The Vault of Soul: Patti LaBelle

Vault of Soul - Greatest Soul Artists - Legacy and Life - Music - Boston - WERS 88.9FM
Graphics by Grace Kinney

Each week of Black History Month, we open the 88.9 Vault of Soul, profiles of iconic soul pioneers. Continue reading to take a deep dive into Patti LaBelle’s incredible legacy.

 

By Sidnie Paisley Thomas, Staff Writer

Biography 

Patti LaBelle, originally named Patricia Louise Holt, was born May 24th, 1944 in Eastwick Philadelphia. Her childhood was not easy, as her parents had an abusive marriage but she found solace and community in her local church choir. LaBelle began singing in the choir at age 10 and proved herself to be a talented singer thereafter. After dropping out of her last semester of high school in 1960, LaBelle and her friend Cindy Birdsong formed a music group called “the Ordettes.” The group sang and performed locally, and garnered a lot of attention and praise from their community. A year later with the addition of two new members the group renamed themselves “The Blue Belles.” With the help of the producer Bobby Martin, they achieved their first top 20 pop hit in 1962 with their song “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman”. Their success continued into the 60s and after a brief stint at Atlantic Records, the quartet became a trio, renamed themselves once again to “LaBelle” and signed with Warner Brothers records in 1971. After five albums, producing the hit single “Lady Marmalade” and jumping from Warner to Epic records, the group separated in 1976 due to turmoil between members. 

Rise to Fame 

LaBelle’s solo career began in 1977 when she signed a solo contract with Epic records. Under Epic she recorded her debut self-titled album with songs like, “Joy to Have Your Love” and "You Are My Friend”. Despite it not reaching the heights of the charts ``You are My Friend” became a career-defining song for LaBelle. Her commanding yet tender voice on the powerful ballad contributed to growing her status as a vocal legend. After four albums with Epic, she signed with Philadelphia International Records and recorded her iconic cover of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” That same year in 1982 she received much critical acclaim for starring in the Broadway musical “Your Arms Are Too Short to Box With God”, beginning her relationship with musical theater and performance. LaBelle released the song “The Best is Yet to Come” in 1982. It was a collaboration between her and jazz legend Grover Washington Jr. where she provided

vocals to accompany his saxophone rhythms. The song earned LaBelle her first grammy nomination, and was followed by her breakthrough album “I’m In Love Again” which garnered her first R&B top ten hits. LaBelle’s popularity skyrocketed during this time. She was noted for her distinct blending of styles, from gospel to R&B to disco. Accompanied by her sweet and sultry voice, LaBelle's music resonated with listeners of the 70s and 80s. 

In the 1980s LaBelle began to cross over into film and television, she recorded two songs for Eddie Murphy's 1984 film “Beverly Hills Cop.” The song “New Attitude'' from the film garnered success outside of the movie and reached number 17 on the Billboard Top 100 charts. In 1985 Labelle performed in the “Motown Returns to Apollo Benefit Concert '', a program celebrating the reopening of the Apollo theater, and highlighting R&B and soul legends. Her performance in the program propelled her into pop-star status and earned her her own television special later that year. Titled “The Patti LaBelle Show” she starred alongside stars like Cyndi Lauper and Luther Vandross. LaBelle’s ability to exist in both the music industry as well as the entertainment industry made her a household name in the late 80s and into the 90s. In 1986 she performed alongside Gladys Knight and Dionne Warwick in an HBO special “Sisters in The Name of Love” solidifying her status as a vocal legend. The same year her solo album “Winner in You” reached number one on the pop charts. “Winner in You” is not only her best album in terms of chart performance but also vocal performance. It included the chart-topping hit “On My Own” featuring Micheal McDonald, as well as “There’s a Winner in You.” She released another album in 1989 titled “Be Yourself” and a Christmas album titled “This Christmas” in 1990, both receiving critical acclaim and top spots on the Hot 100. Keeping up with her consistent releases, her album “Burnin” released in 1991 went gold and occupied three spots on the Hot 100 at once. The success garnered her a Grammy in 1992, where she won Best Female Vocal performance in a very rare tie with singer Lisa Fischer. 

Later Life 

Patti continued to release albums through the early 2000s, taking a decade-long hiatus in 2007 and returning in 2017 with a Jazz album. In the meantime, Labelle returned to Broadway to star in the musical “Fela” in 2010. She performed at the white house in 2014 alongside Aretha Franklin and others during the “Woman of Soul” presentation for former president Barack Obama. In more recent years Labelle has competed on the competition shows “The Masked Singer” and “Dancing with the Stars” and continues to tour around the United States.

Influences...

While Aretha Franklin was LaBelle’s contemporary, she still took great inspiration from her. Franklin was a pioneer in Soul music and coined the title “Queen of Soul.” She held a lot of respect and love for LaBelle, so much so that she requested LaBelle perform at her funeral. The two had an inspiring and loving relationship and supported each other throughout both of their careers. Alongside Franklin, LaBelle had many disco influences from artists such as Diana Ross and soul influences from artists like Lorraine Ellison. 

... and her Influence

Patti LaBelle has become a pillar in the R&B community, becoming a major influence in the early 2000’s R&B. Artist Jill Scott has publicly given thanks to LaBelle for not only her influence and inspiration but her kindness to her in the music industry. Mariah Carey also has a close relationship with LaBelle which has influenced not only her music but her entire career. 

Honors 

  • Best Female R&B Vocal Performance (Grammy,1982) 
  • Best R&B Album (Grammy,1998) 
  • Best Traditional R&B Performance (Grammy 1999) 
  • Entertainer of the year (NAACP Image Awards 1986 & 1982) 
  • BET Walk of Fame Award (2001) 
  • Lady Marmalade Inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame (2003) 
  • Outstanding Female Artist (NAACP Image Award 2004) 
  • Apollo Theatre Legends Hall of Fame (2009) 

Spotlight Tracks 

“If Only You Knew” propelled Patti into R&B stardom, and it’s not hard to see why. Its sultry rhythms and enchanting strings accompanied by LaBelle’s tender voice create a beautiful yet simple melody. The song peaked at 46 on the Hot 100 charts and spent a total of 13 weeks there. To this day it’s one of LaBelle’s most recognizable songs and is loved by listeners everywhere.

From her 1986 album “Winner in You”, her duet with Micheal McDonald became a staple of her career. “Own My Own” chronicles two lovers who have separated once again after a relationship full of tribulations. LaBelle’s sweet voice compliments Mcdonald's deep and soulful pipes perfectly. The two spent 3 weeks at number one on the Billboard Hot 100, and the song is one of LaBelle’s most successful and recognizable to date. 

Although it was recorded with the final rendition of her group “LaBelle”, “Lady Marmalade” is one of LaBelle’s greatest cultural contributions. At the time of its release in 1975, it spent a week at number one on the Billboard charts. In 2001 after the release of the film “Moulin Rouge", a rendition of the song performed by Christina Agulera, P!nk, and Lil Kim was released, which garnered its own success on the Billboard charts as well as becoming a cultural cornerstone of the early 2000s. “Lady Marmalade” was one of the first songs to put “LaBelle” on the map, and it’s gone on to continue their legacy in the modern day.

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