Avid fans of femme pop will be familiar with Patty Michaels from the trio of excellent records she released in the mid-1960s. But those discs marked a mere moment in a showbiz career that began before she could walk, and continued into the 1980s. Patty's CV includes Broadway, Vegas, TV, movies and bread wrappers, as John Grecco and Phil Milstein reveal in this Spectropop exclusive.
Patty Michaels began her show business career at an age when most kids are still getting acquainted with mother's milk. "I started modeling when I was about five weeks old," the Astoria, Queens native recently told Spectropop. "By the time I was two, I was the top baby model" at the prestigious Harry Conover Agency.
Through her modeling work Patty caught the eye of Sunbeam Bakeries, who were in search of a "living mascot". Thus, in 1955, at age 5, she was selected as Little Miss Sunbeam, her likeness slapped on millions of bread wrappers throughout the greater New York area. In addition Little Miss Sunbeam was sent out on innumerable personal appearances, usually arriving, whether at supermarket opening or hospital visit, in a customized red Thunderbird convertible. For many of these appearances Patty was joined by another member of Sunbeam's promotional team, the clown Sir Clacky Wack. Sir Clacky Wack was embodied by Edwin Alberian, who'd previously played another clown, Clarabelle, on The Howdy Doody Show (after Bob Keeshan, the originator of the role, left to launch his own kiddie series, Captain Kangaroo). "I was afraid of Sir Clacky Wack," Patty recalls, but then again "I was scared of all clowns." Fact is, "he was a very nice man."
Although it doesn't quite rank with former child star Jackie Cooper's claims of psychological torture at the hands of his producers to get him to cry on cue, as she grew Patty began chafing at her handlers' strict oversight of her public image. "I left being Little Miss Sunbeam when my manager yelled at me for eating chicken with my fingers at a restaurant. I told my mother I didn't want to do it anymore and she said I didn't have to, so I quit."
Patty's next gig would not be as a model/spokeskid but rather as a Broadway actress/singer. After four rounds of intensive auditions, in 1959 she was selected for the role of Louisa von Trapp in the original Broadway production of Rodgers & Hammerstein's The Sound Of Music, acting alongside the likes of Mary Martin, Theodore Bikel, Lauri Peters and Jon Voigt. She held the gig for the next four years. "The Sound Of Music was so nice," Patty remembers. "We were like a big family. Sometimes after the matinee shows we'd go ice skating at Rockefeller Center, or go out to a restaurant and all have dinner together."
From her Sound Of Music success Patty found herself in demand on television, and appeared on such top-rated variety shows as those of Sid Caesar, Jackie Gleason and Garry Moore. She also put in a season as a regular on Sing Along With Mitch, hosted by moonlighting Columbia A&R exec Mitch Miller.
Patty's life revolved around show business, even down to the school she attended. The Quintanos School for Young Performers was a Fame-type academy in Manhattan, and Patty's classmates there included Bernadette Peters, Mary Weiss of The Shangri-Las, Gregory Hines, Mitch Margo and Jay Siegel of The Tokens, actress Nancy Allen, singer/actress Marcia Strassman and singer Paul Jabara, with whom Patty became especially close. "Paul used to wait sometimes when we'd leave or go to lunch. Then, when there was a big crowd of people on the street, he'd go into a whole routine singing Barbra Streisand songs. He embarrassed me so much I'd try to sneak out sometimes."
In 1965, now age 15, Patty's love for music led her to pursue a recording career, and once again her talents brought her quick success. "Epic was the first label I auditioned for, and they signed me." Her first release for them (on Columbia, actually) was "Mrs. Johnny" b/w "They're Dancing Now." Produced by Helen Miller - an Aldon staff writer and producer best known as co-author of such hits as "Foolish Little Girl" and "It Hurts To Be In Love" - and co-written by Miller and Pam Sawyer (the latter under the name "P. Mersey"), the top deck is a frothy girl group gem. Intro'd, in the now-classic Shangri-Las style, with a whispered girls' room mini-dialogue, the sentiment of lines such as "Then and there he changed my life / I knew someday I'd be his wife" are pure cheerleader fluff, but Miller's tracks sparkle, and Patty's singing perfectly captures the song's ambivalence between adolescent dreaminess and grown-up desire.
As hot as "Mrs. Johnny" is, though, it is the flip, Miller and Howie Greenfield's "They're Dancing Now", that rules the day. Highlighted by crackling snare, stomping bottom, beckoning horns, rivers of handclaps and swaths of reverb, the track creates a thrilling, uptown-at-night ambiance. Patty's voice is a bit lost amid the clamor and echo, but here again she exudes both confidence and vulnerability, as her character sits on the sidelines watching her intended boogalooing with another chick, until finally getting her chance to cut in and win him away.
Patty's family has always been an especially close one, a fact Miller put to good use by bringing her sister Dale in on background vocals and their brother Bob on some of the percussion, including joining in on those handclaps. To promote the record Patty did the rounds of the pop music TV programs, including Shivaree, Clay Cole's New York-based dance party, Dick Clark's Where The Action Is, the Casey Kasem-hosted Shebang and Shindig!
Alas, the record failed to chart. Patty's follow-up came in the spring of 1966, this time on Epic proper. With both songs arranged and batoned by LeRoy Glover and produced by the team of Ted Cooper and Bob Morgan, the plug side was the original version of Martha Sharp's pseudofeminist "Born A Woman." The team delivered a more swingin' take than the one Sandy Posey would that summer ride to a #12 Billboard position, with less emphasis on message and more on fun. Once again, though, the flip exceeds its topside, and "Something Happens (Deep Inside Me)" remains to this day Patty's signature tune. With a tense track supported by siren-like violin wails, the record pulls out all the stops, allowing her to draw up nearly to a full Yuro-esque crescendo. The Wes Farrell-Roy Alfred tune is only the story of an incendiary smoocher, but Patty this time takes the role of a fully-grown woman, and finally puts the question of will-she-or-won't-she to bed.
Despite their quality, though, Patty's records still weren't selling, and she believes she now knows the reason why. "My manager was terrible. He really didn't do anything for me. He did more for his other artists," in particular The Cowsills, whose career was starting to take off around this time. Patty's final recording experience came in 1967, again for Epic. The A-side, "I Prayed For A Boy (Like You)", is a torchy supper-club item reclaimed from an unreleased Brenda Holloway take of a Stevie Wonder-Clarence Paul number. Yet again, though, it is Patty's flip that shines even brighter. Produced again by Ted Cooper, this time overseeing Herb Bernstein's charts and stick, "Lavender Girl", by unknown writer Kathy Legan, intros with awesome, Drifters-ish tympani thuds, crosscut with stings of electric guitar. The lyric positions the singer's mood midway between the metaphorical meanings of the colors green and blue, thus arriving at "Lavender Girl". The melody evokes, of all things, "Oh Holy Night", but there's little XMasy in Patty's ominous whispering of the title in response to the refrain, nor in the skipping rhythm that propels the song's anxious bridge. The net effect is two fleeting minutes of girl group ecstasy.
While things don't often go the way they should, either in life in general or in the record business in specific, it remains a headscratcher that all three of Patty Michaels' records could stiff, and that her recording career could end as abruptly and as completely as it did. It is especially criminal, though, that in this Archival Age her records should still be so relatively unknown, with "They're Dancing Now", included in Ace's Where The Girls Are, Vol. 5, the only one of her six sides to ever be reissued.
Like most singers in the mid-'60s, though, Patty's concentration was more on live performance than studio work. She was a favorite of popular New York DJ Murray the K, and appeared in several of his large concerts, including one at Shea Stadium. She shared stages with the likes of The Ronettes, The Shangri-Las and Neil Diamond, and recalls the latter once serenading her backstage while her mom washed and set her hair. Paul McCartney, who'd seen Patty on one of Murray's TV shows, invited her to visit him in his suite at the Sheraton following one of The Beatles' own Shea Stadium appearances, and there she partied with Paul and his little combo, along with The Supremes and Rolling Stones. The event was later spun by Patty's publicist into a 16 magazine feature on "my date with Paul McCartney".
Despite the efforts of such worthy suitors Patty saved her greatest affections for Bobby Sherman, who she met on the set of Shindig!, on which he was a regular. With their respective careers based on opposite coasts, however, the courtship was destined to be a brief one. Still, she remembers fondly the days when Sherman, whose Shindig! image as a milk-drinking gentleman was, she says, not far from his off-screen self, took her on dates not to nightclubs nor the Hollywood party circuit but rather to Disneyland.
Frustrated by her recording situation and her problems with management, in search of new career opportunities Patty next struck out for Las Vegas. She soon found herself playing some key Sin City showrooms - opening, for instance, for the likes of The Righteous Brothers and Don Rickles at the Sahara - and so in 1967 she and her family decided to resettle there. With rave reviews and packed houses it wasn't long before the Sands, the Sahara's chief competitor, lured her over to their house. There she became a true Vegas sensation, with such stars as Dean Martin, Liberace, Jack Jones, Tom Jones and the King himself, Elvis Presley, spotted leading the standing ovations. Sammy Davis, Jr., in fact, caught Patty's act so often that he began joining her and her mom for nightly dinners.
Her stints in Vegas led Patty to other opportunities, including a gig at a Beverly Hills joint, Ye Little Club, owned by Joan Rivers, as well as at Playboy Clubs on both coasts. The latter in turn led to an appearance on Burt Reynolds' brief-lived TV detective show, Hawk. Further bookings found her performing at the Acapulco Hilton for a year, and, while south of the border, she moonlighted as a regular on Mexico's top-rated TV variety show Siempre En Domingo. Following her Mexican sojourn Patty returned to Vegas, then moved on for a while to Hollywood. There she landed a small part in Tom Laughlin's ill-fated 1977 movie Billy Jack Goes To Washington, appeared as one of "Big Rosie Greenbaum"'s friends on Laverne & Shirley, and played a stint at the Huntington Hartford Theater in Hollywood as the wife of Tony Clifton, Andy Kaufman's flagrantly obnoxious lounge lizard character. Patty's daughter Wendy was even part of the Kaufman cast, playing the happy couple's daughter Wendy Clifton.
Moving back, finally, to Las Vegas, Patty married and, in the early 1980s,
took a break from performing to raise her daughter. Recently online
for the first time, Patty was delighted to discover that some of her old
records are now in demand among collectors, and that fans still enjoy
hearing them. "I'm ready to get back to work," she enthuses.
"I'm thinking about putting a group together to do a girl group act."
She adds, "I was so happy to hear that people like my records. I
was so happy, I could just cry."
Thanks to Ian Chapman and Martin Roberts for their assistance with this article, and thanks especially to Patty Michaels.
PRESENTED BY PHIL CHAPMAN AND MICK PATRICK