“I’m 71 years old and my voice is still strong,” declares a feisty Patti LaBelle. “I’m not patting myself on the back but I still make sense on stage: I’m not crazy, I can still move and …I look pretty cute.” The double Grammy-winning Philadelphia-born singer then lets out a mischievous, playful laugh. She’s doing press and promotion junkets for her forthcoming concert at Wembley’s SSE Arena as part of the star-studded ‘Great Voices Of Soul’ package scheduled for November 15th, which also features The Whispers, the S.O.S. Band, Meli’sa Morgan, ex-Rose Royce singer, Gwen Dickey, Soul II Soul and Loose Ends. It’s quite a line-up and represents Patti’s first trip to England for a decade. Indeed, the singer admits that she’s neglected the UK. “It’s been too long,” she says with a tinge of regret in her voice but then jokingly says her UK fans can expect “nothing but greatness. I’ve been singing for 52 years so you’ll get music from everywhere, from all of my old albums.”
Certainly, Patti LaBelle, born Patricia Holt in 1944, has a lot of material to draw from. She scored her first hit back in 1963 leading the Blue Belles, a Philly-based group comprising Nona Hendryx, Sarah Dash and Cindy Birdsong. The latter left to replace Florence Ballard in The Supremes in 1967 and then in 1970, the remaining trio changed their name to Labelle, got themselves a British manager (Vicki Wickham) and morphed into a sassy, theatrical rock-soul outfit attired in space-age costumes who supported groups like The Who and the Rolling Stones. The group didn’t experience any meaningful commercial success until 1974 when they scored a US chart-topper with the risqué proto-disco groove, ‘Lady Marmalade’ (it was also a Top 20 UK smash). In 1977, the group dissolved and all three members began solo careers. Initially signed to Epic, Patti LaBelle didn’t really set the charts alight until she released ‘If Only You Knew’ for producers/songwriters Gamble & Huff’s Philadelphia International label in 1983. A switch to MCA in 1985 resulted in a slew of big hits in that decade and the early ’90s, including ‘On My Own,’ her classic duet with Michael McDonald.
Patti won her first Grammy in 1991 for her album ‘Burnin’,’ and her second seven years later for the long-player, ‘Live! For One Night Only.’ She’s also appeared in several movies and featured in a raft of TV shows, including most recently, ‘Dancing With The Stars,’ which is the US equivalent of the UK’s ‘Strictly Come Dancing.’ Not content with that, Patti is an author of several bestselling recipe books and has even created her own brand of cooking sauces. SJF’s Charles Waring recently spoke to the singer about her long and varied career…
How do UK audiences compare with US ones? Do you have to do different songs for different audiences?
No, actually the same songs for the US and the UK. But I think you’re more receptive over there and appreciate music more than we do over here. I think that’s just the way I’ve always felt. And you know the history of the artist, I mean like what time I was born, who was in the nursery with me and all that jazz. You guys know everything and I appreciate that.
Looking back over your long and illustrious career what’s been the major highlight for you?
The highlight musically was when Sarah Dash and Nona Hendryx and I performed at the Metropolitan Opera house (in New York in 1976). We were the first black women to perform there and that was the “Wear Something Silver” event where everybody had on something silver. That was a big, big, wonderful show. We were coming flying from the ceiling. We were doing the Madonnas and Lady Gagas before they were doing it, so we were hot (laughs).
Looking back at your time with Labelle, what are your most cherished memories of those days?
Everything we did together. We drove from Philadelphia to Los Angeles in a station wagon because we were doing a show with the Rolling Stones, opening for them. When we got there we were all so tired and we fought in the room because somebody lied to me and said that we had an interview to do that night. I had put on all my new clothes and got dressed up for it and then Cindy (Birdsong) said: “We were only joking.” So then we fought and then Mick Jagger had to knock on the door to tell us to quit it. We were killing each other. (Laughs). Those were great memories and we laugh about them now because I still speak with Sarah (Dash) and Nona (Hendryx). We plan to do stuff in the future together.
You reunited a few years ago, didn’t you?
Yes, and we plan to do something else.
Is that in terms of concerts or recording or both?
Labelle’s number one song, ‘Lady Marmalade,’ has led a charmed life. Do you remember when you first heard the song and what your thoughts were on the lyrics?
We were on our way to (producer) Allen Toussaint in New Orleans to record that album (‘NightBirds’), and (songwriter) Bob Crewe called our manager Vicki Wickham on our way to the airport and asked us if we’d come by to his house to listen to this song. We did and as soon as we heard it we knew it was a hit. When Alan heard it he thought that it should be the first song record for that session and that’s how we came about the song.
Were you concerned about the words being a little risqué at all?
We didn’t have a clue what it meant. We just knew that “Voulez vous couchez avec moi,” that hook sounded like a hit hook, and then after recording the song and the song was released we found out that it meant ‘will you sleep with me tonight.’ It was about a hooker but it was already out then.
Why is it still popular 40 years later?
I don’t know it’s just something about that song. Whenever I perform the people have to hear ‘Lady Marmalade’ before I leave. They get a little fed up if you don’t do it so I do it every night. And I love it.
What about the name Patti LaBelle: where did that come from?
The owner of a car dealership in Philadelphia (Harold Robinson) recorded us in his basement and named me Patti LaBelle, meaning ‘the beautiful.’ He gave me that name.
One of your memorable hits from the ’80s is your duet ‘On My Own’ with Michael McDonald. How did that collaboration to about?
I recorded the song as a solo song by myself and I hated it. Burt Bacharach (the song’s co-writer) came in and said ‘Patti, you can’t throw this song away.’ I said well I don’t like the way I sound. He said ‘is there anyone else you’d like to record with’ and I said, Michael McDonald. Of course, he knew Michael and so I did my part and then Michael did his part about a month or two later. Then we did the video. He did his part in LA and I did mine in New York. And then we met on The Johnny Carson Show and we sang for the first time together.
You’d always been in a group situation up until 1977 when you launched your solo career. How did it feel being on your own for the first time on stage?
It was scary. I had to see a shrink before I went on stage performing solo because I was afraid to go out on my own because lead singers are always the cause of the group’s breakup. I thought that people would throw things at me and blame me for Sarah and Nona not being with me. Diana Ross left the Supremes and it was like I left Labelle. But we left each other and I was left to sing because this is my life and I love to sing. My first show was in London, it was a show for Columbia Records. I ended up getting a standing ovation and that gave me the courage to continue. I felt after that that nobody would blame me anymore. And they never did.
So what happened at the end with Labelle?
We all did not want to be Labelle any longer. We grew out of each other. I think Nona wanted to do more rock, Sarah wanted to just sing and I wanted to do ballads. As Labelle, we could not be together and be phoney to the audience. I didn’t believe in lying and pretending that I’m loving what I’m doing and hating it all the time so we decided to go our separate ways but since then we’ve gotten back together.
What are your memories of recording for Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International label in the 1980s?
Great memories. Kenny was a friend of mine in the neighbourhood when I grew up in Eastwood, near the airport. He used to hang with some guys across the street and he knew me but he didn’t know that I was a singer. He would sort of protect me from the boys in the neighbourhood. One day he heard me sing and that was that. I started recording with him and Huff many, many years ago. And still, it’s like a sister-brother relationship. He still wants to record me now. He says “girl, your voice is one of those voices that you never stop listening to.” (Laughs). So he’s waiting to record me.
What were they like to work with as producers?
They were old school. They were very laid back. They knew exactly how to write, they knew great melodies, had the best orchestra and created the Philadelphia sound. It was like a party working with them: a beautiful, creative party. Working with them was a blessing.
During the same period you worked with Bobby Womack, didn’t you?
Oh God, yeah.
What are your memories of working with Bobby?
That he was crazy. It was just crazy fun. He just sang like nobody and when he did ‘If You’re Lonely Now’ he would be on the side of the stage going crazy. I mean his voice and his sound. There are no Bobby Womacks around now. There never will be. Just the way that he made you feel when he sang and his stories preceding the songs. He had a lot of stories.
Many of your contemporaries are no longer in the limelight or active. What keeps you going?
I keep going because I can. I guess because I’ve not done anything to stop myself. I’ve not done the drug scene or the drinking party scene – no reefer, no whatever you want to call the stuff. I never did anything like that to stop Patti LaBelle so I hope to continue for many, many more years.
What’s left for you to do because you’ve been on TV, stage musicals, movies as well as recording and performing. Do you have any unfulfilled ambitions left?
I’d like to do more movies and do more music. I’d like to do more of everything. I mean this is not ‘it’ for me. There are so many more things that I can do as an entertainer, as a singer, as an actress, there are so many things. I’m doing very well but I’ve not achieved everything as far as selling records, playing big stadiums and all of those wonderful things that I know I can do. So I’m still climbing.
Is there anybody that you’d particularly like to work with?
I would love to record with Aretha Franklin.
Is there anyone that catches your ear among the young singers and songwriters coming up today?
As far as voices, I love Ledisi’s voice and Estelle and Adele. (Laughs). I love their voices and I also love Sam Smith.
Finally, is it true that you’re putting a new album together?
It’s together, it’s done. It’s jazz standards and there’s no title for it yet but it should be released this year. And I’ll do something from it when I come to London.
Who’s worked on it with you?
Me and my ex-husband (Laughs). And Kem did a James Moody song with me, ‘Moody’s Mood For Love,’ and he’s the only other artist on the project with me.
PATTI LABELLE WILL APPEAR AT THE ‘GREAT VOICES OF SOUL’ CONCERT AT WEMBLEY’S SSE ARENA ON SUNDAY NOVEMBER 15TH.