Exactly 30 years ago, things were beginning to pick up for Patti LaBelle.
She had just released “I’m In Love Again,” her sixth solo album, over the winter. Recorded at Philadelphia’s famed Sigma Sound Studios and mostly produced by Philly-soul legends Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the album went gold thanks to the hit singles “If You Only Knew” and “Love, Need and Want You.”
“It was a wonderful time in the studio, just being locked down for, like, hours,” recalls LaBelle, 69, on the phone from her Philadelphia home. “You know, going in maybe at one o’clock and coming out maybe at 10 or 12 that night, and just going back the next day until I finished.”
More hits would come for LaBelle the following year when she performed the songs “New Attitude,” her first crossover hit as a solo artist, and “Stir It Up” on the “Beverly Hills Cop” soundtrack.
“I think Eddie Murphy called for me,” she says, remembering how she got involved with the soundtrack. “No, I don’t think – I know. So he asked for Patti LaBelle. His people called my people – or he called me, I can’t remember – and said, ‘Will you do two songs on the soundtrack?’ And of course I said yes.”
Some may remember that as LaBelle’s star was beginning to shine as a pop/R&B diva, so did her hair. (Who can forget her moussed-out, black swan-looking ’do?) She lays the blame on longtime friend Norma Harris-Gordon for all those wild-and-woolly hairstyles. “She’s been doing my hair for 43 years,” she says. “She is the originator of all that crazy hair.”
Oh yes, it was during the ’80s when LaBelle’s diva stock began to rise. Of course, before that, LaBelle fronted the ’70s singing group LaBelle (formerly The Blue Belles and then Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles) with Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash performing in wigged-out outfits and getting people on dance floors with hits like “Lady Marmalade.”
Despite gaining some success with the group LaBelle, she remembers how it was still difficult for black performers to get mainstream notice back in the day. She believes it’s still difficult for black performers.
“Well, I think it was a little harder with the girls,” she remembers. “The longer you’re in the business, the easier things get. But they never become fair. There are a lot of black women who have No. 1 records who are on the charts, and not necessarily on the pop charts – but, you know, R&B charts – who should be crossing over.”
LaBelle recalls how one song she recorded ended up becoming a hit for Celine Dion. “When I did ‘If You Asked Me To,’ it did nothing in sales, and she recorded the same song – actually the same way – and hers became triple-platinum or whatever,” she says. “So it’s not been as bad for me lately as it has been in the past.”
With all the hard work LaBelle (who will be performing at Durham Performing Arts Center Saturday) believes she has put in throughout the decades, it drives her up the wall to see contemporary divas out there doing subpar work, often relying on Auto-Tune or other recording-studio trickery.
“They’re not real recording artists as far as I’m concerned,” she says. “They don’t go in the studio and stay until they get it right, without turning on some machine to enhance their voice.”
LaBelle does have love for those she believes are the real deal – like Beyonce, Ledisi, Jill Scott and Fantasia. But the rest need to change their game up.
“There’s not many more Gladys Knights, Anita Bakers, Aretha Franklins, Phyllis Hymans and the girls who did it well and did it properly,” she says. “And the ones who are doing it now – they’re pretending. And when you go to their live shows, you’ll see how much pretense it was in that freakin’ studio, because they don’t have anything to do onstage.”
But LaBelle doesn’t have time for these callow youngsters. She’ll be spending 2014 working on a number of projects – a jazz album here, a dance album there, maybe doing some ballads. And, of course, she’ll be stirring it up as always, live on stage.
She says, “After you see me perform, you will have to go home knowing that I was 110 percent on that stage, giving you everything that I could – or 150 percent!”