Family & Companions
An R&B diva for over four decades, Patti LaBelle's multi-octave voice, which could soar from a funky roar to an ear-piercing soprano within the same song, was the anchor behind a string of chart-topping hits. LaBelle began her career as a teenager with the Philadelphia-based girl group the Ordettes, which later became a minor success as the Blue Belles. They traded pop orchestration for a funk-rock hybrid as Labelle, scoring a No. 1 hit in 1974 with the brazen "Lady Marmalade." After the group's demise in 1978, LaBelle struggled to keep her solo career afloat until scoring a string of hits in the early 1980s, most notably "New Attitude" and "Stir It Up" for the "Beverly Hills Cop" soundtrack (1984). She continued to generate chart hits in the 1990s while enjoying her status as a show-stopping live performer at a variety of events, where, for better or worse, she often outshone her fellow performers. LaBelle also enjoyed a modest acting career on television and stage and in films, but music remained her most consistent showcase. Though her recorded output slowed in the 2000s, LaBelle remained a force of nature in concert, where her voice continued to amaze and inspire with its full range of soul.
Born Patricia Louise Holte in Philadelphia, PA on May 24, 1944, she was one of four daughters by railroad worker and singer Henry Holte, or "Holt," and Bertha Holte, a domestic. Her childhood was marred by marital discord between her parents and her sexual abuse at the age of seven, both of which caused her to become shy and withdrawn. LaBelle found solace in music, developing not only a taste for jazz and R&B at an early age but a remarkable singing voice that she first put to use in the local Baptist church. She discovered pop and doo-wop in her teen years, which inspired her to form her own vocal group, the Ordettes, in 1958. The quartet, which included Sundray Tucker, later of the Three Degrees and Stevie Wonder's Third Generation, lost half of its lineup the following year. Labelle recruited singers Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash from another local group, the Del-Capris. Tucker would leave the act in 1961 due to school troubles, prompting Labelle to bring aboard another friend, Cindy Birdsong, to complete the lineup.
With the help of manager Bernard Montague, the Ordettes landed an audition with Newtown Records chief Harold Robinson. Though initially unimpressed with the group, LaBelle's voice convinced him to sign them. Billed as the Blue Belles, the group recorded a version of "I Sold My Heart to the Junkman," a well-traveled number previously waxed by the Silhouettes, among others. Unbeknownst to them, Robinson had also commissioned a version from The Starlets, a Chicago-based girl group. When The Starlets' single dropped in 1962, reaching No. 13 on the R&B charts, the label credited the song to the Blue Belles, prompting a lawsuit by The Starlets' management. The snafu had a chilling effect on both groups: The Starlets called it quits a year after the release, while the Blue Belles were forced to stay out of the studio until the furor died down. To support themselves, the act made regular appearances at New York's famed Apollo Theater, where they soon became audience favorites.
A second round of controversy surfaced in 1963 with a lawsuit filed against Robinson by a record executive who alleged that another previously established group had laid claim to the "Blue Belles" name prior to the emergence of Labelle's group. Robinson quickly countered by changing Patricia Holte to Patti La Belle and her group to Patti La Belle (later LaBelle) and Her Blue Belles. The group left Newtown in 1964, due perhaps to the concurrent rounds of bad press generated by their association with the label, and signed with Cameo-Parkway Records. There, the Blue Belles scored a Top 40 single with "Down the Aisle (The Wedding Song)," which provided the earliest showcase for LaBelle's future trademark, a piercing whistle register vocal.
The Blue Belles left Cameo-Parkway for Atlantic Records in 1965, where they were expected to finally blossom under the stewardship of label president Ahmet Ertegun. To the surprise of many, the group failed to produce any hits beyond a 1966 cover of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." The following year, Cindy Birdsong, who had been serving as a temporary replacement for Florence Ballard in The Supremes, left the Blue Belles to join the Motown act on a fulltime basis. However, both groups soon found their girl group sound at odds with the rising popularity of funkier female vocalists like Aretha Franklin. While The Supremes managed to keep a foothold on the charts until the end of the decade, the Blue Belles were reduced to working the chitlin circuit of black clubs in the South and Midwest until 1970, when they were dropped from the Atlantic roster. Shortly thereafter, longtime manager Bernard Montague would follow suit to devote his attention to rising soul acts like the Delfonics.
On the advice of one of their admirers, British blue-eyed soul diva Dusty Springfield, the Blue Belles signed with her manager, Vicki Wickham, who also produced the popular U.K. variety series "Ready Steady Go!" (ITV, 1963-66). She suggested a series of radical changes for the group, including a name change to the simpler, more direct Labelle and a sound that equally embraced R&B and rock and roll. Despite Patti LaBelle's protestations, the group tested out their new sound in London before returning to the United States in 1971. They soon signed with Track Records, a subsidiary of Warner Bros., and landed a prized opening slot for The Who. The formidable rock group's manager, Kit Lambert, later produced their eponymous debut album (1971), which immediately set them apart from their soul and funk peers with full-bodied R&B takes on the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses" and Carole King's "You've Got a Friend." They were soon hired by producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff to back folk singer Laura Nyro on her 1971 album Gonna Take a Miracle and subsequent tours.
LaBelle's own recording career endured some growing pains in the early 1970s. Their stage act began to take on a futuristic look inspired in part by the glam fashions of David Bowie and Marc Bolan. Their song choices also grew bolder, including covers of The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" and a take on Thunderclap Newman's "Something in the Air" that segued into Gil Scott-Heron's fiery "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." Despite these eye-catching moments, the group failed to sell many records. But an opening slot on a 1974 tour with the Rolling Stones and a label switch to Epic improved their fortunes.
By 1974, the group teamed with veteran New Orleans producer Allen Toussaint to record Nightbirds, which featured their provocative single "Lady Marmalade," a song they introduced at their history-making appearance at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. The song hit the top of the Billboard Hot 100, and established them as a vital link in the funk and disco movement of the period. Unfortunately, Labelle was unable to reproduce the success of Nightbirds with subsequent releases. Hendryx suffered a nervous breakdown on stage during a 1976 tour, prompting Patti LaBelle to urge her bandmates to bring the group to an end in order to preserve their friendships and health. Labelle called it quits in 1977, after which all three members launched their solo careers.
Patti LaBelle's solo career followed a pattern similar to that of her tenure in Labelle. She received critical praise for her self-titled solo debut in 1977, but none of the albums three singles, including its best-known song, "You Are My Friend," broke into the Hot 100. After three subsequent flops between 1978 and 1980, she moved to the Philadelphia International label, which failed to improve her fortunes. LaBelle found greater success as a live act, where her vocal prowess continued to astonish audiences. She also enjoyed a popular turn as an actress in the Broadway revival of "Your Arm's Too Short to Box with God" opposite soul legend Al Green, though her performance was dogged by accusations of showboating, a criticism she would endure throughout her career.
Her recording career received a boost with a 1983 Grammy nomination for the Top 20 single "The Best is Yet to Come." A year later, she returned to the top of the R&B charts with 1984's "If You Only Knew," the same year she made a strong film debut in "A Soldier's Story." LaBelle's turn as blues singer Big Mary led to an offer from director Steven Spielberg to play Shug Avery in his 1985 film version of "The Color Purple." She refused the part based on sexual content, but later regretted her decision after seeing Margaret Avery win an Oscar for her turn in the role. But LaBelle quickly bounced back with the singles "New Attitude" and "Stir It Up," which helped to make the "Beverly Hills Cop" (1984) soundtrack a bestseller. "New Attitude" shot to No. 17 on the singles chart, and served as her re-introduction to a pop audience that largely knew her only as the lead voice on "Lady Marmalade."
A batch of critical bad press over perceived grandstanding - when she would hit the highest of notes, leaving her singing partners in the dust - on both "Motown Returns to the Apollo" (NBC, 1985) and at the Live Aid concert in 1985 were quickly overshadowed by the success of her eighth solo album, The Winner in You. Its polished lead single, "On My Own," which featured former Doobie Brothers member Michael McDonald more than keeping up with his duet partner, gave Labelle her first No. 1 single since "Marmalade," and preceded a string of well-received solo efforts in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including 1991's Burnin', which won a Grammy for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance.
LaBelle soon devoted her attention to her acting career, which was focused primarily on television series like "A Different Word" (NBC, 1987-1993). She took top billing for her own series, "Out All Night" (NBC, 1992), but the series, co-produced by Quincy Jones, failed to last a full season. After performing the halftime show at the 1993 Super Bowl, LaBelle returned to music, scoring gold albums with 1994's Gems and 1997's Flame, as well as a second Grammy for her 1998 live album One Night Only!. Following a much-publicized divorce from her husband and manager, Armstead Edwards, she stayed away from the spotlight until 2004, when she released the Top 20 album When A Woman Loves for her new label, Def Soul Classics. However, she fell out of favor with the label in 2006 following a public dispute with label chief Antonio "L.A." Reid, and moved to Bungalo for The Gospel According to Patti LaBelle, which topped the gospel charts in 2006.
Two years later, LaBelle reunited with Sarah Dash and Nona Hendryx for Back to Now (2008), the first new Labelle record in over four decades. It broke the Top 50 on the Billboard albums chart and featured a take on Cole Porter's "Miss Otis Regrets" that was originally recorded in 1971. She released another solo album, Miss Patti's Christmas, in 2008. For much of the early new millennium, Labelle divided her time between music and a variety of side projects, including a lifestyle show, "Livin' It Up with Patti LaBelle" (TV-One, 2003-06), numerous cookbooks, and fashion accessories. In 2010, she joined the cast of the award-winning Broadway musical "Fela!" and remained with the show until the end of its run in 2011. That same year, she earned headlines for her Lifetime Achievement Award from the BET Awards, as well as an appearance at a 9/11 tribute, where she stepped away from her microphone during a performance of "Two Steps Away" yet continued to be heard by the crowd, which included President Barack Obama. These achievements were somewhat dampened by press reports of a scuffle between LaBelle's bodyguards and a West Point cadet at a Houston airport. Later that same year, a New York woman filed a lawsuit against LaBelle for reportedly hurling water and insults at her and her child over a verbal altercation in an apartment lobby.
By Paul Gaita