NEW YORK - The words were ones of godly praise but the voice - the shivering lows and rip-the-roof-off highs - was the unmistakable five-octave range of soul siren Patti LaBelle.
Yet some in the audience at Brooklyn’s Christian Cultural Center seemed unsure of how to respond to the veteran voice known more for “Lady Marmalade” than “God Ain’t Through,” one of the 11 rousing tunes on “The Gospel According to Patti LaBelle,” the 62-year-old Philadelphia native’s first gospel CD.
So before warbling another word, the often-brassy LaBelle - the popular singer, actor, and author - shared a few heartfelt words.
“He is not judging, so please, tonight, whatever you do, please don’t judge me,” she said, as the packed megachurch fell into a hush. “I just want to tell everybody who might have felt a little funny and said, ‘Patti LaBelle, ain’t she a secular artist?’ “
“Yes,” she continued. “And I still am. I’m not coming home to gospel, I never left gospel.”
The crowd erupted in thunderous applause, some yelling, “Love you, Ms. Patti - love you, Ms. Patti,” the common refrain heard at her numerous secular shows. Front-row friends such as songwriters Denise Rich and Sami McKinney clapped wildly.
Once more, LaBelle opened up her powerful pipes and flooded the sanctuary with song. It was the Lord’s house, but it was Ms. Patti’s stage.
“She’s very intuitive,” said Rich, who has written several songs for LaBelle over a decade. “When she gives a concert, she comes in, feels the crowd, and gives them what they need. I don’t know any other performer like that.”
For LaBelle, “The Gospel According to Patti LaBelle” was a labor of love but one that had been delayed many years, mostly because of concerns from her various record labels that saw her solely as a pop and R&B queen.
After its Nov. 21 release, the album shot to the top of Billboard’s gospel chart, a sweet moment considering LaBelle’s very public drop from Island Def Jam Records last year.
The project became even more important to her when James “Budd” Ellison, her musical director and advocate for the gospel album, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. “Four songs into the project he passed away,” she said from the Brooklyn stage, giving due to the venue with her long Zang Toi caftan with choir sleeves. “He got a chance on the hospital bed to put on the headphones and listen to the music he knew I always had in me.”
Proceeds from the album are to benefit cancer research, including the University of Pennsylvania’s Abramson Cancer Center.
“The Gospel’s” soulful songs, featuring Mary Mary, J Moss, CeCe Winans, Wynonna Judd and Kanye West (some of whom appear at each tour stop), bring LaBelle’s 45-year career full circle.
Before her launch with the late-1950s girl group the Ordettes and fame with the Bluebelles, LaBelle was Patricia Louise Holt, the shy girl with the big voice in a Philadelphia Baptist choir.
She has firm religious roots, so criticism that a secular performer should abstain from singing the sacred irks her. She points out that there is a long tradition of R&B singers recording gospel among their bodies of work.
“Some people have said, ‘Now that her secular life didn’t work, she’s doing gospel ... If I were that hard up, I wouldn’t have said, ‘Let’s give the proceeds to cancer research,’ ” LaBelle said over lunch in Philadelphia several days after her New York show.
“It’s just that this is my first chance to do a gospel CD. But I am gospel, I am R&B, I am pop.”
Even if it takes a moment, it’s clear from the audience’s shouts of “hallelujah” and “praise God” that LaBelle’s church songs touch people. The church shows, too, seem to help her lay her own public losses and private burdens down.
On stage in Brooklyn, her voice often broke as she talked between songs about death in her family, about raising her son Zuri along with her sisters’ children, about seeing her musical friends such as Ray Charles, Luther Vandross and Gerald Levert pass on.
“My mother died of diabetes, my father died of Alzheimer’s ... My three sisters died of cancer before they turned 44. They were all such beautiful women and they died with dignity,” LaBelle said.
When the mood got somber, LaBelle brought the laughter back.
“They’re saying,” she said of her sisters, “you better bring it home, you heifer.”
Then the band and choir struck up, and LaBelle launched into “Walk Around Heaven,” one of her sisters’ favorite songs (which is included on the album).
Even in church, LaBelle believes it’s her job to sing like a virtuoso, then talk about diabetes and hot flashes.
“When I get on stage, I don’t feel I should be phony and not tell the truth,” she said. “Not that they come to hear my stories, but sometimes you just want to chitchat. I tell them I’ll sing in a minute, but right now I just want to talk about breast cancer awareness.”
The diva has taken some knocks in recent years. There was a reported “breakdown” in March after LaBelle struggled on a Florida concert stage, which she attributes to chilly temperatures. Then there’s her 2000 divorce from husband and former manager Armstead Edwards.
A big hit came last year, when she was unceremoniously dropped from Def Jam on chairman Antonio “L.A.” Reid’s watch. The move shocked fans and some industry folk.
“I’m not going to say any names. I’m not going to cut anyone,” LaBelle said with a laugh. “I’m so much better than that, to let a little man, a little-minded man drop me from a record label ... They just didn’t know what they had.”
In addition to the gospel album and cancer activism, her newfound freedom is allowing her to get more involved with other causes dear to her heart.
A Philadelphia youth football league bears her name. And last week she appeared at Philadelphia City Hall to stand up and support Mothers in Charge, the antiviolence group. There, among the tears, she confessed that like other mothers, she worried when phone calls to her adult son weren’t quickly returned.
“She’s a very sensitive person and I picked that up from the very first time I spoke to her,” said Dorothy Johnson-Speight, the group’s executive director. “She could be another strong voice for us on this issue.”
In Brooklyn, LaBelle put all the passion of her strong voice into her finale, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” She stretched each note as she gingerly descended steps at the side of the stage. The music seemed to be coming from her soul, and the crowd alternately gasped and cheered.
“Someday I’ll wish upon a star,” she sang. “... that’s where you’ll find me.”
She thanked everyone - the pastor, the church, the audience - then warbled the last few notes, “... if happy little bluebirds fly, beyond the rainbow… why, oh why, why, why, why can’t I?”
The churchgoers jumped to their feet. “Ms. Patti, Ms. Patti,” they called out. “We love you.”
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