America's RORY PARTIN sings crooner-style standards with a jazz big band and is also very much a passionate Christian, as Mike Rimmer reports.
Rory Partin is one of my favourite people. I originally met him because he is the husband of singer Jeni Varnadeau and immediately loved his dry quick wit, delivered in the southern drawl of a man from Louisiana. Over the years we have engaged in what can only be described as a cultural exchange. He has taught me the ways of the south and I have explained English customs to him. We have always disagreed about politics!
It's a Tuesday night in August and Rory is in full flow talking on Rimmerama about his new album 'The Very Thought Of You'. I am teasing him because the album is a collection of big band standards of songs that have been sung by the Rat Pack, Nat King Cole and others, with Partin's crooning holding his own in such illustrious company. But hardly Christian music I point out. Quick as a flash he tries to explain that "The Very Thought Of You" is a spiritual song because he was thinking of Jesus as he was singing it! Hmmmm. I rise to the challenge, fling down the gauntlet and start rapidly firing off song titles as he immediately responds with amusing pseudo spiritual interpretations, much to the amusement of Tony Cummings and myself. He manages to keep this going through a number of songs on the album. Apparently "(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66", he says it's about all the Pentecostal churches along that famous American highway and "Let's Fall In Love" is of course really about getting saved and falling in love with Jesus. He is finally floored when I throw "Luck Be My Lady" at him. He flounders until Tony Cummings quips that originally it was going to be called "Providential Election Be My Lady" but the words wouldn't scan.
When writing about Christian music, the Cross Rhythms policy has always been that it's the heart of the artist rather than the content of the music which counts, we have always written about artists working in the mainstream and that's where Rory Partin fits into the picture. Although I have to confess that I confused Tony Cummings when I gave him a copy of 'The Very Thought Of You'. A few weeks later, he was on the phone wondering why he'd got an album of big band renditions of mainstream standards to review.
Rory himself explains what he's doing, "I'm not a 'Christian artist'. I'm a Christian and an artist but I don't do music for the Church necessarily, what would be labelled as 'Christian'. I run an 18 to 20-piece big band. The album is a bunch of standards that I heard growing up. I grew up down in Louisiana and heard a lot of jazz and stuff. A lot of times there'd be Nat King Cole playing at the house, or Dean Martin, or Bing Crosby and other stuff like Mahalia Jackson, Ray Charles and a lot of soul. The two big things were the crooners from the big band side and then also a lot of soul and R&B."
Although this is his first release, I've previously heard Rory demo his music and it's been more on the soulful R&B side with a voice as expressive as a Michael McDonald. So listening to him crooning is a little bit of a shock. He explains, "There's a little bit of soul in a couple of the songs but not as you would consider soul to be soul." At times he even sounds like Frank Sinatra. "It's funny," he reflects, "because I didn't listen to Frank growing up. I didn't really listen to Frank until maybe seven or 10 years ago. It was always Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin and Perry Como I guess. So yeah, a little Frankie comes out in it. Somebody told me, 'Hey, you sound like a mix of Mel Torme and Frank Sinatra but with your own kind of original sound.' Whatever that means."
He pauses to ponder this compliment afresh and I ask him to describe what a show with his big band is like. He shares, "At the live gigs it's a lot of fun because I won't just do big band standards. Since I have this fantastic band, I go out there and do the big band and jazz and swing but I'll also do soul standards like "Try A Little Tenderness" with Otis Redding's arrangement or Al Green's "Let's Stay Together". Stuff like that. Just songs that I love. What I would love to be is the Ray Charles of the New Millennium! In the sense that Ray, he did so many different styles and they were all genuine because genuinely he loved those styles. Country music was also a big influence growing up. So I sing things that I love. There's so much that I love and they're all authentic and genuine when they come from me because they're real influences in my life. I'm not posing. So it's really cool at my concerts to be able to do all those things. To try and give a nice concert but to be able to mix it up and do more than just one style."
Partin has a very busy life. He books and administers the big band and leads them as they tour throughout the States. He is also part of his wife's band travelling with Varnadeau all over the world, often graciously suffering people's assumption that he's called Mr Varnadeau!
Rory explains where his faith fits into the musical thing that he does. "I think that as Christians, we're called to be like Christ. Christ in the Gospels talked to us about being salt and light. One of the big issues that I have with the Church at large in the States right now is we've turned inside. Growing up you would hear preachers from the pulpit say, 'You shouldn't have any friends that are non-Christians because they'll influence you to do bad things.' And, 'You shouldn't do this. You shouldn't do that. You should protect yourself. You should always come to church and this should always be your main thing.' But I just think that's so wrong! I mean, we're called to be IN the world! Not OF the world. So I want to be in the world, doing what I do and bringing glory to God because he's given me this ability to do what I do. I'm using my abilities well. I'm using my 'talents' well, hopefully. And I'm increasing them. Hey, that's gonna glorify God, being salt and light out in the world!"
So how did he become a big band leader? "Back in '93 or so, when I was in college, I had a teacher who was auditioning to become a singer with a big band and he suggested I came along and auditioned. So he set it up and I went and auditioned and ended up getting the gig over him! So I travelled with this big band called The Bo Thorpe Orchestra and that's actually the band that I have now. I ended up taking over the band. Basically I was with the band, found out Bo wanted to sell it and got together the funds.
The history wasn't quite as simple as that. He remembers, "When I first joined the band they hired me as a singer and since I was paying my way through college on my trumpet, although I was a vocal major, I started playing trumpet with the band also. So when I left as a singer they hired me as a trumpet player. Then I left completely and came back to the band. I told my wife one week, 'You know what would be nice? To be singing with the band again.' It had been a few years since I had. That same week the contractor called and said, 'Hey our singer left. You want to sing with us again?' Finally the next year I ended up purchasing the band."
So was he ever tempted to pursue a career in Christian music? "Yeah. You know when I first started, for years I sang Christian music. Back in 1990 I got a job singing backup for a gospel artist - Larnelle Harris, who at the time was in his heyday here in the States. He's a wonderful man with an incredible voice! So I travelled with him for just over three years, all over the world and had a wonderful time."
"After that I was still singing backup for different artists and doing some session work. Mostly gospel stuff and Christian stuff. But I felt a larger vision for my life from God than just continuing to focus in on the Church and on this industry that the Church is building which was really strange to me. I'd been in gospel music for three years, full time, and I'd seen maybe one person come to Christ. And I thought, well this is really strange. Isn't this supposed to be what's happening all the time? So I thought, you know what? There's got to be a better way. Not to take anything away from Larnelle; he had a wonderful ministry, to the Church. That's what he did. So I understand that. But I felt that I needed to be more of a light in the world than that."
And so pray for Rory as he works to hire musicians and arrangers and take his music and shine his light out into the world, crooning with the best of them. He's a Christian called to be an entertainer and sharing his faith with fellow musicians, promoters and fans, one relationship at a time.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.