Patti LaBelle, photographed at her home in Villanova, Pa., on Oct. 14, 2020. Gucci dress, $3,980, gucci.com, and LaBelle’s own earrings, bracelet and ring.Credit...Photograph by Hank Willis Thomas and Deb Willis. Styled by Alex Harrington
Hank Willis Thomas and
PATTI LABELLE’S superpower is a spellbinding scream — a refined shriek, really — that makes hairs stand at attention, bones shiver and spines twist. It was 1975 when I first heard it. I was 10, in my parents’ South Bronx tenement, where the radio station WBLS — offering “the total Black experience in sound,” as the promos said — was always on during our morning rush to school. That’s when it hit me — “Creole Lady Marmalaaaaade,” the last word of those titular lyrics, which debuted the year before, filling the air. My first Patti LaBelle moment. There have been many such moments since — like hearing “Love, Need and Want You” (1983), which I put on the very first slow-jam tape I made as a teen — and with each one, the only logical reaction is to throw up your hands, kick off your shoes and, on occasion, break out in a praise dance.
There’s no such thing as a passive response to a Patti LaBelle song — nor should there be. LaBelle came to prominence in the 1970s, a decade that was defined by the greatest generation of divas of soul and gospel music: Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Shirley Caesar, Gladys Knight and Inez Andrews, as well as the relative youngsters Chaka Khan and Natalie Cole. But there was something so relatable about LaBelle, who reminded you of your favorite church soloist or the girl at the high school talent show who could saaang, not just sing. LaBelle has been described as the Godmother of Soul, a master of one of America’s classic art forms, but that moniker ultimately fails to capture the singularity of her musical prowess: Perhaps more than any living performer, LaBelle sits at the intersections of soul and gospel, the former a genre that is indebted to the latter. Gospel is a form of Black religious music that emerged in the 1930s courtesy of Thomas A. Dorsey, the onetime pianist for the blues legend Ma Rainey who also wrote the classic “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” Soul took shape in the 1950s, in large part because of Ray Charles, who added secular lyrics to the melodies of familiar gospel songs, most famously with the track “I Got a Woman” (1954), an early remix of sorts of the Southern Tones’ “It Must Be Jesus.” Many Black churchgoers considered Charles’s music blasphemous, but he opened a portal to a generation of gospel singers like Sam Cooke, Johnnie Taylor and Franklin, who became early stars of the new genre.
But LaBelle is more than someone who exhibits a mastery of soul and gospel; she is “church,” a style of singing taken from Black Pentecostal and Baptist musical traditions, where gospel music is unfettered by the business of religion and soul is unfettered by expectations of the music industry. LaBelle’s rendition of the ABCs on “Sesame Street” in 1998 is just one example. She begins in a slow, bluesy style, accompanied by a piano, and as a congregation of Muppets joins in, the song is transformed into a sanctified shout, performed with a fervor no one had ever had for the ABCs — and perhaps never will again. It was church.
IT FELT LIKE the last day of summer on the autumn afternoon that I arrived at LaBelle’s home, just north of Philadelphia — the whir of her family and staff was not unlike that of children during recess. While Tupac Shakur and Dr. Dre’s “California Love” played in the background at LaBelle’s request, the photographers Deb Willis and Hank Willis Thomas went about the work of capturing a woman who is beyond simple impressions. Watching them made me think of Roy DeCarava’s classic photos of Ornette Coleman, Billie Holiday or John Coltrane, or Malcolm X taking a photo of Muhammad Ali — one of the most photographed Black Americans of the 20th century taking pictures of one of the most photographed Black Americans of the 20th century. In other words: an alignment of Black brilliance and genius.
At 76, the unwieldy rawness of LaBelle’s youthful instrument has given way to a refined and nuanced power that she summons with the aplomb of a master craftswoman. She’s “truly gotten better,” Dyana Williams, the longtime Philadelphia radio personality and a friend of LaBelle’s, told me. The singer, she added, “has transcended generations and still remained relevant to each generation of music makers.”
Yet even more significant than her longevity is the context of her staying power. LaBelle is of a generation of Black women who are regularly lauded with the honorific of “auntie” — Auntie Phylicia, Auntie Gladys, Auntie Cicely — a term of affection for women who continue to hold an important place in the culture. These are the women who young Black folks know will always offer support without immediate judgment — who will provide correction and counsel. As I was shown into LaBelle’s living room, the scents of nutmeg and cinnamon hanging in the air — there was peach cobbler in the oven — I realized I was no longer in Patti LaBelle’s home but in any number of aunties’ homes, which I’ve come to expect to smell this way. “Oh my,” I thought to myself, sitting on the couch across from a piano covered with dozens of photographs of close family and friends, including the Clintons and Barack Obama, “I’m in Auntie Patti’s house.” And then she appeared: stunning, regal, beautiful.
We later moved to her sitting room, where she keeps a selection of her many awards; she has five certified gold records, the platinum-selling “Winner in You” (1986) and two Grammys, earned for her albums “Burnin’” (1991) and “Live! One Night Only” (1998). LaBelle lives by herself, but the assorted family members in the house that day — her two young granddaughters, her son Zuri and his wife (who’s also her personal makeup artist), who all live nearby — were a good indication of how welcoming a space it is: a home, not a way station, an important place for someone who has spent a lifetime on the road (until the recent pandemic, she still toured regularly). “Philadelphia is a place for me to live all my life because it’s quiet enough for me,” LaBelle said of her hometown. “It’s not crazy like New York or L.A. I love Philly. Philly is my home.”
But Philadelphia has also been a musical inspiration for LaBelle and generations of artists from the city and beyond. “It’s the most productive city I know,” LaBelle said, reeling off a string of artists who were either born in the city or made their reputations there: Bunny Sigler, Thom Bell, Pink, Jill Scott, the Roots, Eve, Musiq Soulchild, her close friend Teddy Pendergrass, Phyllis Hyman, Billy Paul. Philadelphia sits between and thus in the shadows of America’s cultural capital, New York City, and the seat of American power, Washington, D.C. There’s an underdog quality to the place, something that makes its residents try harder than they might. Indeed, when you listen to LaBelle’s vocals on early covers of “Over the Rainbow” (recorded in 1966) or the Irish hymn “Danny Boy” (in 1964) — the young LaBelle singing as though each note will be her last — there’s a feeling of “I can’t believe she did that with this song,” trampling all conventions in her range and phrasing, making us rethink how these Tin Pan Alley standards were supposed to be sung. The essence of Patti LaBelle the singer is that she is always willing to do that to a song, and it’s one reason she is the exemplar of what has become known as the Philly Sound.
And yet, what is that sound? “You know Philly when you hear it,” LaBelle said coyly. Williams, who’s been based in Philadelphia for the past 40 years, described it as “melodic, harmonic, rhythmic and funky at the same time — the embodiment of multiple genres,” including European classical music: The string arrangements you hear in many of the genre’s songs — like the intro to the O’Jays’ “Stairway to Heaven” (1975) or the proto-disco classic “Love Is the Message” (1973) by MFSB — were often performed by members of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Williams is referencing Philadelphia International Records specifically, the label founded by Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff in 1971 that is synonymous with Philadelphia Soul. The label’s sound married the earthy vocals of local singers with the pop appeal of Motown. Philadelphia Soul was the embodiment of the aspirations of working-class Black Americans who wanted the good life for themselves in the post-civil rights era. At its best, the label balanced those aspirations (the lush strings) with a prideful defiance, emboldened by those signature bass lines, which you can hear on a track like LaBelle’s “Love Bankrupt” (1983). Ostensibly a song about losing love, it’s also a subtle analogy for a retreat from the early gains of the civil rights movement: “You changed on me,” LaBelle sings, and you can tell she means it.
BORN PATRICIA HOLTE — her family called her Patsy — on May 24, 1944, LaBelle was raised in the Eastwick neighborhood in southwest Philadelphia, a largely Black working-class community, by her parents, Henry and Bertha Holte. She was the second youngest of five children: Her brother, Thomas, was the eldest, and she had three sisters, Vivian, Barbara and Jackie. In her memoir, “Don’t Block the Blessings” (1996), LaBelle recounts a doting father, a railroad man and sometime nightclub performer who braided her hair, cooked her breakfast and had a voice like Nat King Cole. Her mother worked in food service before becoming a full-time homemaker. When her father became abusive toward her mother, the two divorced. On one occasion following her parents’ split, LaBelle was sexually abused by her mother’s new boyfriend. After that, it was the music of Nina Simone, Gloria Lynne, Dakota Staton and James Moody — introduced to her by her brother — that became LaBelle’s “escape hatch … [and] gave me something to believe when I thought I had lost my faith.” She started singing shortly thereafter, with “the broom as a microphone,” as she recalled. She then moved on to the church choir at Beulah Baptist Church — which was close to her childhood home — at a time when the church played a prominent role in the daily lives of Black Americans. It was the choir director, Harriet Chapman, who forced LaBelle to take a solo. “‘Oh, no, Patsy, you have to come in front and do the lead,’” LaBelle remembered her saying. When she protested, Chapman suggested a duet with her son, Nathan. LaBelle got the bug quickly thereafter, singing “God Specializes,” and received the amen from the whole congregation: “They all stood up saying, ‘Hallelujah!’ That’s when I first realized I had talent.”
The pace of ballads allows LaBelle to explore a range of emotion that speaks so palpably to the lives of everyday folk: Ballads are the comfort food of soul music — melodies that stick to the bones, sustenance for working-class communities whose very humanity is challenged on a daily basis.
LaBelle began her career in 1960 when she joined a quartet that had originally included Jean Brown, Yvonne Hogen and Johnnie Dawson but would later feature the singers Nona Hendryx, Sarah Dash and Cindy Birdsong. (Birdsong would go on to join the Supremes in 1967, making the quartet a trio.) The Ordettes, as they called themselves, signed with Harold Robinson’s Newtown Records label in 1962 and were rechristened the Bluebelles; their lead singer, “little” Patsy Holte, became Patti LaBelle. But the group was largely overshadowed by others like the Shirelles and the Supremes, the latter of which became one of the most successful groups ever; their lead singer, Diana Ross, became a global superstar. But Ross was never tied to one place like LaBelle — she moved to Los Angeles in the early 1970s, and later relocated to New York City. LaBelle, on the other hand, remained, becoming synonymous with her hometown. Diana Ross was a pure pop confection; Patti LaBelle is, and has always been, a home-style meal.
During their early years, the Bluebelles, like many of their peers, made their living on the so-called chitlin’ circuit, a network of clubs and theaters primarily in the eastern and Southern parts of the United States that catered to Black artists and audiences throughout much of the 20th century. Chitlins, short for chitterlings, was a Black American delicacy derived from scraps — pigs’ intestines — so the chitlin’ circuit was a metaphor for the leftover opportunities granted to Black performers in segregated America. Yet it was also a story of resilience, as theaters like the Fox in Detroit, the Howard in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia’s own Uptown and, most famously, New York’s Apollo became incubators for Black music. “I’m happy we had a chitlin’ circuit,” LaBelle told me. “It makes me be a better me.” Those things that have made her better included cross-country drives, because the group couldn’t afford airfare, or surviving on a paltry per diem by buying candy bars, cans of tuna and 10-cent sardines. “I have a pantry full of sardines and tuna,” LaBelle half-joked, noting, “That’s what I had yesterday, a nice tuna sandwich, and sardines the other night.” She grinned. “Our good Black was good,” she said, again referring to the circuit — a reminder that Black Americans had long ago established their own criteria of cultural affirmation.
But not everything on the chitlin’ circuit was “good.” It was on one such tour that the singer Jackie Wilson attempted to rape her, as LaBelle recounts in her memoir. Such stories about life on the R&B circuit, or the “Rough and Black” circuit, as the fictional character James (Thunder) Early describes it in the film “Dreamgirls” (2006), rated very little attention in the 1960s. LaBelle’s willingness to share her story about Wilson, who was revered by audiences and whose legendary stage performances were an inspiration for a young Michael Jackson, was especially brave at the time — 20 years before #MeToo — and highlighted the precarious position of being a young woman, in particular a young Black woman, in the record industry.
Such experiences inspired the music that the group recorded in the 1970s, as women who were taking control of their image, their bodies and their sexuality. When the Bluebelles transformed into Labelle in 1971, they also redefined the very idea of the girl group. Absent were the bouffants and Bob Mackie gowns that the Supremes made so famous. As the scholar Maureen Mahon writes in her book “Black Diamond Queens” (2020), Labelle instead emphasized “individual voices and personalities in vocals, clothing and onstage style.” Girl groups? No, Labelle was about grown-ass Black women who were “bold, brash [and] brazen,” which is how the group’s manager Victoria Wickham imagined them. As LaBelle recalls in her memoir, Wickham believed the trio would be revolutionary: “Three Black women singing about racism, sexism and eroticism.” On their first albums they covered signature songs from the Rolling Stones (“Wild Horses”), Gil Scott-Heron (“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”), the Who (“Won’t Get Fooled Again”) and Cat Stevens (“Moonshadow”), forcing themselves into a domain dominated by male performers. As Mahon notes, Labelle’s “rebellious performance stances, frank engagement with sexuality and adventurous, high-energy music positioned the group to take a place on the rock stage.” And indeed, their styles, which seemed inspired by the Afrofuturism of Sun Ra — metallic headgear, midriff tops, skintight bottoms, short skirts and full-length boots — were a blueprint for more popular Black acts at the time like Earth, Wind & Fire and Parliament-Funkadelic.
It was during this period that LaBelle married her longtime friend and future manager Armstead Edwards, in 1969, giving birth to their son Zuri in 1973. (The couple would later adopt four more children: Stayce and William, LaBelle’s niece and nephew, whom she took in after her sister Jackie’s death in 1989; and Stanley and Dodd, her neighbor’s children, whose mother had also died.) But marriage and motherhood didn’t keep LaBelle from her music. The trio’s biggest success, the now-iconic “Lady Marmalade,” came only a year after her son’s birth, with a New Orleans-style swagger that struts like a drunken sailor intent on satiating his desires, if only for the night: “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?” That these desires are being expressed by three women, breaking some unspoken social contract of decorum, is what made the song so provocative — and an inspiration for women in the burgeoning days of the feminist movement.
THE GROUP BROKE UP in 1976, and LaBelle emerged as a breakout R&B singer; since her 1977 solo debut, she’s recorded 23 albums. If there’s something that could be called a definitive Patti LaBelle album, it’s “I’m in Love Again” (1983), which produced one of her most successful songs to date as a solo artist, “If Only You Knew.” Just as LaBelle says that she knows a Philly song when she hears it, audiences know this is a Patti LaBelle song. “If Only You Knew” is a slow, slow burn — a certified slow drag, as folks would’ve called it a generation earlier, during those blue-lights-in-the-basement house parties that LaBelle would have come of age attending. At its start, LaBelle sings, “I must have rehearsed my lines / A thousand times” with a level of restraint that betrays what audiences had come to expect from her. But it’s a setup: She lulls her listeners — the lyrics rendered as gentle coos and soft murmurs — until the sudden release, when the song turns into what can only be described as fits of ecstasy.
“Patti LaBelle is a balladeer. I love ballads,” she told me. Among her signatures are “Somebody Loves You” (1991) and “If You Ask Me To,” a song that made a minor ripple when she first recorded it in 1989 but became a major pop hit when Celine Dion covered it three years later, using the same arrangements, as LaBelle noted. Though she also admitted, “She sang so good, and we’re friends, so I said, ‘I’m happy you did it.’” The pace of ballads allows LaBelle to explore a range of emotion that, when mapped onto feelings of desire, betrayal and even eroticism, speaks so palpably to the lives of everyday folk: Ballads are the comfort food of soul music — melodies that stick to the bones, sustenance for working-class communities whose very humanity is challenged on a daily basis. When LaBelle sings “Somebody Loves You,” it is a reminder that their lives matter.
Though LaBelle has written songs, she is at heart a stylist, someone who is as known for the songs that were written for her as she is for personalizing songs that were recorded by others. And while there have been many great stylists in the soul and R&B traditions — Nancy Wilson made a career out of it — no one takes ownership quite the way LaBelle does. “You’ve got to be careful what you cover,” LaBelle said, noting some of the songs she wanted to sing over the years but decided not to, like Phyllis Hyman’s “Old Friend.” But then there’s “If You Don’t Know Me by Now.” First recorded in 1972, it was a major pop hit for Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes — Pendergrass sang lead — yet it is the best example of a song LaBelle made her own. On the live 1982 recording, she initially sings it straight, but beginning with the first chorus, she extends the notes — hitting some before and some shortly after they’re expected, and shimmying on others. It is classic soul singing, but it is LaBelle’s range and her ability to personalize the lyrics that take the song elsewhere. Midway through, she breaks into conversation with the audience. She’s letting listeners in, teaching them the lessons of life. The call and response of the exchange is wisdom imparted and messages delivered. With performances like these, LaBelle earned her reputation as a diva — a term she dismissed, saying, “I’m a round-the-way girl from Philly. I’m not a diva.”
IT WAS AN auntie showcase this past September when LaBelle and Gladys Knight sat down to do “Verzuz,” a virtual artist battle, conceived by the producers Swizz Beatz and Timbaland and launched on Instagram in the early months of the pandemic. “Verzuz” quickly became a reprieve from Covid-19 lockdown fatigue and a lifeline for artists who couldn’t tour and audiences who weren’t able to gather — “It was like doing a concert because I hadn’t worked in seven months onstage,” LaBelle said. Though artists initially appeared remotely, LaBelle and Knight chose to appear together on a soundstage in Philadelphia.
Generations of viewers were drawn to the “Verzuz” episode with these veterans of soul; it was as if they were sitting across from us at the kitchen table, where so many aunties share secrets. The two dished on lost loves, and peers they would rather not talk about, or to; they knew the words to each other’s songs, and even invited another auntie, Dionne Warwick, onstage to join them in a rendition of “Superwoman,” a song they first recorded for a Knight album 30 years earlier. “We have so much great history. We’re the O.G.s. The real girls,” LaBelle recalled of her friendship with Knight of more than 50 years, dating back to their days on the chitlin’ circuit and through moments of tragedy, including the deaths of LaBelle’s three sisters and Knight’s son. “It was a blessing,” she said.
“A Philly girl,” she called herself, and yet she’s everywhere now. LaBelle turned to acting in 1984, with her performance as Big Mary in “A Soldier’s Story,” followed by her memorable role as Adele Wayne on the hit television show “A Different World” (1987-93), and in 2015, she appeared on “Dancing With the Stars.” In 1999, she expanded into cookbooks — with recipes like Aunt Hattie’s Scrumptious Sweet Tater Bread and Say-My-Name Smothered Chicken and Gravy — and a line of cakes, pastries and frozen foods called Patti’s Good Life, which is sold at Walmart. “She’s entrepreneurial in the most amazing way,” Dyana Williams said. “Not very many artists get to do what she’s doing at this age and stage of their careers.”
LaBelle’s has been a life joyfully lived. “I’m so happy to be the Black woman with the good food,” she said, and it was clear she meant it. And with that, she sent me on my way with a plate of her peach cobbler, just as so many of America’s aunties would have.
Hair: David Lamar. Makeup: Lona Azami. Manicure: Amanda Nguyen. Production: Prod’n. Digital tech: Willy Lukaitis. Tailoring: Hailey Desjardins. Set assistant: Todd Knopke. Stylist’s assistant: Sidney Munch