Patti LaBelle’s “Classic Moments”
When the term “R&B diva” gets tossed around, there are a handful of legends that come to mind: Tina, Diana and Aretha are probably the most popular. After all, these “legends” have been recording since the early 1960’s. In the land of legendary music artists, another name that is synonymous with the terms “legend” and “diva” is Patti LaBelle. This soulful siren has been cranking out hit albums and singles since she first hit the charts back in April 1962 with the Top 15 hit “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman,” labeled as the Bluebelles. Like many soul survivors, Patti LaBelle has had a career of peaks and valleys, but one thing is for sure, she never lost touch with her roots. As musical trends have changed in the 43 years since that first hit single, so has Patti LaBelle. Through Pop, R&B, Disco, Dance, and Standards, one thing always remained pure gold, and that was Patti LaBelle’s unique voice. She has amassed two dozen Pop hits and an astonishing 49 R&B charted hits.
Equipped with a four octave range, Patti LaBelle has been considered one of the finest female vocalists of the century, both 20th and 21st! She continues to be one of the busiest and most successful entertainers, while acquiring other titles such as New York Times Best-Selling Author, as well as clothing and perfume entrepreneur (long before J.Lo and Britney ever uttered a digitally altered note on the radio).
The Bluebelles consisted of a quartet that included singers Sarah Dash, Nona Hendryx and Cindy Birdsong. After they made their mark with “Junkman” and Patti’s unique vocal delivery, the group changed its name to Patti LaBelle & Her Bluebelles, scoring another array of hit singles that included “Down the Aisle (Wedding Song),” “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and “All or Nothing.” After 1966, the pop singles dwindled, but their R&B hits kept them alive. Birdsong left in 1967 to join the Supremes after Florence Ballard was ejected from the group. In 1974, the group had its final name change to LaBelle and scored their biggest Pop and R&B success with the now classic “Lady Marmalade.” The song and delivery was solid gold, reaching #1 worldwide and creating a controversy with its suggestive lyrics and bump ’n grind-funky-mid-tempo rhythm. The trio also scored their highest-charting album with “Nightbirds,” ultimately peaking at #7 on the Billboard 200 in the winter of ’75. Two years later, Labelle disbanded and the trio went their separate ways. While Dash and Hendryx would go on to have moderate success in the Disco/Dance genre, it would be Patti and her four octave range that would ultimately reach superstar status.
Her transformation from R&B singer to household name and superstar occurred one night in the spring of 1983 when she was asked to perform for the televised spectacular “Motown 25.” The event was to celebrate Berry Gordy’s incredible success with the label that gave the world an impressive roster of superstars that included Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross (with and without the Supremes), the Temptations and The Jackson 5. It wasn’t just Michael Jackson who stole the show with his explosive song and dance rendition of “Billie Jean.” In the finale with all of the artists, including the supposed main event appearance of Diana Ross’ reunion with the Supremes, a bewildered Ross was upstaged by a magnificent Patti LaBelle, bedazzled in her sequins, her hair sprayed as a gargantuan fan with a voice to match that had the audience on its feet. Record executives finally realized that a talent as big as Patti LaBelle’s had been right under their collective noses and practically went unnoticed for two decades until her magnificent performance that evening. Rumor has it, Diana Ross was livid that her limelight had been dimmed by the effervescent LaBelle, and Patti marched on and into a new phase and higher level of her career. In 1984, after two dozen albums with and without her group, she was asked to contribute to the soundtrack of the Eddie Murphy film “Beverly Hills Cop.” Patti not only had a couple of smash singles, “New Attitude” and “Stir It Up,” but a brand new record contract with MCA records as well. While still riding high with her contributions to the soundtrack, Patti recorded a duet with the recently solo Michael McDonald, and together they scored the biggest hits of their careers with the #1 worldwide smash, “On My Own.” The single remained at the top of the charts for one month and subsequently Patti’s album “Winner In You” also topped the charts in the summer of ’86. After twenty-four years of recording, “Winner In You” was her first album to reach the plateau and platinum status.
Throughout the remainder of the 80’s, 90’s and 00’s, Patti continued to record hit albums and sell out live shows. Through it all, she was privately suffering tremendous loss. Within a period of ten years, she had lost her mother, three sisters and best friend, all to cancer and diabetes. Patti is also a diabetic and has been pro-active in the fight against the disease that claimed their lives. She serves as a spokeswoman for the National Medical Association that administers a scholarship in her mother’s name, as well as supporting the gay community with the National Minority AIDS Council's “Live Long, Sugar” campaign and the American Diabetes Association. Patti also serves on the Boards of the National Alzheimer Association and the National Cancer Institute, and the University of Miami's prestigious Sylvestri Comprehensive Care Center dedicated a special research laboratory in her honor for her work on behalf of cancer awareness. In addition, Patti has three Honorary Doctorate Degrees from Cambridge University, Drexel University and the Berklee School of Music, among a host of other honors.
With all of these accolades, Patti continues to amaze audiences with her unique talents as a singer and entertainer. Her latest album is also one of her best. “Classic Moments” is a CD of 13 tracks that are covers of some of the best Pop and R&B music of the past four decades. Not only is the choice of material top-notch, so are her vocals. As a matter of fact, it’s not a stretch to say that at 61 years-old, LaBelle’s vocals are better than they have ever been. Whether it’s a passion for her new record label (Def Soul), the choice of songs, or her duets with Elton John, Mary J. Blige and Kristine W, this is a CD to be celebrated and will certainly be recognized come Grammy time when the nominations are announced next December. But before I get ahead of myself, let me tell you of the wonderful highlights on this CD. She kicks off the album with the 1968 Aretha Franklin gem “Ain’t No Way,” featuring Mary J. Blige, and continues to delight your ears through her heartfelt renditions of Michael Jackson’s “(S)He’s Out of My Life,” the 1970 Delfonics classic “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind,” which includes a breathtaking sax solo that brings a warmth to this already amazing classic. Rose Royce’s and the Madonna favorite “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore” sounds fresh and exciting while Patti retains its powerful angst. Obviously, the two decade old duet with Michael McDonald still resonates within her soul as she reignites the passion in his 1982 classic “I Keep Forgetting.” Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” is one of the quietest moments, but also one of the most powerful as it burns with desire. Elton John lends his piano playing hands as well as his voice as he revisits his first Pop hit, “Your Song” and Patti gives it that special oomph that almost makes you wonder why this wasn’t recorded as a duet to begin with. LaBelle’s take on the haunting Chrissie Hynde classic “I’ll Stand By You” had me hitting the repeat button several times. The closing track is also a hidden track, which is the surprise inclusion of Kristine W’s “Land of the Living,” with Kristine adding her vocal to end this remarkable disc on an up note. Yes, pun intended!
Trust me, if you’re a fan of Patti Labelle’s, this genre of music, or better yet, both, you’re gonna love this new release. “Classic Moments” couldn’t have had a more appropriate title, because the entire CD is just that.
© 2005 Steven M. Housman. All Rights Reserved.