Patti LaBelle likes to tell the story about when she was a very young teenager in the early ’60s and had her first hit record, “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman”. The Philadelphia native said she thought the song was about a girl who fell in love with a garbage collector and had no idea that “junkman” was slang for a heroin dealer. LaBelle’s tale has the ring of authenticity. There were many hit songs from the era that concerned teens who fell in love with a person from the poor side of town. The truth is LaBelle has never especially paid attention to her lyrics. Even on her biggest hits, like “Lady Marmalade” and “New Attitude”, the soul diva seemed more interested in belting out the lyrics then finding their deeper connotations and nuances. This worked on her big hits as it gave the narrator an aura of bravado — perfect for a high-class prostitute or someone determined to change her life. This also makes her music danceable as the sound and cadence of her voice overwhelms the meaning of the language.
This rule holds true on the Philly songstress’ latest effort, Classic Moments. Don’t let the title full you. The disc does not compile great tracks from her past repertoire but features all new recordings of old tunes made popular by others. Some of the song selections are more inspired than others, yet with the sole exception of one serious misstep, the material seems well chosen. Perhaps now is the time to mention one truly bad choice. LaBelle performs a duet with Elton John on his early hit, “Your Song”. John’s composition is a gentle, sentimental ode to a loved one with a climax that sweetly says “How wonderful life is with you in the world”. Here John prods LaBelle to get louder and louder. After all, that is her signature sound. But this doesn’t fit the lyrics and comes off like an exercise in celebrity self-indulgence as Patti and Elton stridently call each other by their first names and declare their mutual affection.
Mary J. Blige is the other famous guest star that makes an appearance on the disc. Blige and LaBelle’s duet on “Ain’t No Way” works better because the Aretha and Carolyn Franklin composition is a soulful emotive cry of pain of a woman in response to a man who walks out on love. Blige and LaBelle roughly play their voices against each other’s, and then join together in Gospel-style harmony as they croon their mutual sorrow. The song’s beauty consists in the layering of vocal expressions of anguish as a release from the heartache. The duet may end with the screams of LaBelle fading out, but the hurt seems earned.
As the aforementioned songs suggest, almost all of the tunes on the disc concern love. Songs with love explicitly in the title include “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore”, “Love Ballad”, “I Can’t Make You Love Me”, and “You’re Gonna Make Me Love Somebody Else”, and even those without the direct naming link to that emotion are clearly about the topic, such as “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time” and “He’s Out of My Life”.
The Philadelphia R&B diva may get loud, but she’s always had a superb sense of rhythm. This works on up-tempo tracks, like her cover of Michael McDonald’s (co-written with Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller) bubbly and romantic “I Keep Forgetting” as well as slow grooves, such as her version of “Silly”, originally a hit for Deniece Williams. Both of these hook-filled cuts deserve radio play.
The most surprising selection on Classic Moments is LaBelle’s selection of the Pretender’s brashly anthemic “I’ll Stand By You”. She sings to a sparse accompaniment, slowly builds to a climax, and then starts to howl. Her commitment to another person exceeds what mere words can say. The feeling comes across loud and clear in an unambiguous voice.
LaBelle has made terrific records for more than 40 years. She’s performed live at the White House, Carnegie Hall, and just about every world-class venue one can name. But she’s not content to rest on her laurels. She’s still putting on shows and making new records. While her latest may not be earth-shaking, there’s still plenty of fine stuff here. Maybe it’s not a classic, but it’s damn good.