’ll never make it in this town.’”

A change of jobs found Patti running the front office for four doctors in Beverly Hills. Many of the rich and famous of the music industry came through, including Berry Gordy and Russ Regan, but Patti was instructed not to mention her musical aspirations. “Some plastic surgeons were getting into management and had signed a favourite group of mine from Houston, Fever Tree. Russ Regan at Universal had just signed them. When they offered me a management contract, I jumped! I called my boyfriend’s big-time lawyer, who directed me to Jay Cooper. Thank God! On our first meeting, he said, ‘I can’t stop you from swimming with sharks, but I can keep you from being bitten.’ He has protected and guided me to this day. He is one of the most important figures in my life.”

“One day I had arrived at the F’s in the phone book, Four Star Music. Dave Burgess agreed to see me and Robbie Leff without an appointment. Robbie played and I sang my songs. Dave took the last one, ‘It’s Just That I Thawt I Loved You’, and told me he was looking for something for Bobbie Gentry. ‘Could you write something by tomorrow?’ I went home and wrote the best song I had written to date, ‘God Fearin’ Man’. When Dave heard it, he said, ‘Now that’s a hit song. I’ll take that too.’ I walked out of that office with a check for $200. Now I was officially a professional!”

Then Herb Eiseman at Jobete Music, Motown’s publishing division, got to hear some of Patti’s demos. As ‘What If’ played, the Jackson 5’s producer Deke Richards walked by and stopped. When it was over, he asked who had written the song. Herb said, looking at the tape, ‘Patti Dahlstrom.’ Deke said, ‘Sign her,’ and walked off. “I never doubted God’s hand in all of this timing. The most important relationship I had there was surely with Berry Gordy. He was a wonderful mentor about the music and especially the business. The writers were also a joy. Severin Browne and Michael Masser were two who I immediately began to work with. Severin’s work with me flowed seamlessly. I would give him a lyric and he would come back days or weeks later with a song. He never changed a lyric and I never changed a note. I wrote with him throughout my recording history.”

Some of Patti’s songs were sent to Russ Regan at Uni Records in consideration for Neil Diamond. “Russ asked who was singing the songs. He wanted to sign her. I refused to meet him until the deal was signed, as I knew him from the doctor’s office. When we finally met, I walked into his office in the black tower at Universal and he said, ‘My God, you’re my nurse!’ I had a friend, Don Dunn, doing an album with producer Toxey French. I really enjoyed their album and so hired Toxey to produce mine. It was then I came to work with many musicians who had only been names on the back of my favourite records before. It was dreams coming true.”

Patti has her friend Artie Wayne to thank for ‘Emotion’, which would become her best-known song. “Artie had an album by Veronique Sanson sent over from Warner Bros. for my consideration to write English lyrics. I was mesmerised by the music to ‘Amoureuse’, but I don’t speak French and had no idea what the lyrics meant. I carried the melody in my head for weeks and then one day the first line – ‘Lonely women are the desperate kind’ – just fell out as my key turned in the lock, and the lyric to ‘Emotion’ wrote itself very quickly.”

Russ Regan had such phenomenal success that year at Uni that 20th Century Fox offered him to head up a new label for them. He took Barry White and Patti with him. “I asked Michael Omartian to produce and arrange the second album, ‘The Way I Am’. Halfway through I switched producers to Michael J Jackson, who had produced my dear friend Paul Williams for A&M.”

In September 1973, Patti’s friend Jim Croce was killed in a plane crash in Louisiana. “Jim and I had met through our manager, Elliott Abbott. We became great friends and a mutual support system. After he died I co-wrote three songs for him, which appeared on my third album. The first of these was ‘Sending My Good Thoughts To You’. When my sister, Ollabelle, called to tell me she’d heard of Jim’s death it was about 4am in LA. I called my friend Artie Wayne and went over to his home. As I walked out of his place, realising life had shifted dramatically, the sun was rising on a very different world for me. Everything had a different tone. That day began the hardest personally, and the most rewarding professionally, year of my life. Artie came by later to check on me and we began writing the song. After his day at Warner Brothers, he came back over and we finished it. Less than two months later, my grandfather died, and within six months my father was dead at 48. The album that followed, ‘Your Place Or Mine’, was filled by this loss.”

Meanwhile, Patti embarked on a national tour to promote ‘The Way I Am’. Her band comprised Al Staehely (from the band Spirit) on bass, guitarist Michael Knust (Fever Tree), drummer Steve Lawrence (Roberta Flack) and Mark Stein (Vanilla Fudge) on keyboards. “They were great guys as well as great musicians. I was living the dream I’d had since childhood. This was in the midst of all the death and yet my life was flowering. Isn’t that the way?”

It was during the making of her third album, ‘Your Place Or Mine’, that Patti met Larry Knechtel. “I had been a fan of Larry’s for a long time, since high school, so I was amazed to be working with him. We bonded immediately and he went on to produce, arrange and play on my fourth album. Our friendship continued for all the years I remained in LA and we stayed in touch until his death in 2009.”

Patti’s fourth album, ‘Livin’ It Thru’, would be her last. She felt fried and wanted to go back to being a songwriter only. “I wrote a letter to Russ, asking for a release from my contract. A corporate VP met told me he had taken my albums home to listen to. ‘You are the most talented artist on this label. Won’t you do a fifth album?’ But I was just exhausted emotionally and wanted peace and anonymity. I didn’t want to have to be something other people needed me to be. I couldn’t chase the hit anymore. Russ had always been so kind and accommodating. We both left 20th Century about the same time. We remain dear friends to this day.”

Patti carried on writing. Her collaborators during her post-album days included Glen Ballard, Tom Snow, J.C. Crowley, Kerry Chater, David Plenn and Jim Price and she continued to get songs recorded by Anne Murray, the Captain & Tennille, Riders In The Sky, Bobbie Gentry, Michael Johnson and others.

“I had been taking photographs since I was 16. Most of the photos on my third album were mine. When Robert Altman saw me sing in LA, he offered me a role in a film; I suggested I take photographs instead. He agreed and I did photography on his sets for years. Among other projects, I did my friend John Denver’s ‘I Want To Live’ album cover and tour book. My photographs of Jim Croce are currently featured in a new documentary on his life. In later years I wrote for film and TV. I spoke at workshops, spent more time in Texas with my grandmother at the ranch, travelled and wrote.”

In 1990, 23 years after moving to LA, Patti returned to Texas. Al Staehely introduced her to Robert Bell at the Art Institute of Houston, who offered her a position teaching songwriting. “As Jay Cooper always handled everything for me, I had to teach myself the publishing business, so that I could teach the students. Within a year I was promoted to Department Director. I loved those young ones and am still in touch with a number of them. It was during this time that I finished my four-year degree in Liberal Arts.”

Patti had designed and built a beautiful home and was surrounded by a very close, loving family, but still she grew restless in Houston. “Something Jesus said kept haunting me: ‘What do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul?’ My soul was suffering. I have always honoured my relationship with God first, never running from but walking toward. I just didn’t know where to go. Tom Snow and I had written a song, ‘Dialogue’, in which two lines were: ‘Have you been to France, I hear it’s wonderful this time of year. Have you really seen the English countryside, do people ride?’ I had always loved England, the fortitude of the people, the history, the charm. So for my birthday I went and rode a horse in Hastings across the green English fields.”

Within nine months, Patti had sold her home, consigned her belongings to storage and relocated to St John’s Wood in London to study for an MA in Professional Writing. “It’s been a steep learning curve and a challenging existence. Still, I am happy in my humble flat, and my soul is flourishing.”

© Mick Patrick 2010

PATTI DAHLSTROM: My sincerest thanks to Joe Foster and Mick Patrick for putting this CD package together and always to God, Jesus, Russ Regan and Jay Cooper for making it all possible for me from the beginning. My family, my friends and co-workers are all a part of it and me, and I only hope I have given as much as I have received. What are you waiting for? Time is flying; go live your dream.