Patti Austin is among many ‘Taking the Stage’ to inaugurate a Smithsonian museum

Jan 3, 2017

In an all-star cast of a major event, it’s always nice to get the opening spot.

Grammy-winning singer Patti Austin had that position last September at the inaugural ceremony for the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Staged at the city’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the evening was captured for the new ABC special “Taking the Stage: African American Music and Stories That Changed America,“ airing Thursday, Jan. 12.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama were present for the celebration, whose talent roster was an entertainment who’s-who. Among the many others included are Oprah Winfrey, Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones and his daughter Rashida, Tom Hanks, Angela Bassett, Samuel L. Jackson, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, Gladys Knight, Jamie Foxx, Mary J. Blige, Usher, Christina Aguilera, John Legend, Herbie Hancock, Dave Chappelle, Savion Glover, Dave Grohl, Octavia Spencer, Ne-Yo, Doug E. Fresh and Chris Tucker.

“That this was about our history, and that we were having the opportunity to herald that musically and creatively, was so powerful,” Austin says. “I had whiplash for the first 15 minutes, because if there was one person to my left I hadn’t seen for 20 years, there was somebody to my right who I’d just worked with two years ago. There’s a saying where I come from that if you hug somebody, you say, ‘Press my laundry.’ Well, my laundry was well-pressed by the end of that night! There was just some magical stuff happening.”

One of the main perks for Austin in doing “Taking the Stage” was the chance to be among the first to explore the new museum: “I saw it under the auspices of the most magnificent guide you could ever hope for, and it happened to be a seven-year-old girl who’s the daughter of Dave Chappelle. I had never met Dave, and he’s one of the few people I’ve ever wanted to meet, because I admire his humor and what he tries to do with what he says.

“I have this furry cover for my iPhone, and his daughter fell in love with it and grabbed it and said, ‘Let’s go!’ When you walk in the building, there are two escalators, and you can decide how you want to get our history – from the bottom up or the top down. And of course, Dave Chappelle’s daughter said, ‘Let’s start from the top down,’ so that’s what we did.”

Another major lure for Austin to participate in the special was the involvement of Quincy Jones, the showbiz icon who’s an executive producer of the program along with variety-show veteran Don Mischer. Austin says Jones is her “godfather. He’s family, so everything takes on a different kind of hue when he’s there, and I would say it’s more about being family than about the music or the work at this point. He calls, I answer; that’s how we roll. It’s always going to be high quality with the best people, and the most fun you can have with your clothes on. That’s why I show up for the guy.”

With the timing of its telecast, “Taking the Stage” will mark one of the last appearances by the Obamas before they leave the White House, and Austin reflects that “the President’s body language had me rolling. A lot of people weren’t paying attention, but every time I’d see him on camera, I’d go, ‘Look at how he’s sitting in that chair.’ It was like it was the most comfortable chair ever. If he could have put his leg over the arm, he would have. He was like, ‘Yeah. That’s right. This is us. It’s our day.’ And it was just awesome.”

Known for such hits as “Baby, Come to Me” and “It’s Gonna Be Special” — plus tribute albums honoring Ella Fitzgerald and George and Ira Gershwin — Austin appreciates having had her early look at the museum, and she’s looking forward to going back when she has more time. “I tell everybody that if they really want to see that museum, it’s a week,” she says. “I would give each floor a day, because there’s so much information and so much memorabilia and so many stories. It spans every aspect of the African American experience.”

Dave Chappelle appears on the new special “Taking the Stage: African American Music and Stories That Changed America,“ airing Thursday, Jan. 12 on ABC

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