[21 July 2008]
In the early 1960s, girl groups like the Ronettes, Crystals and Chiffons topped the pop charts on both sides of the Atlantic with hits like “Be My Baby” and “Da Doo Ron Ron”. In what might be considered rock ‘n’ roll’s “phase two”, these groups introduced millions of young Americans to black soul music. From 1964-69, the aptly named Supremes stormed onto the scene, scoring 12 number one hits and laying down the groundwork for contemporary crossover pop/soul. It wasn’t until the latter part of the decade, however, that the raw rhythm and blues of artists like Percy Sledge and Aretha Franklin would begin to be recognized and appreciated by a wide audience.
Patti LaBelle, born Patricia Louise Holte, began her musical career during the girl group era with 1962’s “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman”, but it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that she would come into her own as one of the indisputable legends of soul. With the wildly independent group LaBelle (also comprising Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash – essentially a revamped version of her 1960s group, the Bluebelles), Holte and her bandmates redefined the dynamics of the female vocal group. Thrilling audiences with their lavish costumes and controversial material, LaBelle released six studio albums between 1971 and 1976. The most successful of these was their fourth record, Nightbirds, which included the massive number one hit single “Lady Marmalade” (better known to some as the song that launched a thousand transvestite bars). Patti LaBelle’s tireless, earth-shattering soprano would take precedence both on stage and in the studio, while Hendryx’s songwriting garnered rave reviews from critics, especially for the group’s final two albums, Phoenix (1975) and Chameleon (1976). Shortly after the release of Chameleon, however, LaBelle disbanded and Patti began a successful solo career, releasing a string of strong R&B singles into the mid-1980s.
June 10th saw the release of both The Essential Patti LaBelle and Live in Washington, D.C., via Philadelphia International/Legacy Records. The former, a two-disc career retrospective covering the years 1962-1997 (plus bonus track “Mean Ol’ Man’s World” from this year), exhibits an uncompromisingly idiosyncratic musical journey. The latter is a complete concert recording from 1982, immediately following the release of the singer’s first album with Philadelphia International, The Spirit’s in It. It not only provides insight into LaBelle’s prodigious vocal talent, but also her immensely vibrant personality.
Yet another installment in the Legacy series, The Essential Patti LaBelle represents the various stages of the singer’s career adequately, if a little too equitably (some of the material from the mid-‘80s and ‘90s is pretty lackluster). Disc One glides into action with R&B chart topper “If Only You Knew”. This is perhaps the best single LaBelle released in the 1980s. Smooth, elegant, and soulful, it embraces a simple approach that smartly eschews needless embellishment. “Love, Need and Want You”, a live cut of “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” and “The Best Is Yet to Come” (with Grover Washington, Jr.) follow less perfectly in this same vein. The rest of Disc One is fairly solid, with the exception of 1984’s tasteless “New Attitude” (as featured on the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack) and an underwhelming Babyface-penned confection from ’95. A high-flying, 10-minute version of Cat Stevens’ “Moon Shadow”, a little closer to searing jazz-fusion than most vocal-driven soul, is a highlight, as is “Junkman”, the single that started it all.
It’s Disc Two that packs the most punch, however, for the simple reason that it contains the bulk of the tracks Patti recorded with LaBelle (the group) in the mid-1970s. “Lady Marmalade” is every bit as good as you remember, while its Nightbirds companions “What Can I Do For You?” and “You Turn Me On” further showcase the group’s stunning vocal chemistry, with mind-boggling harmonies and more death-defying acrobatics from Patti herself. The set also offers one cut from each of LaBelle’s other acclaimed releases (Pressure Cookin’, Phoenix and Chameleon), the best of which is the yearning slow-burner “Isn’t It a Shame”. Two tracks from Patti LaBelle’s ’77 namesake solo debut, “Joy To Have Your Love” and “You Are My Friend”, are among some of the other fine inclusions.
Patti LaBelle Live in Washington, D.C. is as enjoyable for its documentary of LaBelle’s early ‘80s stage demeanor as it is for the music. Its chief value lies in its exhibition of this bona fide pop icon’s indomitable personality and infectious enthusiasm. Usually, when you hear a live album, you expect certain subtleties to be sacrificed in the fervid immediacy of a concert setting (take, for instance, any live album by Queen) – not so with Patti LaBelle.
Overall, what The Essential Patti LaBelle and Live in Washington, D.C. prove beyond a shadow of a doubt is that both record-listeners and live audiences must never expect dilution from an Arch-Diva whose artistry is so completely fluid. Whether your evidence is her time with LaBelle in the mid-‘70s or the work she did on her own in the early ‘80s, Patti LaBelle’s iconic status endures to this day for good reason. Summarily put, Christina Aguilera-led power combos be damned, this is the real deal.
P.S. Rumor has it there’s a new LaBelle album in the works with Lenny Kravitz (yep, that guy) in the producer’s chair.