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Patricia Barber: Verse

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illustration of Patricia Barber and Natalie Cole

It’s hard to imagine a more striking study in musical contrasts than Patricia Barber and Natalie Cole. Both are singularly skilled at what they do, and both, I’ll safely bet, respect and, to a certain degree, envy the other’s professional capabilities. The essential difference is that Barber is an artist, Cole an entertainer. As such, the stage-shy Barber favors introspective didacticism, while Cole, blessed with an inbred aptitude for crowd-pleasing showmanship, prefers the brash brassiness of extroversion. Like the cities of their youths-Chicago and L.A., respectively-Barber is driven by cool, Midwestern level-headedness and Cole is ignited by Hollywood sizzle. Each has, in her own way, worked tremendously hard to achieve self-fulfilling success.

Barber’s early career struggles were of the bohemian starving-in-a-garret sort. Acceptance of her austere piano and vocal styles and her somber stage presence was slow in coming. Thanks, however, to word of mouth among the cognoscenti who congregated at the tiny (and sadly now defunct) Gold Coast Sardine Bar and the widening appeal of her self-produced debut album, Split, Barber’s popularity quickly spread beyond Chicago’s borders. The big labels came courting, but after a brief, claustrophobic dalliance with Polygram, Barber vowed never again to allow outside agendas to compromise her artistic integrity. And she never has. (Ask about her relationship with Blue Note and she’ll immediately explain that it is strictly a distribution and marketing deal. Her albums are produced through Chicago’s Premonition Records and she retains total creative control.)

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