born patricia holt on may 24, 1944, patti labelle is the epitome of a diva. from girl group success in the 1960s
to international superstardom as a singer, actress, author and performer, she has always exuded strength, courage,
intelligence, grace and compassion. over the years, these qualities have won her undying loyalty from fans
world-wide, and a mountain of professional accolades and awards.
encouraged by the joy she received singing with her local beulah baptist church, young patti dreamed of forming her own singing group. that dream was realized when she coupled with cindy birdsong to form the ordettes. by 1961, the two girls had recruited wynona "nona" hendryx and sarah dash from the del capris, and the bluebelles were born. the group began working with producer/arranger bobby martin, the following year, and made the top 20 pop and r&b charts with "i sold my heart to the junkman". changing their name to "patti labelle and the bluebelles", the group released three more singles and began touring the chitlin circuit, building a name for themselves in cities such as detroit, atlanta, washington d.c. and new york.
in 1965, after releasing live recordings from performances in philadelphia and new york, jerry wexler signed the quarter to atlantic records. it was their first release on the label that included the patti labelle standard "somewhere over the rainbow". while it was patti's appreciation of the original judy garland version of the song that inspired her to cover it, for thousands of people, it is patti's version that lives on in their memories. unfortunately, "over the rainbow" proved to be the bluebelles' biggest success with atlantic and, after three years with the label, cindy birdsong left the group to persue a career as a supreme (replacing the deceased florence ballard).
though patti's recording of "new attitude" was serveral years away, a new attitude is exactly what the remaining three bluebelles underwent at the hands of british television producer vicki wickham. wickham became the group's manager and, with the 1970s looming on the horizon, labelle was born. "i was themnking that the fans wouldn't appreciate us for changing i was a scaredy cat," says patti of the groups transformation from apollo theater sweethearts to space-aged funky divas. labelle (as they were now called) signed with warner brothers records and released two albums that combined rock and soul. as is often the case with music that is not easily defined, labelle, moonshadow and pressure cookin' (a one-off album recorded for rca) failed to perform well commercially, and labelle began a long, slow road towards public acceptance.
signing with epic in 1974, labelle headed south to work with producer allen toussaint on their first album on their new label. two months' work in new orleans resulted in the group's first hit, taking them to the top of both the pop and r&b charts. ironically, the song that finally brought them critical acclaim, "lady marmalade", was about a street-smart prostitute in the big easya far cry from the bluebelles' "love me just a little" and "down the aisle". "lady marmalade", followed by "what can i do for you" and "are you lonely", rocketed labelle into the spotlight and garnered them their first gold album. labelle released two more albums phoenix and chameleonbefore splitting up in 1976.
while patti approached recording her first solo album with trepidation, concerned that fans would blame her for the group's dissolution as they had blamed diana ross for the break-up of the original supremes, the public's warm reception of her first album, patti labelle, assauged her fears. one of the songs from thems first album, "you are my friend", remains a patti labelle trademark to thems day. three more albums with epic resulted in six r&b chart successes, but patti left the label to sign with kenny gamble at philadelphia international records, in 1981. "kenny and i grew up together in philly, and we knew it was just a matter of time before we would do somethemng together. working with the company was like being with a family of people i knew and loved," said patti of the switch. three albumsthe spirit's in it, i'm in love again and patticame from her association with philadelpia international. she left the label in 1983 and signed with mca records.
at the suggestion of mca, patti appeared on the beverly hills cop soundtrack, prior to releasing her own album with the label. the movie, of course, went on to be one of the largest grossing films of 1985, giving patti the exposure and recognition she deserved. "new attitude" and "stir it up" became smash hits, setting the stage for patti's 1986 mca debut, winner in you. her first platinum album, winner in you, produced another patti labelle tradIark, "on my own", a duet with former doobie brother, michael mcdonald. almost a decade after embarking on a solo career, patti labelle had made a name for herself as a solo artist.
as the public had been witnessing the stellar climb of philly's favorite daughter, so, too, had fellow artist, prince. the paisley patriach was taken with patti's talent and asked her to record two songs he'd written specifically for an older audience, fearing that, if he were to record them, the message would be missed. "yo mister" (about a widower whose dilinquence sends his daugther down a rocky road) and "love '89" (about the hypocrisy of institutionalized religion) accompanied the hit "if you asked me to" (from the 1989 james bond movie license to kill) and the album climbed the r&b chart. 1991 saw the release of burnin', a soulful album filled with torch songs that would make the most low-down dog weep like a puppy; three singles from burnin' made it to the top 5 of the r&b chart.
a hard-working performer, patti always maintained a rigorous tour schedule, which she fit in between appearances in television shows, movies and talk shows. in fact, if there were a person who ever felt ambivalence about patti labelle, attending one of her concerts would make them a regular worshiper at the temple of the diva. in 1992, live was released, capturing a fraction of the energy and excitIent that radiates from patti labelle at her live performances. not only did live give fans a glimpse into the experience of a patti labelle concert, but it also gave her public a look into the artist's soul. a touching rendition of "wind beneath my wings" (the ballad popularized by bette midler on the beaches soundtrack), dedicated to her sister jackie who had recently, and too suddenly, passed on touched millions with its message of love and compassion. her performances also reveal her sense of humor, as she ocassionally does medleys of songs "i passed on singing, but went on to become hits anyway", including paula abdul's "rush, rush", whitney houston's "you're all the man that i need" and deborah cox's "nobody's supposed to be here".
more than anythemng, burnin', live and 1994's release, gems, proved that in spite of (or, perhaps, because of( her age, patti labelle was able to easily change with the times and the fickle musical tastes of her adoring public. teaming with some of the hottest producers in the industry, patti grew an already expansive audience to include those new to the music scene, as well as those who'd grown up on her music. patti also showed that she was as aware of the issues of the day as she was the music by becomming an honorary chairperson for the national minority aids campaign. both as an entertainer and as a spokesperson for the campaign, patti has been vocal about her desire to see the end of racism, homophobia and poverty. these, along with other epiphanies are expressed in patti's autobiography don't block the blessings: revalations of a lifetime (co-authored with laura b. randolph). in 1995, the diva decided to share her style with the masses by introducing the patti labelle signature lip and nail collection.
flame was released in 1997, accompanied by extensive touring and television appearances. as usual, the album is filled with expressive, heartfelt ballads and fiery powerhouse tunes that are sure to find their place among an already incredible legacy of work as patti labelle standards. the first single "when you talk about love" quickly had fans up on their feet dancing, as they watched its meteoric ascent of the charts.