—By Dino Robinson
Pretty little thing let me light your candle ‘cause baby I’m sure hard to handle now. . .
Patricia E. Drew belted out these lyrics for the song, “Hard to Handle,” in 1968 when she was 20 years old. . .with an attitude. Then, it just about summed up her lifestyle. Today, she is just trying to handle her life. After several years climbing the ladder in the world of music, she found out how fast life could tumble even for one with all of the talent in the world. However, local residents who knew her then, are rediscovering her voice in the new movie Lee Daniels’, The Butler starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey.
Born in Charleston, South Carolina, Patricia (Patti) lived part of her childhood in Nashville Tennessee before coming to Evanston with her parents and five sisters in 1956 to start a new life, part of which was for Patti and her sisters to obtain a better education. Her father worked for the city of Wilmette. Her mother worked as a domestic. Her mother’s job later proved to be a turning point in Patti’s life as well as the lives of her sisters.
Patti entered the sixth grade at Nichols Junior High her first year in Evanston and later went to ETHS. She held several jobs during her teen years. At 15, she earned $3.00 an hour folding towels at a local towel company. She baby-sat for the people her mother worked for, worked as a nurses’ aide at Presbyterian homes in Skokie, as a counter girl at a soda fountain shop, and other odd jobs.
Reflecting on her experience growing up in Evanston, Patti saw the city as one with a lot of prejudices: in the schools, work, and in general:
“People here were nice, nasty. If you could picture a person being nice but nasty to you at the same time. They would look at my parents, my sisters and me and say, how could you have money to buy stuff? How could you go into Weibolts and buy nice things? How dare you come into this store with your little Black girls and buy nice things. How dare you.”
“There were places in Evanston that Black people didn’t go. We just didn’t go. If we were not going to be treated nice, why go. You knew where to go, you knew what street to stay off of. You didn’t go into Skokie at all. One might be picked up by the police just for being there. I didn’t want to be treated badly. So we started going into the ‘Loop’.”
Patti’s family first attended Mt. Carmel Baptist church, then transferred their membership to Bethel A.M.E. Church, both in Evanston. “Every Sunday we had to go to church. If you didn’t go to church, you couldn’t go anywhere. We were involved in the choir, the youth choir, the adult choir, or the senior choir, and we went to a lot of youth-related functions.”
I’m so alive, cause you are near. . .
Growing up Patti says she wasn’t always the nice girl on the block. “We had a club called the Latin Ladies, the tough girls on the block. We wore black scarves tied around our head, black jeans and black shirts and we hung around a group of boys called the Latin Lovers. Of course my mom wouldn’t let me wear these clothes so, as teens do, we snuck the clothes out of the house and changed into them later. But in reality, I was a loner and did things on my own.”
Patti’s music interest started in church. Her grandmother in Tennessee had insisted that she and two of her sisters, Loraine and Erma, sing in the church. In Evanston, her paternal grandmother heard them singing and had them sing in her church. The girls would sing around the house and entertain their dad and guests with songs. Their mother found the opportunity to have the girls heard by a much bigger audience.
“My mother worked for a guy who was a distributor for Capitol Records,” Patti reminisced. “She happened to mention one day that she had three girls who could sing. By this time, we were popular in the church and they were always asking us to sing. My mother was asked to bring a tape for her employer to hear and to see what he could do.
So we went there one day to have my mother’s employer, Maury Lathauwer, hear us, and leave a tape for him. He took the tape to producer Peter Wright. The tape had a song called, “Tell Him,” written by Evanstonian Carlton Black. Peter Wright liked it. They pressed it, and that’s how we got our start.”
The group became known as the Drew-vels and featured Carlton Black on many of the songs. Signed by Capitol records in 1964, they pressed six songs. One of the group’s first live performances was at the Regal Theater in Chicago. They also recorded two songs on the Quill label without Patti, while Patti recorded four songs on the same label as a solo act.
From 1967 to 1970, Patti Drew was a solo act on the Capitol Records label. Her sisters often sang backup. On one album, Fontella Bass (“Rescue Me”) was Patti’s backup singer. Patti recorded over 12 45’s and four albums, toured the U.S. and South America, appeared on both Soul Train while it was still being filmed in Chicago, and on American Bandstand on September 7, 1968, where she sang “Working On A Groovy Thing”. Peter Wright became her agent and moved her onto the Playboy Club circuit for two years. Patti’s list of hits and her live performances had a loyal following in the early Soul Music movement. Critics raved about her powerful voice. “The album, “Working on a Groovy Thing,” was a hot record. The Fifth Dimension picked up the title song and adapted it to their style.”
Patti sang locally at the 1623 Club in Evanston, and at the PussyCat Lounge, the Backroom, the Caraville and several other spots around Chicago.
Then in 1971, the bottom fell out. “The culture of music performers at that time was fast, stressful and demanding,” Patti said, “and it was easy to get caught up in if you were not careful. I was supposed to perform with James Brown and meet with Hugh Heffner of Playboy who wanted me to pose and I missed them both because of my habit. . .By that time, it was either give up the drugs or the singing, and I was not strong enough at that time to give up the drugs. I was strung out. I ended up in rehab. Four months later, I came home. My singing career was over.”
Even though Patti has since been a subject in numerous articles and books like the Record Exchanger magazine and Doo-wop, The Chicago Scene, Patti’s desire to sing has all but left.
“When I got to that place where I just wanted to get high instead of doing my job, I knew it was over,” Patti said, “I just wanted to leave that life in the past. People are now coming to me saying that the oldies are coming back. No way, I won’t do it. It’s too much work. Plus, I don’t have the chops anymore. I had fun though. . .I had a lot of fun performing. I never thought I would end up with nothing.”
In the many interviews with Patti and I, she wanted her story to be a life lesson in that, no matter how successful you may be, bad decisions can quickly leave you with nothing. Patti did continue to sing at local engagements from time to time but retired completely by the mid 1980s. In April 2007, EMI Records released “The Best of Patti Drew, Working On A Groovy Thing.” Comprised of 22 tracks from her solo career and three tracks as part of the Drew-Vels – including both the original “Tell Him” and the re-recording as a solo artist. She does not receive any royalties for any of her work.
On the North Shore, Patti is the talk of the town as it was a pleasant surprise to hear her voice on the song, “Tell Him” written by Carlton Black, in Lee Daniels, The Butler. I spoke with Patti again on August 22, 2013 and she shared, “I plan on seeing the movie this weekend. . .”
Sources: “Everybody Knows” Patti Drew was first published in the printed version of Shorefront Journal, Volume 4, Number 3, 2003. Shorefront oral history tapes: Patti Drew, recorded January 2000 by Dino Robinson. Additional information originated through various informal conversations between Patti and Dino throughout the years. Photos from the Shorefront Legacy Center archives, music collection, Patti Drew. Top pull quote from “Hard To Handle”. Second pull quote from “Working on a Groovy Thing”. Video © Dick Clark Productions, Inc. 17 second clip used with permission from a 30 second video provided by Dick Clark Productions, Inc. to Shorefront.