musing about patti labelle

December 7, 2016 in stop look & listen by editor

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With a personality as colossal as her vocal chops, Patti Labelle has been a national treasure since she entered the musical spotlight in the 1960s. Born Patricia Louise Holte in 1944 in Philadelphia, she began singing at a young age, joining her church choir at age 10. With several school friends, she started vocal group the Ordettes in 1960 but by 1962, the line-up had transitioned to include other local singers, Cindy Birdsong, Sarah Dash and Nona Hendryx. They signed to a small indie label, changed their name to Patti LaBelle and the Blue Belles, and began recording as a doo-woppy R&B styled girl group. The Blue Belles scored modest commercial success, including a killer cover ‘Over the Rainbow’, but by the end of the decade, they had lost Cindy Birdsong, who joined the Supremes in 1967. And their look and sound had not kept up with the times. So, the three remaining Blue Belles took off for London, where they reconnected with friend Vicki Wickham, a producer on the British TV music show ‘Ready, Steady, Go!’.

Wickham, whom they had met several years earlier after performing the on show, became the Blue Belles’ new manager. She wanted to take the group in a different direction, to make them more of a harder rock act comparable to Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones but with a funkier sound. First came a name-change — they were now simply LaBelle. Nona took on song-writing duties, penning socially conscious songs about politics and female empowerment, subjects more in line with the times. They also updated their image. No more matching dresses and wigs; when LaBelle returned to the US, they were decked out in platform boots, bell-bottoms, and Afros.

For the first few years of the 70s, LaBelle bounced between record labels as their first three albums failed to gain traction. But then Nightbirds happened. Featuring the monster hit ‘Lady Marmalade’ (1975), Nightbirds launched the group into the rock ‘n’ roll stratosphere. LaBelle pushed their image even further, wearing outrageously glittery garb designed by costumer Larry LeGaspi: a mishmash of intergalactic space suits, Native American-inspired flourishes and colorful war-paint. LaBelle became known as much for their look as for their sound and fans would often show up at live shows sporting similarly spacey gear.

By 1977, Patti, Sarah, and Nona were ready to move on and the group amicably parted ways. Patti released her first solo record later that year but solid commercial success was still a few years away. Her biggest hits came in 1984 when she recorded two songs for the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack, ‘New Attitude’ and ‘Stir It Up’. She also began acting in movies and on TV. And just as she had with LaBelle, Patti’s style became a much-discussed talking point, specifically her hair. Those sculptural ‘Art Deco’ ‘do’s created by stylist Norma Harris were not so different from some of the headgear worn during the LaBelle days. (Harris once described them as ‘sophisticated hairstyles with no set pattern, just different angles’.)

Patti continued to make music throughout the 90s and 2000’s, winning a couple Grammys along the way. At 72 years-old, she still tours and performs, but is also enjoying life as an entrepreneur with her monstrously successful food line, Patti’s Good Life (which apparently has one of the most amazing Sweet Potato Pie). This month, her new show ‘Patti LaBelle’s Place’ debuted on the Cooking Channel, featuring Patti, and her trademark sense of humor, cooking up her favorite dishes for famous and not-so-famous friends and family.


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Patti LaBelle and the Blue Belles (1964), and then minus Cindy Birdsong (1966)

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Update publicity shots with the new-look LaBelle (1972)

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Sporting cowrie shell-covered tunics, beaded chest plates, and spandex.(1976)

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On the cover of Rolling Stone (July 1975) and wearing more Larry LeGaspi’s flamboyant stage gear.

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Patti’s eponymous debut from 1977, and the cover for ‘New Attitude’ single in 1984.

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Topped off by Norma Harris ‘Art Deco’ hairstyles in a publicity shot and onstage at Live-Aid (1985).

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Reunited and it feels so good. With Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash in 2011.

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All dressed up in 2014 (photo by Derek Blanks) and wearing Andrew Gn caftan (2011)