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Diva: Our 1986 Patti LaBelle Feature

(MANDATORY CREDIT Ebet Roberts/Getty Images) UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 18: MINKSOFF THEATER Photo of Patti LABELLE, Posed portrait of Patti LaBelle (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

This article originally appeared in the April 1986 issue of SPIN.

There are at least three different people running around inside Patti LaBelle. At least three. Sometimes they merge and confuse the issue, blur the images we have of her. But most of the time they are sharply defined, separate from each other, as night is from day.

There is Priscilla, the onstage, rambunctious, glory-hallelujah-voiced diva of rock ‘n’ soul, strutting her hellfire-and-brimstone stuff, her white fake nails curved, clawing the electric air surrounding her performances like the hooked talons of some prehistoric, predatory bird, art-deco hair swept up and back like the fanned wings of a condor. Priscilla is out there, on the edge of dream and fantasy and mystery and magic, outrageous, scintillating, reckless. This is the Patti LaBelle that most of her public knows, and especially those who are holdovers from the days when she was the lead singer for the spacequeens of rock, LaBelle. 

And then there is Patti LaBelle, the interpreter of ballads, who is inside the same body as Priscilla, up there onstage, who wears the same outrageous clothes and hairdos, but she is softer, gentler than Priscilla ever could be. She is the bridge between Priscilla and the other one, the one the public doesn’t know. 

This third woman is Patricia Louise Edwards, an admittedly shy, unassuming wife and devoted mother to a 12-year-old son, Zuni, and two adopted sons, Stanley and Stocker Dodd. This domestic side of the diva rarely goes to parties, has very few close “star” friends—her best friends are mostly those from high school days—shuns the fast lanes of the glittering Hollywood set, loves living in Philadelphia, does much of her own grocery shopping and housework—although she has a housekeeper—loves to cook for her family and close friends—and everyone says she can cook her ass off!—and polices her own bags at airports because of a phobia that redcaps might lose them. This woman’s idea of a good time when she’s home and not on the road entertaining? Playing cards with friends and eating plenty, plenty hard-shell crabs washed down with cold Heinekens. And this woman, unlike Priscilla and Patti, admits to being afraid. 

Patti LaBelle is different, and in the past has been thought of by people who didn’t know her as even being a little bit strange. But today one thing is certain about Patti LaBelle (at least it is true of her two onstage personas, Patti LaBelle or Priscilla, take your pick) and that is that she is a sizzling hot property in the entertainment industry, poised on the verge of superstardom. Not that she hasn’t been famous or a star in the past, because she has, but on a different level; she was more of cult figure then, and to a smaller though devoted following. 

This time around and with the release of her new album, Winner, on MCA Records (scheduled for late March or early April), Patti LaBelle’s management brain trust, husband Armstead Edwards and Gallin Morey Associates, hopes to put her over the top. This time around they’re going for the jugular vein of the worldwide market of faceless faces that live off digestible images of pabulum and People magazine-marketed entertainment, McDonald’s hamburgers, designer jeans, soap operas, shopping malls, the characters of Dallas and Dynasty, the quips and banalities of Ronald Reagan, yuppies and buppies, and all those divergent, disruptive and divisive elements that make up Madison Avenue’s mass. This time around Patti LaBelle wants it all, and so stardom promises to be something different. It will be bigger and, quite possibly, more disquieting and disruptive for that other, shy, domestic lady, Patricia Louise Edwards, who admits to being afraid.


Diva: Our 1986 Patti LaBelle Feature


Patti LaBelle arrives 35 minutes late at the downtown Philadelphia boutique for women that she co-owns with her husband. The store is called La Belle Ami and is located in a section of the city that was first historic, then was a slum, and now is moving towards the fashionable. In fact, some people now call the area “Society Hill.” Like Patti LaBelle, it is “in” these days. Classy boutiques abound. Polished Mercedes Benzes and BMWs are parked there, and fashionable people are seen hurrying everywhere. 

Patti apologizes for being late, saying she got caught in traffic. Her husband, a tall, lean, elegant, and handsome man with short hair and a beard, smiling, takes her wrap and helps her into a seat in the office in back of the boutique. She is smaller and calmer in person—more spiritual, in fact—than I had imagined her. She has beautiful, large, almond-colored eyes that look straight at you with an almost childlike innocence and directness. Even her hair is different from what I expected. It falls in cascades of long, twirling ringlets—reminding me somewhat of Diana Ross’s hairstyle, only less of it—and frames an almost serene, angelic face. This is Patricia Edwards sitting across from me, demurely draped in a long gold lamé dress. Only her ever-present white fingernails give a clue that inside this woman are Patti LaBelle and Priscilla. 

“I started singing when I was about seven years old,” she says, tugging with her nails at the sleeve of her dress. “Just started singing for myself around the house. When I got older I started listening to Nina Simone, Dakota Staton, and Gloria Lynne. They were my favorite singers to listen to, but not to emulate or imitate. Other than listening to music I just stayed in my room, playing with my animals and looking into the mirror. That was it. I had no other friends but the animals and the mirror. 

“I had three sisters and one brother,” she continues, her hands now folded in her lap, “but I didn’t play very much with them either. I was a homely child, a very homely child, at least I thought I was, and I didn’t like playing with people. I just thought animals and mirrors were safer. And today I’m finding out that in most cases this is still true.” 

Her personality onstage began to emerge when she was about 15 after she joined a Philadelphia choir. People began to rave about her voice all around Philadelphia, where she was born on May 24, 1944. That makes her a Gemini, the sign of the twins, a split personality. But it was after she started singing around Philadelphia with local groups that she discovered the onstage personality of Priscilla. 

“When I would perform,” she recalls, smiling now at the recollection of her discovery, “I would be very outgoing, just real loose, and, you know, anything went. I was amazed at finding this other self, this real loose self, because I always had morals and knew not to do or say certain things. But there was a different personality up on that stage when I started singing, an altogether other somebody once I opened my mouth and sang. 

“And that somebody wasn’t afraid like my normal self was,” she continues, her large eyes sparkling, growing even larger. “I have never been afraid to get up there onstage and sing, though I would be too shy to sing to just one person.” 

After singing around Philadelphia for a while, Patti joined a group called the Ordettes, which included Cindy Birdsong, who would later become a member of the Supremes. When two members of the Ordettes left, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash were brought in to replace them. But their manager, Bernard Montague, changed the name of the group in 1961: Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles were born. Their first hit, the multimillion-selling “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman,” was released in 1962. In short order, the Blue-belles released “All or Nothing,” “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” “I Believe,” “Danny Boy,” and “Down the Aisle,” which gained them a devoted following and a reputation as one of the foremost girl groups of the period. They toured extensively through America, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Europe. While in England, they met a young piano player named Reginald Dwight who played for them during their 1966 tour. Today he is known as Elton John. 

By the early 1970s, LaBelle, the first all-female, all-black rock group, had forged a small but almost fanatical, near-cult following. This pre-crossover audience was a strange and bizarre mixture of divergent styles and people. 

“I remember LaBelle doing a concert at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, October 6, 1974,” recalls their former road manager, Ken Reynolds, “where we said we wanted everybody to wear silver. In my mind I envisioned people coming in a silver dress, or a silver bracelet, or a silver necklace. But I never expected to see a human being walking around the Metropolitan Opera House lobby with her body sprayed in silver and wearing a silver jock strap! I mean, silver bracelets and necklaces were in the minority,” he continues, cracking up now at the memory. “I mean, there were people in silver capes, silver clown costumes, silver coats and suits, everything you could imagine. It was wild!” 

It was in London that the transformation from Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles to LaBelle took place. The Bluebelles had gained their reputation by singing traditional, black R&B songs, spiced with reworked standards and ballads. Now, in the late ‘605, after Birdsong left the group to join the Supremes, the remaining three decided to keep going, change the group’s name and their singing style. Under the direction of their new English manager, Vicki Wickham (then producing the acclaimed British TV series, Top of the Pops), a new blueprint was thrown up to place LaBelle in the front ranks of rock music. Even their onstage dress was radically changed, from the traditional to the wild, outrageous, space-queen look which made LaBelle trendsetters for the more theatrical costumes later adopted by all-male rock groups like Kiss. Their music now cut across generic lines. White audiences liked LaBelle because their music was rock oriented. They toured with the Who and the Rolling Stones as opening act. Still, despite their dedicated hardcore white following, the group suffered from a lack of radio airplay. And so, in spite of critical acclaim, their first three albums, LaBelle, Moon Shadow, and Pressure Cookin’, were only modest financial successes. But with their first album for Epic in 1974, things began to change rapidly. 

“I remember walking into the studio in New Orleans when they had just finished recording the Nightbirds album for Epic,” says Ken Reynolds, “and everyone was so very excited. Almost jumping up and down with joy. And the song that they were so excited about was a cut called “Lady Marmalade.” So they play it for me and I hear this ‘gitchee-gitchee-ya-ya-ya’ stuff and say, ‘Why, that’s the stupidest song that I have ever heard in my life. There’s not one sentence in the song.'” 

Sentence or no sentence, gibberish or not, the single “Lady Marmalade” was a smash hit and went platinum in America. Besides putting them at the top of the recording industry, the album made LaBelle the new darlings of jet-set circles. Two more popular albums followed NightbirdsPhoenix and Chameleon. But after all of the years together, trouble lay ahead for LaBelle. 

It is a cold day in December 1976. Patti LaBelle is sitting in the restaurant of a Baltimore hotel eating with members of her band and the rest of LaBelle’s crew and staff. What’s strange and different and ominous about this scene is the absence of Sarah Dash and Nona Hendryx. Up until now this had been a very tightly knit group, one that always ate together and played together. So their absence signaled that something was wrong. 

The night before, in Cincinnati, there reportedly had been a serious disagreement between LaBelle, Hendryx, and Dash, three longtime friends who had been so close that once, while in Ottawa, Canada, they had all dressed in one dressing room, although the promoter had provided each of them with her own. But they had always dressed together. This was the way they wanted it, this closeness at all times. They were like family. But now there were rumors among the crew that one of them had quit the group, because for the first time, on that cold December night in Baltimore, each of them had gone into her own dressing room and dressed alone for the show. 

They went out and did the show, but two songs from the end, in the middle of their very dramatic song, “Hollywood,” Nona Hendryx suddenly walked off the stage. Patti and Sarah finished the number, at which point one of LaBelle’s staff jumped onto the stage and told the audience that the show was over. Patti protested, but the audience was already filing out. 

Nona was found and brought to her dressing room, where she immediately locked herself in. She began destroying the dressing room and beating her head against a wall. Outside her locked door, pandemonium broke out. Everyone was hysterical. Patti and Sarah were screaming for help and crying. The crew had to break down the door to get to Nona, who was found bleeding profusely. She was taken to a hospital, having suffered a nervous breakdown. This was the last performance of LaBelle, a short distance from where it had all begun 15 years before in Philadelphia. 


Diva: Our 1986 Patti LaBelle Feature



“It was us,” says Patti LaBelle, growing pensive at the memory of the breakup. “We just couldn’t do it together anymore, because we had different ideas musically. I wanted to do a lot of ballads, Nona wanted to remain in heavy rock, and Sarah wanted to do disco, or cabarets, or whatever. So we said before we’d fool the public and go out there and take their money and pretend that we were having fun, we’d end it. So we did, because we had to. We had reached our pinnacle as a creative group, and there was no other place to go but out on our own and individually do our own things.” 

“LaBelle had three very strong personalities up on stage and offstage, too,” says Ken Reynolds. “Nona was the writer, and a brilliant writer, but she was a little difficult and could be very demanding. She wanted things exactly the way she wanted them and that was the way it was going to be. Sarah,” he continues, “was the body, the beautiful face that all the men came to see. But she could sing. But she also was very easygoing, too easygoing if you ask me. Patti was also easygoing, and there were times when I thought that she should have taken a stronger stand against Nona. She was the focal point of the group. Things that she knew were not right I think she should have spoken out stronger against.” 

When it was over, the breakup of LaBelle left Patti shattered.

“It was very painful,” she says, “very, very painful. It was shrink time for me because it was like a marriage breaking up, and also I didn’t know what I was going to do. I knew I had to sing, but I also knew that I had to sing by myself, which was very, very traumatic. I didn’t think that I could go out there by myself, because I wouldn’t have anybody to blame if anything went wrong. But I went on out, and the first time that I performed as a solo after the breakup, the people gave me a standing ovation. They accepted me. This was about a year and a half after the breakup, the summer of 1978, I think. But the year and a half before my solo debut had been hell. I went to a shrink for him to let me know that I was all right and that I shouldn’t be afraid, that whatever I was feeling was natural, you know? And it was natural, and so I went out there and performed and saw that it was all right.” 

And it was. Her husband, Armstead, who up until now had been an assistant principal, gave up his career to manage her. (She has known him since childhood-19 years, 16 of them in marriage. According to Patti, he “loved my sister Barbara first. But since she dogged him, I thought I would give him a chance.”) LaBelle’s former piano player, James Budd Ellison, came on board as Patti’s musical director. Two albums were recorded and released. One, Released, matched her again with Allen Toussaint, who had produced the landmark Nightbirds album for LaBelle. The single from that album, “Released,” was critically acclaimed and sold well across the country. 

In the beginning of the ’80s, Patti made her acting debut in PBS-TV’s production of Studs Terkel’s Working. She also starred in two other PBS specials: tributes to Duke Ellington and Eubie Blake. But it was in Vinnette Carroll’s play Your Arms Too Short to Box With Cod that Patti gained respect as a musical-theater artist. But her experience in the Broadway hit wasn’t all pleasant. There were problems with her co-star, Al Green, the great singer. 

“We didn’t get along at all in that play,” she says matter-of-factly. “We are good friends now, but during the play, I hated his guts and he hated mine. He just couldn’t stand me and I could have killed him. We almost got into a fist fight because of the tension. My sister was dying of cancer, and I just couldn’t take his ego thing. Throughout that production, I just wanted to break his face. But we are good friends now, and I love his voice and talent. We talk all the time on the phone now. Other than Al, I loved doing the play.” 

In 1984 she played the barmaid, Big Mary, in Norman Jewison’s film adaptation of Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize—winning play, A Soldier’s Story. She also was tested by Steven Spielberg for the role of Shug Avery in the film The Color Purple. She didn’t get the part, a part she says she “would have been perfect for.” 

“I want to do movies,” she says, “if the right ones come along. But if they don’t, I’m not going to cry or die over it, because I’m very content doing what I’m doing.” 

And what she’s doing now is going about the business of trying to expand her audience. In 1985, she took giant steps towards accomplishing this. First, there was her spectacular performance on the Motown Apollo TV special when, during the finale, she just blew everyone away, especially Diana Ross, who had handed her the mike. It was a dazzling display of vocal pyrotechnics that left everyone limp and in awe. This was followed by her Live Aid appearance before an estimated one billion television viewers, and once again she was riveting, the showstopper. And finally there was her very own Thanksgiving TV special, The Patti LaBelle Show, that featured Bill Cosby, Cyndi Lauper, Luther Vandross, and Amy Grant. 

“Since the special,” she says, shifting her weight in her chair, “I’ve gone into households that I wouldn’t have gone into if I hadn’t done something like that. So I’m going to get that Tina Turner crowd and the Bruce Springsteen kids. I’m going to get the yuppies and the children, too. I’m going to get them all. I know it. Because they’re just now finding out who Patti LaBelle is.” 

But what about all those people who will start bothering her once her face gets to be instantly recognizable—won’t that make her uptight? 

“No,” she says right off the bat. “It’s a problem when they don’t recognize me. Gosh, I look for people. I hope that they come up and say they want an autograph. Yeah, it turns me on. It’s not an intrusion. I mean, you become an entertainer to be intruded upon. That’s why you become an entertainer, so people will recognize you. But a lot of people who get to this point,” she adds, her voice rising now with excitement, “go to Hollywood and get real crazy and grand and say things like, ‘Oh, my privacy is so important.’ 

What one gets from this woman most of all is a love for her work. She says she will be singing until she drops and somebody carries her off the stage. Norma Harris, her hairdresser and longtime friend, says she worries about Patti because of the intensity of her performances. 

“Patti can’t wait to get out on that stage,” says Harris, who created LaBelle’s art-deco hairdo, which she calls “the fan,” “because she loves to sing, loves to give her audience herself. Sometimes I think she gives too much. And sometimes, I hate to say this, I actually think that she’s going to kill herself onstage. Because she gives all of herself out there. She takes it from the stomach, from her heart and it totally drains her. She cries a lot onstage. She sweats. She works herself to the point of exhaustion. So sometimes I get afraid for her. I’ve seen Patti do a great show and then listen to her saying she didn’t think it was good and actually want to give the people their money back. She’s too hard on herself, too hard.” 

But push on she does. Besides the TV appearances in 1985, she had two hit singles off the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack, “New Attitude” and “Stir It Up.” She also has a live album in the can. And with such people on her new Winner album as Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, Michael McDonald, and Peter Cetera of Chicago (with whom she sings duets), songs by Burt Bacharach and Carol Bayer Sager, and three songs produced by Pointer Sisters producer Richard Perry, Patti LaBelle is trying to parlay a great 1985 into a fabulous 1986. 

But Patti has her detractors, some of whom don’t like what they perceive as a grandstanding attitude. They think that LaBelle uses her great voice as a weapon to destroy when pitted against less gifted singers in situations like the Motown special and Live Aid, where people were supposed to be singing together, not competing with one another. And then there are those who think her crossover efforts will not bear fruit because they see her as diluting her special gifts. Some point to her TV special and what they say was a lukewarm response to a lukewarm show, one in which she toned down her act in an attempt to cross over. These people have adopted a wait-and-see attitude. And then there are still some who preferred her during her more avant-garde days with LaBelle and dismiss her music today as general family entertainment. These people say they would rather listen now to the old records of LaBelle, the group, rather than to Patti LaBelle, the solo act. 

Whatever the final verdict, one has a feeling that Patti LaBelle will always be in there kicking and singing and stirring things up. For those who say she is a grandstander, she says, “God blessed me with a great, big voice. So when I sing with other singers I’m not trying to outsing them or anything. It just happens to work out that way sometimes, because I don’t hold anything back when I’m singing. I don’t try to offend anyone. But I’m a very impatient person,” she goes on, “very, very impatient. I have to have it now, or forget it. I’ve always been this way, and that’s why I give everything in my singing because I have to have it all and right now, and I have to give it all.” 

She says she doesn’t listen to music around her house when she’s there relaxing, not even to herself. What she does like to do is play cards and gamble. She once lost $10,000 in a game of blackjack. She thinks Miles Davis, Cicely Tyson, and Wynton Marsalis have great personal style. She says that she is religious but doesn’t go to church, hates vacations and beaches, and has great admiration for Coretta Scott King, the widow of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She says she loves to laugh, especially when someone who was acting stuck-up and cool trips and falls, or people snore loudly with their mouths open. She admits to having a strange sense of humor. 

“One part of me wants to be out entertaining, and the other part of me wants to be home with my family, being a homebody, spoiling my son Zuni because I’m away from him so much. So when I’m home, I let him do whatever he wants to do until his dad gets home, and then he goes back to prison.” 

The two other sons, Stanley and Stocker Dodd, were adopted some years back when their mother, a neighbor and good friend of Patti and Armstead, suddenly died. In their early 20s now, they are as much a part of the family as Zuni. 

Patti admits to still being a kid at heart, to having a lot of “little girl” in her. “Oh, I am,” she responds, giggling, almost taking on the persona of a little girl, her eyes sparkling mischievously. “And I love to be babied. But my husband doesn’t do it enough. He’s really straight. I knew he was like this when I married him. I mean, I knew the job was dangerous before I took it. 

“He doesn’t baby me nearly enough,” she says again, looking over at him mischievously. He just smiles. “He doesn’t hear me crying, at least he pretends he doesn’t. I think he knows the movie already, and I think he knows that I’m trying to exploit him. So he’s just stern. He just doesn’t give me what I want all the time, which is probably good, in the long run, because everybody else does.”