Capable of matching the wail of a fire engine and yet just as affecting when singing barely above a whisper, R&B legend Patti LaBelle has enjoyed one of the longest careers in contemporary music. Active since the early '60s with the Bluebelles — the girl group that evolved into '70s funk trailblazers LaBelle — she has notched hits in a variety of sounds including girl group pop, gutsy soul, space-age funk, hard-hitting disco, lush quiet storm, and high-tech pop. The singer began a solo career in 1977 that has been highlighted by 13 Top Ten R&B singles, including the chart-topping quiet storm classic "If Only You Knew" (1983) and crossover hits such as "New Attitude" (1985) and "On My Own" (1986). Although she's known more for her singles than for her albums, two of her later full-length projects, Burnin' (1991) and Live! One Night Only (1998) have won Grammy Awards in the R&B field. LaBelle since then has recorded albums rooted in gospel and jazz, namely The Gospel According to Patti LaBelle (2006) and Bel Hommage (2017), while remaining active as a performer and actor.
Born Patricia Holt in Philadelphia on May 24, 1944, Patti LaBelle grew up singing in a local Baptist choir, and in 1960 teamed with friend Cindy Birdsong to form a group called the Ordettes. A year later, following the additions of vocalists Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash, the group was renamed the Blue Belles. With producer Bobby Martin at the helm, they scored a Top 20 pop and R&B hit in 1962 with the single "I Sold My Heart to the Junkman," and subsequently hit the charts in 1964 with renditions of "Danny Boy" and "You'll Never Walk Alone."
The quartet, now known as Patti LaBelle & the Bluebelles, signed in 1965 to Atlantic, where they earned a minor hit with their version of the standard "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." In 1967, Birdsong replaced Florence Ballard in the Supremes. The remaining trio toured the so-called "Chitlin' Circuit" for the remainder of the decade before signing on with British manager Vicki Wickham in 1970. Wickham renamed the group simply LaBelle and pushed their music in a funkier, rock-oriented direction, and in the wake of their self-titled 1971 Warner Bros. debut, they even toured with the Who. The trio also collaborated with Laura Nyro on the superb R&B-influenced album Gonna Take a Miracle. By 1973, LaBelle had gone glam, taking the stage in wildly theatrical, futuristic costumes. A year later, they became the first African-American act to appear at New York's Metropolitan Opera House. The landmark performance introduced "Lady Marmalade," which in 1974 became their lone chart-topping single, produced by Allen Toussaint.
After two more full-lengths, 1975's Phoenix and the following year's Chameleon, LaBelle disbanded, and their namesake mounted a solo career with Epic, where she released a studio album each year from 1977 through 1980. During this period that produced Patti LaBelle, Tasty, It's Alright with Me, and Released, she worked with David Rubinson, Skip Scarborough, and Allen Toussaint. LaBelle all the while stuck to straightforward and sophisticated R&B with some dancefloor appeal. Nine A-sides from this phase charted, including the Top 40 R&B singles "Joy to Have Your Love" (a funkier number co-written by Ray Parker, Jr.), "It's Alright with Me" (a typically graceful and warm-hearted gem from Scarborough), and "I Don't Go Shopping" (a retro-contemporary ballad). Her biggest club success came with "Music Is My Way of Life," which peaked at number ten on Billboard's disco chart.
LaBelle moved to Philadelphia International for a five-year run that yielded 1981's The Spirit's in It, 1983's I'm in Love Again, and 1985's Patti. PIR co-founders Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff worked on all three with varying assistance from label associates Dexter Wansel, Bunny Sigler, and Cynthia Biggs. Most successful was the gold-certified second release, propelled by the quiet storm classics "If Only You Knew," which topped the R&B chart and threatened to crack the pop Top 40, and "Love, Need, and Want You," a Top Ten R&B hit. LaBelle had concurrent success as a featured artist and duet partner, first with Grover Washington, Jr.'s "The Best Is Yet to Come" — a show she stole, as it snared a Grammy nomination in the category of Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female — and then with Bobby Womack's "Love Has Finally Come at Last." Early in this era, LaBelle began a sporadic acting career with a co-starring role in a Broadway revival of Your Arms Too Short to Box with God.
LaBelle had left Philadelphia International before the release of her pieced-together third album for the label. Signed to MCA in 1984, the singer immediately underwent a high-tech sonic makeover similar to that of peers the Pointer Sisters and Chaka Khan, and became a full-blown pop star with the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack contributions "New Attitude" and "Stir It Up." Even with the obvious bid for pop success, the songs still appealed to LaBelle's core audience and fared best on the R&B chart, peaking respectively at number three and five. The former became a Top 20 pop hit (eventually nominated for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female), and the latter almost pierced the Top 40 weeks after LaBelle performed at Live Aid. The momentum carried into 1986's Winner in You, LaBelle's first MCA album, which went platinum on the strength of the Burt Bacharach-written "On My Own," a duet with Michael McDonald. Both the LP and the single topped the pop and R&B charts, while second single "Oh, People" became LaBelle's sixth solo Top Ten R&B entry. Two more Grammy nominations ensued, this time for Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal ("On My Own") and Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female (Winner in You). LaBelle closed out the '80s with Be Yourself, the source of a couple more major R&B hits: "If You Asked Me To," written by Diane Warren, and "Yo Mister," written and produced by Prince.
LaBelle recorded a little less frequently during the '90s. All three of her studio albums released during the decade — 1991's Burnin', 1994's Gems, and 1997's Flame — nonetheless went either gold or platinum and peaked in the R&B Top Ten, while four of their singles placed similarly. Burnin' finally provided LaBelle with a Grammy for Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female. During this period, LaBelle also published her autobiography, Don't Block the Blessings: Revelations of a Lifetime, and released two live sets. The latter one, 1998's double-length Live! One Night Only, won a Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Performance.
After LaBelle released her final work for MCA, 2000's When a Woman Loves, she briefly associated with Def Jam subsidiary Def Soul, where she issued 2004's Timeless Journey and 2005's all-covers Classic Moments. She switched labels and gears for The Gospel According to Patti LaBelle, a Universal-distributed recording that topped Billboard's gospel chart in 2006. Two years later, she temporarily reunited with Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash for Back to Now. LaBelle continued to frequently tour and landed occasional acting gigs, including a recurring role on American Horror Story and an appearance on Empire, and developed a popular line of baked goods. In 2017, she made a full return to music with Bel Hommage, a set of jazz standards supported by Sony. ~ Andy Kellman & Jason Ankeny