Eyes squeezed shut, fingers outstretched as if to invoke some divine inspiration, Patti LaBelle takes a silent breath. Her head bows slightly. Then, from some deep strong place comes that clear, silvery voice, spiraling toward the heavens and tumbling, perfectly controlled yet wild. The audience goes crazy. Here’s LaBelle, in her early 60s, belting it out, her three-octave voice ranging in character from alley cat to songbird. She shimmies and sways and prances in those 5-inch “fever pumps.”
Shy is not the first word that comes to mind when watching Patti LaBelle in concert—an experience she calls “part revival, part confession, part church.” With a career spanning some 50 years, the diva gives the audience her all, each and every time. When caught up in the moment, she’s been known to roll on the floor. She’s even popped blood vessels when hitting certain notes.
But, growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, the little girl named Patsy Holte was so paralyzed with self-doubt that her mother often bribed her to leave the house. She preferred to pass the time in the safety and comfort of her bedroom. “It was there, singing in my mirror, that I came to understand the power of music,” she writes in her best-selling 1996 biography, Don’t Block the Blessings: Revelations of a Lifetime. Music, she found, was “a healing power…. A power that rises up from deep down inside.”
Performing in a girl trio called the Ordettes, Patsy’s big break came in 1960 with an audition for Blue Note Records. The record company president suggested name changes, and Patti LaBelle and The Bluebelles were born. After losing member Cindy Birdsong to The Supremes, LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash formed the trio LaBelle, which reached its peak in 1975 with the album Nightbirds, which included the breakout hit Lady Marmalade. The group broke up in 1976.
LaBelle went on to launch a successful solo career, touring the globe, selling out venues and performing alongside the greats of pop, soul, R&B and rock. She has had her own TV shows, starred in movies and musicals, written five books and spearheaded several business ventures. Earlier this year, the trio LaBelle reunited for a new album due this fall—with guests Lenny Kravitz, Wyclef Jean and Missy Elliott.
Working Through the Grief
Offstage, Patti LaBelle’s life was not filled with high notes. Her group often struggled with conflict and tension. At the same time, LaBelle endured the emotional test of a lifetime when, during a span of 10 years, she lost her mother to diabetes, her father to Alzheimer’s, and her three sisters and best friend to cancer. As she grieved their deaths, LaBelle was plagued with guilt that her career had kept her from spending time with them. And, because none of her sisters lived to the age of 44, LaBelle feared that her time was short, too. She coped, as she always did, by singing.
“I let everything I was feeling—all the fear, all the anger, all the pain, all the rage—I let all of that out onstage,” she says. “I sang at my mother’s funeral, and I did a music video the day after my sister [Jackie] passed. I just continued to work. It helped.”
But, beyond surviving through this harrowing time, LaBelle wanted her loved ones’ memories to survive as well. “Nothing can bring them back, but you can keep their candle lit,” she says. “Keep on speaking their name and keeping them alive in your mind and other people’s minds.”
A New Attitude
For years, LaBelle “lived in constant dread of death,” she says, “until finally, thankfully, I let go of that fear.” That letting go occurred on a milestone that LaBelle believed she’d never reach: her 50th birthday.
On the night of May 23, 1994, LaBelle sat alone in her Los Angeles condo, waiting for the clock to strike midnight. When it did, she had a revelation. “After all those years of begging God for answers, I realized that He had been answering me all the time,” she says. “In every song I sang. In every person I touched. In every spirit I lifted…. I hadn’t been preparing to die at all—I was learning how to live.”
That same year, LaBelle was diagnosed with diabetes. But after all her worrying over the years, when this bad news came, it wasn’t so bad after all. She had never expected to live as long as she had, and she committed to just dealing with the disease. “It’s not a death sentence,” she says. “It’s in the family, but it doesn’t scare me. It keeps me strong knowing that they obviously didn’t have the chances that I have now. I have many things available to me, so I have to be wise enough to use everything that works for Patti LaBelle.”
What works for LaBelle, who is a passionate cook, is keeping “an upbeat diet,” she says. It’s rare to find the singer without a bottle of hot sauce, which she uses to spice up bland dietetic foods. She also loads up dishes with garlic and peppers—all tips she shares in three cookbooks, including this year’s Recipes for the Good Life. LaBelle has also created an instructional cooking DVD and five signature hot sauces and relishes.
She sums up her relationship with diabetes this way: “I find ways to live with it. I have it; it doesn’t have me.”
Spread the Love
Despite a 50-year music career comprising more than 30 albums, two Grammy Awards and a slew of chart-topping hits, LaBelle names son Zuri, 35, as her greatest achievement—“my claim to fame.”
Although Zuri is LaBelle’s only biological child, she is a mother of five—having adopted a niece, a nephew and two former neighbors. Once again, she credits Zuri for helping bring more joy into her life.
“When he gave me the permission to adopt the other kids that I adopted, I learned from him that it’s so great to be that giving of your mother,” she says. “Actually, he was giving me a gift by adopting these four people, because they brought me joy—more joy, I think, than I brought them. I think that was a great thing that helped me, too, in seeing how I have to continue helping people.”
LaBelle continues to help others through her extensive charitable involvement, which includes Big Sisters of America, Save the Children, the United Negro College Fund, the American Cancer Society and the National Minority AIDS Council.
“It’s a sad thing to say, but most people listen to celebrities,” she says. “And that’s really bad. But if it works, use it. I’ll use my name because I know it attracts certain people. So I do it because I’m asked to, and because I should.”
LaBelle remains motivated by simply observing the world around her, she says: “The world we’re living in inspires me to try and do something better and positive each day. The world inspires me to be a better human being because there are a lot of bad ones out there.”
Over the years, LaBelle has consciously avoided “going to Hollywood,” which means “ego-tripping,” she says. “I can’t stand it when people get grand and let their egos get out of control.” So that explains why she feels so strongly about treating others— especially her fans—with equality and respect.
“Being fair to people and never thinking you’re better,” she says.
“Never looking down on a fan at an airport or a grocery store— never embarrassing the people who made you.”
In the last chapter of her memoir, LaBelle reflects on the road to age 50 and sums up the lessons she learned along the way. She realized that she was “blocking the blessings” in her life by “not living for today because [she] was worrying about tomorrow.”
Now, LaBelle sees her future as shiny and bright—containing “lots of platinum,” she says. “That’s what I’m looking forward to. I’m looking to become a platinum artist. All my life I’ve been looking for it.” Of course, when she’s not in the studio, LaBelle will be on the road, connecting with audiences and sharing her undying passion for music—a passion that, in a way, has kept her alive.
“There’s nothing like [performing],” she says. “It’s the best feeling. Being three feet away from someone and seeing their emotion, whether they’re laughing or crying or hugging someone who they didn’t know until they came to my show. I see that, and it does something to me. It’s very special.”