Tina Turner may have the el grande stage show, the magazine covers, and the movies (both starring her and about her), but there's something about the Big Time that leaches some of the personality out of soul music and takes it a bit too far from its gospel roots. For real soul testimony--the kind that understands that often there's not much difference between the Holy Ghost and a love that's wholly the most--you need to look a bit lower on the Entertainment Tonight food chain.
That's where you'll find Patti LaBelle, relying not on her legs, but on her music to raise the roof. A power-pusher like Chaka Khan more than a smoothie like Phyllis Hyman, LaBelle got her start in Philadelphia in the early '60s singing girl-group soul like "I Sold My Heart to the Junkman." She founded Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles in 1962; the group had several hits, peaking with "Down the Aisle (The Wedding Song)," which made it to No. 14 on the Billboard R&B chart in 1963. She also began a long, fruitful collaboration with Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash. The Bluebelles turned into the group LaBelle in 1971. An outrageously costumed trio of the space-funk persuasion, LaBelle the group had the inescapable hit "Lady Marmalade"--off of 1974's excellent Nightbirds, produced by Allan Toussaint--in the spring of 1975. Destined to be used to establish that time period by every filmmaker since, "Lady Marmalade" also taught a generation of American schoolkids at least one line of French, even if it was voulez-vouz coucher avec moi. With Patti's rambunctious vocals and a relentless "hey sister, soul sister, soul sister" background chorus, "Lady Marmalade" kept soul music on the pop charts during a difficult time (when it peaked at No. 2 on the pop charts in March, it was sandwiched between No. 1 "My Eyes Adored You," by Frankie Valli and No. 3 "Have You Never Been Mellow" by Olivia Newton-John. 'Nuff said.).
In 1977 Patti split with her sisters and went solo. For a while, it seemed a mistake, as she experimented with varying styles--at first making her seem inconsistent--and enjoyed only low-level success. She had a No. 1 R&B hit with "If Only You Knew" for a month in 1984, but the album that established her was 1986's Winner in You, her debut for new label MCA. "On My Own," a duet with Michael McDonald, finally gave her the No. 1 pop hit she'd been craving as a solo artist, and the album had several other hits, most notably "Oh, People."
As implied by the phrase "duet with Michael McDonald," LaBelle has learned how to leaven the gospel intensity of her soul with mainstream accessibility. Her new album, Flame, is pretty standard, slick R&B that would probably sound sterile in less-accomplished hands, but her distinctive and muscular voice can inject passion into the most ordinary of songs--particularly live, where she returns more to her roots and shows off more. And believe it, brothers and sisters, when LaBelle starts showing off, the last thing you notice will be the show.
Patti LaBelle performs at the Bronco Bowl Monday, July 14.