''The very first album I made was with Nelson Riddle and was very, very similar to what Linda Ronstadt has done now,'' says Sue Raney. ''I did all the old standards -- and that was in 1959.'' Which goes a long way toward proving the old saw about being in the right place at the right time. With her album ''What's New,'' Ronstadt, who by her own admission in the current issue of down beat magazine is no jazz singer, last year found herself riding the crest of a wave that has brought back the old standards of the Gershwin/Cole Porter era. But in the early 1960s, Raney's jazz skills were all but unmarketable.
''When you were just starting out,'' she observes, ''the record companies and your people and your agent all wanted you to get a hit record. That was the big deal.'' But it was now rock's turn at mass appeal. ''In those days 'jazz performer' was not a label to put on yourself,'' Raney says. ''And of course record companies were not about to lose money making jazz records unless you were one of those people who had always been in that.'' Raney's collection of standards went nowhere, so she worked the pop vein in clubs here and abroad through the '60s and made frequent appearances on the TV shows of Bob Hope, Mike Douglas and others.
''It really got to me after a while,'' she recalls. ''I just got tired of traveling. Female singers weren't doing all that well, so I stopped around 1970 and went completely into commercials.'' Over the years Raney's voice has been heard nationally on TV and radio spots for VISA, Sears, Orange Crush, Schirmer sausage and many other products. If she had it to do all over again, she says, she would go with her ''gut feelings'' and say to everyone, '''Jazz is the music I love and I'm going to stick with it.' If I'd been able to do that, I think I would have been happier and perhaps wouldn't have gotten disenchanted.''
A change of heart returned Raney to the jazz audience in the late '70s, when she began appearing at Dante's and other clubs in the los Angeles area. She began recording again two years ago with an album on Discovery devoted to the songs of Johnny Mandel. Those older standards, along with some newer material, will be heard again tonight at Cates, where the 44-year-old vocalist will stay through June 29 in her first appearance in the East since the '60s. Pianist Bob Florence, with whom she is currently recording, will accompany her.
The Albuquerque-raised Raney started singing when she was 4, encouraged and instructed by her mother, a former band singer. ''By the time she got married, my mother was looking for one of her kids to be a singer. My sister and I were playing with our dolls and she heard me sing, and my mom said, 'I'm going to give her some lessons.''' By the time she was 12, Raney had her own radio program, and two years later she did three 15-minute shows a week on local TV. She appeared regularly on country music shows with Glen Campbell. Her chief influences, along with the country sounds of her native state, had been Nat Cole and Rosemary Clooney, but at 16 Raney began to check out Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, because she ''wanted to learn how to swing. Those earlydays of listening to jazz gave me a sense of time and tempo, deviation and from melody and so forth.''
Sure to be included in any evening's program at Cates tk and next are several baseball songs, including Michael Frank's ''Love Is Just Like Baseball'' and Dave Frishberg's ''Van Lingle Mungo.'' Raney's interest in the sport goes back to her childhood, when he father would hang a portable radio from a backyard tree to tune in the afternoon game. Raney regularly sings the national anthem for the Los Angeles Dodgers, her record of ''Dodger Blue'' is in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and her new love interest -- and flugelhorn player on her latest album -- Carmen Fanzone, used to play third base for the Chicago Cubs.
''I feel lucky that I found a baseball player,'' Raney says, ''and, I think the man of my dreams. Of course, he's not a Dodger fan -- Cub fans are diehards.''