A Taste of Rio: Pettis’ Latin-Tinged Band

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A Taste of Rio: Pettis’ Latin-Tinged Band

Chris Manson May 19, 2005 Issue

For anyone who likes poppy, jazzy music with a Latin beat, Stephanie Pettis is a dream come true. A Panama City native who returned to the area just recently, Pettis has been everywhere from Atlanta—where the original incarnation of her band Rio recorded the 1998 album We Were Dancing—to Florence, Italy, where she studied opera.

Pettis’ mother was an opera singer who introduced her daughter to voice and piano lessons. “Strictly classical,” Pettis remembers. Later, Pettis studied music at Florida State University and headed to the big city to pursue her musical directions

She speaks enthusiastically of her band mates. The Panhandle incarnation of long-running Rio contains several musicians she can pick from including guitarists Ron Rogers and Steve Cosper, bassists Tom Latenser and David Goldflies,  drummers Charles Pagano and Steve McCraw, and conga virtuoso Jimmy Medina. “In the past we did USO tours in Europe. The shows on the aircraft carriers were always amazing,” she says. “They’d helicopter us to the show along with our equipment.”

“It’s taken awhile, but Latin music is starting to become more popular. I like to expose people to it. I take American songs and put a Latin feel to it. And they dig it.” Indeed, the We Were Dancing CD’s—available at Pettis’ local gigs—contain imaginative re-workings of favorites like Ain’t No Sunshine and Hang on Sloopy.

“I sing in about five languages. When you’re studying opera, you really have to take care of your voice. I still do classical gigs with flute and guitar, but for concerts it’s high energy Latin and regular jazz.” Not limited to jazz per se, Pettis is quick to note, but rather what she calls “an eclectic mix.”

Pettis is also active in the Panama City Music Association, an organization that presents classical concerts, ballets, and opera. “A lot of people come from Destin and Fort Walton Beach,” she notes. “I serve on the talent committee and get to travel to showcases. I get to see these 15-minute showcases from all sorts of great acts, vocal and instrumental. Small orchestras from Europe, operas—I love going to these things. We mostly book acts along the classical lines, but we hear everything at these showcases.”

In addition to keyboards and vocals, Pettis is an accomplished flutist. Jazz legend Herbie Mann was an early influence. “That was the first time I heard it not classically done. That’s when I realized I could do jazz and improvise.”

When it comes to singers that captured Pettis’ heart, narrowing down the list isn’t quite so easy. “There are so many good singers I like. You end up using different people’s stuff without realizing it,” she says. “But Ella Fitzgerald made me realize I could go wild on my scat singing. I love to scat. It’s hard not to overdo it. I use yodeling in some of my scatting. Yodel-scat. I think I’m the first person who ever did that. While I’m scatting, I’ll just go into yodel-scat.”

Recent appearances by Rio at Destin Commons’ First Friday Concert Series and a Mother’s Day performance at Baytowne Wharf have been warmly received. “People say ‘Wow! I had no idea there was this kind of act here!’” Pettis gushes. “It’s a real professional act, a mixture of high energy Brazilian and Latin, but also standard stuff, party songs like La Bamba and Hot! Hot! Hot! I’m really into ethnic music. I feel lucky to have been exposed to it, and I use it in my styling. I combine Gypsy, Spanish, Greek, and Eastern European material. Some of it is so unique. The band is so versatile and professional they can do anything.”

This vivacious performer also hopes to get back into the studio soon to record the long-awaited follow-up to We Were Dancing. “For the next album I’m trying to find songs that have been really popular the last few years and see which ones lend themselves to a Latin flavor,” Pettis says. “You can do just about any song to a Latin beat.”

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