By Mark Anthony Neal
When Cindy Birdsong, Sarah Dash, Nona Hendryx and Patti LaBelle (still calling herself Patsy Holt) auditioned for Newtown Records in 1961, the label owner infamously remarked that the lead singer, LaBelle, was too plain, dark and unattractive. Fifty years later, it’s hard to believe that anyone would ever describe Patti LaBelle in such fashion.
To the contrary of that long forgotten record executive, Patti LaBelle has carved out a career of major distinction, first as the lead singer of The Ordettes, then The Bluebelles and later the groundbreaking trio simply known as LaBelle. She went on from there to a stellar solo career that’s now in its fourth decade. LaBelle’s voice is one of the most legendary in all of American music and her live performances, as well as her television performances, have long been in that “must see” category—witness her “kick off your shoes” tribute to Prince at the 2010 BET Awards.
And in terms of style, beginning with the LaBelle trio’s famous “Battlestar Galactica meets American Feminista” look, to the array of hats and gowns that mark Patti LaBelle’s every performance, no one could ever accuse the performer of being anything other than a singular icon. As LaBelle said back in 2004, “I think we helped make it easier for the girl groups like Destiny’s Child. Yeah, we did our work. We paid a few dues.”
Patti LaBelle’s longevity in an industry known for tossing talents aside once they age past 25 is a tribute to her talent, perseverance and willingness to remain in touch with her audience, be they seven or 70. She has recorded and written songs that have transcended generations, from her rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” made famous by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, the New Orleans funk of Lady Marmalade recorded at the beginning of the Disco craze, the Quiet Storm classic “If Only You Knew” and “You Are My Friend,” which in the hands of Sylvester, became a Black gay anthem.
She’s also kept in touch by listening to new sounds. Such singers, songwriters and producers as Mary J. Blige, Yolanda Adams, Kanye West, J. Moss, Marsha Ambrosious, Miri Ben-Ari, Mary Mary and Tye Tribett have appeared on LaBelle’s most recent studio recordings. She is aware enough of what’s happening with hip hop to be able to call out the late Notorious B.I.G. for his scandalous mention of her name on his classic track “Just Playing (Dreams).” As LaBelle recalled, “Yeah, I called him on that and he apologized. I just said ‘Well you know brother, you really can’t see me that way.’”
Among her contemporaries, LaBelle’s voice is as powerful as Aretha Franklin’s, while her sense of glamour rivals that of Diana Ross, yet she retains that down-hominess (check out her cookbooks) that remind folks of Gladys Knight, all the while inspiring a new generation of divas to reach for the high note and to step out on that limb. One great example was the version of Lady Marmalade featuring Lil Kim, Christina Aguilera, Pink and Mya that appeared on the soundtrack for "Moulin Rouge" (2002).
In 2009, LaBelle was inducted into the Apollo Theater Hall of Fame, celebrating a career that began 50 years ago on stages not unlike those at the Apollo, a venue that she has graced hundreds of times.
LaBelle has also earned Honorary Doctorate Degrees from Cambridge University, Drexel University, the Berklee School of Music and most recently Temple University in her hometown. And now—50 years after she founded the Bluebelles—Patti LaBelle is the recipient of the BET Lifetime Achievement Award. Quite a life and career for the Philly girl once simply known as Little Patsy Holt.