Many words have been used to describe singer Patti LaBelle, from diva and legend, to powerhouse vocalist and gay icon. One thing’s for sure, she’s been a friend to the LGBTQ community throughout her career.
Now 77-years old and still going strong, she recently embarked on a concert tour that includes a performance here in Charlotte and other venues in two nearby cities. She’ll be making those appearances in both Carolinas March 11-13.
Beginning Friday, March 11, LaBelle will perform at the Township Auditorium in Columbia, South Carolina. A second performance follows Friday, March 12, at the Peace Center Concert Hall in Greenville, South Carolina. She wraps up the regional triptych Sunday March 13, at Charlotte’s own Belk Theater.
Patti LaBelle was born Patricia Louise Holte May 24, 1944 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her music career kicked off in the early ’60s as the lead vocalist for a group known as Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles.
Later would follow a name change for the group, to simply LaBelle, and the smash hit song “Lady Marmalade” would follow, which skyrocketed to the number one position in late November 1974 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart and the Billboard R&B chart. Additionally, it shot to the number one spot in the Netherlands and Canada. It also placed high on multiple charts around the globe, which pushed LaBelle (the group included Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash) and lead vocalist Patti LaBelle into the international spotlight.
As a result, LaBelle became the first black vocal group to land on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine and the first pop group to play at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.
After friction began to develop between the three women, Patti decided to make the move towards a solo career. She signed a contract with Epic Records and released her debut album, “Patti LaBelle” in October 1977. The album featured three somewhat successful singles, “It’s a Joy to Have your Love,” “Dan Swit Me,” and the later to become legendary, “You Are My Friend.”
For the next eight years, Patti LaBelle would remain busy with Epic, recording multiple albums, although she would not see the success she had with her first solo album and the previous success she experienced with LaBelle.
But it wasn’t all bad. In 1979 came the album “It’s Alright With Me,” which featured two moderately successful singles: “It’s Alright With Me” and “Music is My Way of Life.” Both were popular in dance clubs and with LGBTQ fans. The album “Released” followed in 1980 with another dance song success, once again popular with the LGBTQ community, called “Release.”
LaBelle has been described by many as the greatest gay icon of all time and a prime example of the intersection of the LGBTQ community and black female artists.
In a 2017 interview, she said: “When I think about it, the gay fans are some of the reason – one big reason – I’m still standing, ’cause they loved me when other people tried not to. Everybody always says, ‘What makes gay men like you?’ ‘I have no clue,’ I say. I still don’t. But I know that love has lifted me up for many, many years.”
Indeed, when many performers were afraid their careers would be ruined early on in the fight against the AIDS Pandemic, Patti LaBelle was on the front lines, lending her voice to help educate others about AIDS awareness and misconceptions.
The legendary dance music and gender fluid recording artist Sylvester had long been a fan of Labelle’s, even including a version of “You Are My Friend” on his 1979 album “Living Proof.” Labelle was aware of Sylvester’s musical success and shared an appreciation for his work, as well. During appearances in San Francisco, she had even invited Sylvester onstage to perform the song with her.
In the fall of 1988, Sylvester had been diagnosed with full-blown AIDS and was in the process of making his final life arrangements. A mutual friend the two shared, recording artist Jeannie Tracey, informed LaBelle that Sylvester was extremely ill, which prompted LaBelle to pay her old friend a visit.
On the day she came to spend time with Sylvester, Tracey prepared LaBelle, just as she did his other visitors.
“Just go in, and give him the latest dirt,” Tracey told her. “Don’t cry until you’re out of his sight.” The two performers and friends gossiped, sang and laughed during her visit and posed for a photo together while she held his hand for the last time.
Sylvester passed away less than a month later.
But back to the earlier 1980s and Patti’s initial climb to pop culture legend status. After a musical dry spell following 1980’s “Released,” Patti returned in 1983 with the album “I’m In Love Again” and the hit ballad “If Only You Knew,” which went straight to the top of the Billboard R&B charts. The following year, two singles included on the soundtrack of the Eddie Murphy movie “Beverly Hills Cop,” “New Attitude” and “Stir It Up” became massive crossover pop hits for the artist and changed the trajectory of her career, when they were both released as pop-dance singles.
She was nominated by the Grammy Awards for Best Female R&B Performance for “New Attitude,” though disappointingly, she did not capture the award.
No Matter. The lady was far from done yet.
Over the next 20 years, LaBelle’s career continued to flourish, with a total of 14 nominations, which resulted in two Grammy Awards and an induction in to the Grammy Hall of Fame.
In addition, she’s authored books, captured multiple film and television roles, two Emmy Nominations, won six NAACP Image Awards, an American Music Award and a GLAAD Excellence in Media Award, among many others.
While Labelle has been praised for her youthful appearance and upbeat outlook, she lost a friend last year that left a permanent empty space in her heart: former LaBelle member Sarah Dash, who had gone on to experience some career success on her own with the chart topping dance single “Sinner Man,” passed away unexpectedly. Following her death, LaBelle posted a comment on Twitter regarding her fallen musical colleague:
“This weekend, we said goodbye to my sister. And her earthly farewell was as beautiful and regal as she was. I love you always #SarahDash! ❤ “Nightbird fly, fly by the light of the moon.”
Despite that loss, in an interview also last year with writer Danielle Harling for the website Oprah Daily, Labelle was able to articulate what her secret is for staying youthful.
“I like to be with people who are fun. And sometimes those people are not my age; the old[er] people that I know, they’re not usually like – see, I love Tupac, I love California Love and The Club and Ain’t Nobody, I like dancing to those gangster songs, you know? And I think it keeps me going. My grandkids say, ‘Oh, Grandma, you know that song?’ I say, ‘Yeah, girls, that’s before your time.’ But they watch me for encouragement. As they turn seven and four, they’ll say, ‘Oh, Grandma is old, but she doesn’t act old.’ So I feel that doing things like dancing and moving around … and pranking and all the fun things that I do has kept me happy.”
As for what Patti fans can expect in her upcoming concert, be prepared for a mix of hits old and new and some classic American jazz standards, as well. For more information on her upcoming appearances and how to purchase tickets, visit www.pollstar.com