While hurricanes Diana, Aretha and Tina were pelting the country, Patti LaBelle was offshore, gathering force. Batten down the hatches, she’s finally hit. It was a 25-year wait, but it was worth it. She has a smash one-woman show at Broadway’s Minskoff Theatre, a new album titled (appropriately enough) Winner is due out next month, and she’s just completed her first made-for-TV movie, Unnatural Causes, for NBC. “People may not have seen me on television or heard my records all these years,” says LaBelle, 41, “but I was working away.”
Was she ever. Anybody who’s heard her put out a song knows that an exorcism in Dolby sound can’t compete. That LaBelle’s big hit is called New Attitude seems ironic, for it is the same old attitude that has propelled her career skyward: Work like a dog and don’t complain. In 1977, after 18 years as a lead singer with three black female groups—the Ordettes, Bluebelles and LaBelle—Patti went solo and in 1982 toured the country in Your Arms Too Short To Box With God. But the LaBelle epic got serious last spring. Appearing on the Motown Returns to the Apollo TV special, she blew away the crowd singing I Want To Know What Love Is with Diana Ross and a stageful of stars. She nearly upstaged last July’s Live Aid benefit with her rendition of We Are the World, causing some to grumble that she was hogging the mike. “If you give me a mike, what am I supposed to do?” she counters. “I can’t hold back.” Raves fan Cyndi Lauper: “Singing with Patti is like being in heaven.”
Forget the magnetic voice that can testify, plead for mercy, scat, slither and slide. Let’s talk hair. During her New York run she has replaced the gravity-defying coif that looked as if someone stuck broken LPs in her scalp with what she calls “my trash can. It’s my hair integrated with [fake] pieces in various shapes, held together with bobby pins and a whole lot of hair spray,” she explains. “It’s very useful. Sometimes I get gifts from the audience—rings and necklaces. I can just keep things up there in my bucket. I can put fried chicken in there if I get hungry and take it out and eat it.” Or have a picnic with the audience. No one is more intimate with her fans than LaBelle, who’ll pull them onstage to dance, or toss them her spiked heels and furs to try on. Sometimes she gets so lost in a song that she appears to slip into a trance, then rolls across the stage. “What I do comes from the soul,” she insists. “It’s something about those lights, that mike, that audience. I let all my emotions out.”
So much so that there are no histrionics left to take home. In fact, the former Patricia Holt, born and raised in Philadelphia, says she’s a bore. “If I go to a party, I won’t dance, and I want to leave before I get there,” she says. “I don’t smoke, do drugs, drive or swim, and I only drink white wine.” Her husband and manager of 17 years, Armstead Edwards, 43, concurs: “Onstage I see a completely uninhibited person. When I go backstage after the show, that person is gone. Thank goodness I don’t have to live with Patti LaBelle the performer.” He almost never got to live with her at all. She turned down his marriage proposals twice because “I needed more time to be free,” she says. The third time, she proposed to him and he accepted.
Family has always been important to LaBelle, one of four daughters. Her parents separated when she was 12, but she remained close to her father, a railroad worker, who visited regularly. On the road most of the year, she savors time at her three-story home in Philadelphia. “There’s nothing Hollywood about her,” says son Stanley. “She cooks, and we eat a lot and watch TV and play board games.”
The couple has three children. The oldest—Dodd, 27, who manages a Philadelphia health spa, and Stanley, 23, a Harvard law student—were adopted nine years ago after the death of their mother, who lived across the street. “They became attached to my husband,” LaBelle says. “He helped them with their homework, and I cooked for them. It wasn’t that they knew who I was or anything.” In 1974 LaBelle gave birth to Zuri (from the Swahili word for “beautiful”). “At first I didn’t want to have kids,” allows LaBelle. “I was touring a lot and thought having a baby might slow things up. Zuri wasn’t planned, but I love him more than anything.”
From the time she began singing with the church choir at 13, LaBelle has never stopped performing. Still, success always seemed meant for others. As a member of the Bluebelles, she watched partner Cindy Birdsong replace Florence Ballard in the Supremes. While touring Europe in the late ’60s, she worked with an unknown piano player named Reginald Dwight, later known as Elton John. Now it’s her turn. For the last 20 years, LaBelle has included in her shows a spiritual version of Over the Rainbow, which she likens to her own quest for recognition. “The only thing I have to get over now is that hump, that rainbow,” she says. “I’m getting ready to go over that sucker.” From the looks of things, she’s already landed in Oz.