Patti LaBelle may be sitting on the top floor of Sony’s midtown headquarters, meticulously dressed in a Michael Boris suit with Christian Louboutin pumps, looking out on the magnificent view, but she says there is always something to remind her of her roots.
“I thought I was going to die,” she says, with a laugh, recalling the 98-degree heat earlier this month. “We came from Philadelphia in a limo where the air turned into a heater. It was a ghetto limo that was broke-down. He had to stop at a 7-Eleven and the front of the car was dripping and leaking and the air was not working. And I’m menopausal, I could have choked and pimp-slapped that driver. I said, ‘I want to kill him.’ I went through the heat like that. ... I was, like, ‘Hey, Miss Patti is here. She’s ghetto-style, but she’s still fabulous.’”
It’s a combination that LaBelle has maintained for more than four decades of her legendary career - one that is as busy as ever, with two new albums, a tour, a new line of hot sauce, an upcoming cookbook and a reunion album with her group LaBelle, due in September, with help from Lenny Kravitz, Missy Elliott and Wyclef Jean. And it’s a combination that is so ingrained in her personality that sometimes she forgets the challenges she has overcome on the way to her achievements.
Her new concert album, “Live in Washington, D.C.” (Philadelphia International/Legacy), for example, was a struggle that she only recently remembered in preparing for its release.
“I totally lost my voice that night,” LaBelle says of the night in 1982 when the show was recorded. “Back in the day, I was taking those steroidal shots - prednisone - it would give you a pretend voice for 12 hours and you would be able to sing through a show. But my doctor said he wouldn’t give me a shot. He said, ‘What you need to do is cancel tonight’s show and go home.’ I said, ‘It’s two sold-out shows at Constitution Hall. I’m not going to cancel.’ And he said, ‘Oh, yes you will, or if you go onstage we’re going to have the cops come and take you off.’”
Well, we all know no one talks to Miss Patti that way. “What I did was, I left the hotel and I went down the street to a gas station and I waited there for hours while everyone was looking for me,” she says, laughing. “When it was show time, I got a cab and went into Constitution Hall in a certain way so that the fans would see me because then I knew they couldn’t cancel, since people already saw me. That night, I did two shows with the voice I had and I listen to it now and my voice wasn’t bad.”
Of course, one woman’s “not bad” is another man’s “delirious delight,” as British critic David Nathan calls it. “‘If You Don’t Know Me by Now’ was particularly poignant, a dynamic demonstration of the subtleties that make Patti such an exceptional gospel-rooted singer,” writes Nathan in the liner notes of the album, which had sat in the vaults of producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff for more than two decades.
LaBelle says she had such a good time reliving the concert that she plans to add a few of the songs from it, including “If You Don’t Know Me by Now,” into her current tour.
But as fun as it is for her to look back, looking forward is more important. Though her career is filled with classics - from “Lady Marmalade” to “New Attitude” - in recent years, LaBelle hasn’t had a big hit, despite releasing strong albums and working with hot producers. She wants to change that with a new solo album set for later this year that she hopes will include work with Mariah Carey and Ne-Yo, but she’s not counting on it.
What’s been the problem? “I think it’s because I’m black,” she says, matter-of-factly. “You take the song ‘If You Asked Me To’ that I did and my friend Celine (Dion) did with basically the same arrangement. She sold a trillion copies and I sold two copies. I know it’s racist. I know if I had a white face with my voice, I would be bigger. I believe I would be a little higher on the pole. But this is life, and you know what I’ve learned to do? Accept it and take all the wonderful blessings I’ve gotten out of this life.”
LaBelle says she knows that her unwillingness to play the game - or, as she puts it, “being the original G” - has held her back as well. But she’s OK with that, too.
“I’ve been here for so many years doing it just the way I want to do it - not listening to doctors, not listening to managers, not listening to record labels,” she says. “My heart tells me what to do and I do it.”