‘Godmother of Soul’ Patti LaBelle to perform at Green Music Center
Patti LaBelle is a soul singer, actor and author, yet she’s best known for a song about a prostitute.
“Lady Marmalade” came out nearly a half-century ago, yet it remains the song that audiences most want to hear at LaBelle’s concerts.
When she recorded the song in 1974, LaBelle didn’t know what it was about or the meaning of the French phrase, “Voulez vous coucher avec moi ce soir?”
“It’s about a hooker trying to make a living,” LaBelle recalled during a phone interview last week.
“It’s still the No. 1 song in my show that people have to hear,” she said, though she added, “I have so many great ballads.”
Often called the “Godmother of Soul,” LaBelle performs at the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University on Thursday.
Born Patricia Holte in Philadelphia in 1944, she changed her name, at the suggestion of an early manager, to Patti LaBelle.
While still a teenager in the early 1960s, with a backing group called the Blue Belles, she performed at the Apollo Theater in New York.
She sang the gospel-infused “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and other songs, earning acclaim from fellow performers and audiences.
“The Apollo Theater is life or death,” LaBelle said. “They’ll kill you or they’ll love you, and if you’re bad, you’re not going to embrace that stage again.”
Today she is a member of the Apollo’s Hall of Fame and calls the theater her “second home, where I grew up.”
In the 1970s, LaBelle and her band, also called LaBelle, became almost as well-known for their outrageous outfits as for their songs.
They’d gone from elegant gowns to bizarre space-age costumes.
“We wanted a new direction to get attention from the audience,” she said.
People would not come to see “ordinary Black women,” LaBelle said. “You have to give them something to look at.”
She went to her backup singers, Sarah Dash and Nona Hendryx, and said: “Let’s do head wraps, headdresses, high boots and something silver.”
There was big hair, and there were feathers, lots of feathers.
“People would say, ‘Let’s see these three crazy ladies. Let’s see what they’re doing,’” she said. “The costumes had a lot to do with LaBelle’s success.”
Noting that in the 1980s, Madonna used breastplates similar to those Dash wore a decade earlier, LaBelle said, “A lot of girls banged off of LaBelle’s style.”
Clearly, LaBelle was Lady Gaga before Gaga was born.
Performing with Gaga a few years ago, LaBelle said, the younger singer told her, “Because of you, I stretch.”
That was “a great compliment,” LaBelle said, adding with an laugh, “A lot of those chicks were influenced by these OGs.”
Fans may fall at LaBelle’s feet these days, but when she and the Blue Belles began touring in the 1960s, especially in the South, they often were treated abysmally.
When hotels that would only accept white guests turned them away, they slept in their station wagon.
When they couldn’t get into restaurants, they subsisted on sardines, peanut butter and candy bars.
“But it made us strong,” LaBelle said.
In an interview with Dan Rather, she said, “We rode through the hate, we sang through the hate, and we all grew into fine ladies.”
As a performer, LaBelle has a knack for singing songs differently each time, so every show is fresh.
But when she played the mother of Nigerian singer Fela in the 2009 Broadway show “Fela,” she quickly learned she had to do her songs the same way in every performance.
Her fellow actors were depending on her cues for their timing, so ad-libbing was out of the question.
“That’s when I became disciplined, doing Broadway plays,” she said. “That’s when I learned how to listen to the director and do exactly what I was supposed to do.”
LaBelle has had a screen acting career as well, starring as Big Mary in Norman Jewison’s 1984 film, “A Soldier’s Story.” The movie opens with LaBelle singing “Pourin’ Whiskey Blues” in a Louisiana bar during World War II.
LaBelle has appeared on “The Masked Singer” and “Dancing With the Stars,” the latter at age 70. And she wrote a memoir, “Don’t Block the Blessings.”
Her voice — which she modestly calls “decent” — reaches soaring heights and evokes emotion in cathartic crescendos. She’s sold millions of records and been nominated for 13 Grammy Awards, winning two.
In 2003, “Lady Marmalade” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. LaBelle learned the song was about a prostitute “when the nuns were beating us up for doing stuff about a hooker.”
She may not have known the song was about a hooker, but LaBelle knew it had a hook.
“I just knew that hook was phenomenal,” she said. “I didn’t say, ‘What does it mean?’ No, I just knew it was a hit.”
Outside her performing career, LaBelle puts her heart and soul into her cookbooks, such as “LaBelle Cuisine.” She includes recipes from her mother, her father and other relatives now long gone, “so they don’t ever die,” she said.
All three of LaBelle’s sisters died young, before they reached age 45.
“When I made 45, I just knew I was blessed,” LaBelle said. “And then 50. Now I’m 78. And I know that God is all over me.”
Grief-stricken in 1989 after the loss of her sister, Jackie, LaBelle was scheduled to make a video for the song “If You Asked Me To” on the day of her sister’s burial.
“I was going to cancel the video, but she was a Patti LaBelle fanatic. And she would say ‘Go on girl and make that video.’”
If you watch the video closely, you can see tears forming at the corners of LaBelle’s eyes.
After two years staying mostly at home due to the pandemic, LaBelle is happy to reconnect with her adoring fans.
LaBelle was married for more than 30 years, and remains friends with her ex-husband, Armstead Edwards, after an amicable divorce in 2003. Her son, Zuri Kye Edwards, serves as her manager. She’s also a proud grandmother to three “grandbabies. They’re my life,” she said.
Even during her darkest days, LaBelle never stopped singing.
“I have to sing,” she told Oprah Winfrey on “Oprah’s Next Chapter” in 2013.
“Music is my life; that’s what I do,” LaBelle told Winfrey. “I don’t sing to make money. I sing because I really love it. Thank God I can still do it.”
Michael Shapiro danced to “Lady Marmalade” at his bar mitzvah. Thankfully his grandparents had no idea what the song was about.