Though everyone acknowledges the fact that Patti Labelle possesses one of the most powerful and expressive voices in popular music, she remains best known for two untypical but hugely successful tracks. "Lady Marmalade" and whatever that duet with Michael McDonald was called are the songs for which the general public remembers her. Neither of them would even make the top ten for most of Patti's more obsessive devotees (among whom we can cite Luther Vandross, once president of her fan club).
How refreshing then to have a "Best Of" collection (for that is what this is, despite the title) that excludes both of those songs. More than refreshing is the inclusion of some of the great, and criminally ignored, material from her 1997 album Flame. This is possibly the only retrospective set that will come your way this year where the most compelling reasons for purchasing it are the most recent recordings. Not that they are the only ones, for Hip-O (as they are wont to do) have produced a fine compilation here. It is far superior to any other (and there are a few) Patti Labelle packages doing the rounds just now.
Anyhow, before you enjoy the rest of a generous 17 tracks worth of luscious love songs and chunky mid-tempo shufflers, check out "Someone Like You" and "When You Talk About Love". These show that while a lot of attention was being lavished on the neo-soul artists in '97, some of the less "neo" stars were in classically spine-tingling form that year. "When You Talk About Love" is a Sounds of Blackness-ish anthemic stomper while "Someone Like You", with its arresting church-based intro and rock-solid beats (courtesy of Jam and Lewis), is everything you could ask of a modern soul song. A mixture of the raucous and the sweetly melodic, it carries great weight and that stamp of authority that only a truly distinctive and hugely gifted vocalist can ensure. For, make no mistake, Patti Labelle is one of the elite of female singers -- up there with Aretha and Gladys.
Apart from the sheer strength of her singing, what makes her special is the combination of gospel and doo-wop influences that form so vital a part of her considerable vocal armoury. The gospel element hits you straight away but the vocal group side is often overlooked (though see Mark Anthony Neal's recent PopMatters column for an exception to this blindness). It is sometimes forgotten that the gospel/doo-wop synthesis is every bit as historically important as the R&B/gospel one that usually forms the basis of writings on sixties soul.
This is particularly true of artists from New York, Detroit, and Patti Labelle's native Philadelphia. She remains both the great torchbearer and a useful reminder of that magical post-war hybrid. If you only know the more high-octane, coloratura side of her delivery, try the magnificent "I Don't go Shopping" from 1981, which uses those '50s sounds to great effect and is one of the few modern doo-wop efforts that avoids pastiche.
A third element that shapes her art is one that generally causes the less idolatrous fan the most problems. I am referring to a predilection for The Broadway Showstopper and for a certain Over The Top balladry. A huge presence and no little technical skill usually carries the day -- for instance on "The Best is Yet to Come", where her long notes take on an unworldly dimension -- but often they needlessly over-gild a sufficiently rare lily.
That and a few dated synth arrangements (oh, the 1980s -- don't you love them?) are about the only flaws in a series of consistently rewarding songs. "Love is Just a Whisper Away" is as delectable a close-dancing swayer as you will get and even kitsch-tendency cuts like the discofied "Joy To Have Your Love" are redeemed by those soaring vocals. From 1993 comes the Ann Nesby penned "The Right Kind of Lover", the most gospel driven of the songs. At the smoother end of the spectrum and of obvious current interest, is "Love You, Want You, Need You", recently covered by Jaguar Wright. The Wright version holds up well but the fuller arrangements and the greater vocal range on the original makes it irreplaceable.
The earliest material is from the late seventies, so Greatest Love Songs is a selection from 20 years of recording, covering nine albums. It leaves out some of the better-known post-Labelle (the group) disco material but remains a varied if not totally representative glimpse at a major figure. I don't think any soul singer, male or female, whose style was forged in the sixties could offer so substantial a body of work. Even if you find the songwriting a little on the sugary side, I defy you to find a single number that contains a weak, or even under par, performance from the star.
And that is what it's all about for the flamboyantly re-named Patricia Holt. She was a veteran of the girl-group phenomenon, fresh from soul-rock fusion and had been part of various innovative collaborations, by the time of the earliest tracks on offer here. This is her mature work, in both the musical and chronological sense. That being the case, "The Voice", as she is apparently sometimes known, can herein be appreciated at its sublime and long-lasting best. You can chart some changes in musical fashion in the different production styles, but the singing represents a constant and immutable excellence.
Next time someone is hailed as the inheritor of the tradition Patti Labelle represents, try and imagine them attacking a ballad like "Somebody Loves You Baby" with even half the intensity and agility of the ageless one. Every track, even the more showbizzy affairs, is a persuasive reminder of what the term "soulful" means. There is wealth here beyond the dreams of even the most materialistic of the current crop of Burris/Beyonce wannabes. Let us hope it is a form of richness that some of them can recognise as such -- and maybe attempt to discover for themselves.
For us mere listeners, we can simply bathe in the warm glow of the slower songs and marvel at the incandescence of the more dramatic pieces. There is something larger than life, almost operatic about both the persona and the voice, and that can unsettle a modern audience. But it is no sham, Patti Labelle operates on a scale that does not easily fit our TV-sized world. The gestures can therefore seem too grand, the brushstrokes too broad. Fortunately we have speakers and sound systems to cope with such dynamism. Give the music the volume it demands and any worries about "corniness" will disappear.
"Best of" sets tend not to appeal to connoisseurs, for obvious reasons. However, this one is worth a place in any collection. Even die-hard fans sometimes need a concise picture of their favourite artists. That is exactly what Hip-O have provided. As a remarkably consistent portrait of a Diva in full flight, this comes highly recommended.