Patti LaBelle Still ‘Doing Her Own Thing’

Press of Atlantic City by Eric Fine (2003-07-31)

Patti LaBelle’s career will forever be linked to the song “Lady Marmalade,” which paid homage to a Creole prostitute in New Orleans. Released in 1975, the tune created controversy en route to claiming the No. 1 spot on the pop charts and generated sales figures in the neighborhood of a million copies. The song’s lusty French refrain – “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir” – roughly translated to, “Do you want to sleep with me tonight?” Even a half-dozen years after the Summer of Love, the song was ahead of its time.

But now? In the Digital Age its racy content barely merits a blip on the radar screen. Compared to the language wielded by the rapper Eminem and his hip-hop brethren, “Lady Marmalade” qualifies as a harmless come-on. The song doesn’t even have a word of profanity.

LaBelle, who turned 59 in May, laughed at the irony earlier in the week on her way to a performance at the Rockefeller Center in New York. “Oh, of course,” she said by phone. “It (the song) is very, very tame compared to some of the stuff you hear today.”

Not that this bothers her.

“Everybody is doing their own thing,” she said, “and doing what they really feel from their heart. It could be pleasing to someone or not. They’re going to do it anyway. It just means that everybody is free to be themselves – more so now than yesterday. Yeah, we do have much more (artistic freedom), thank God.”

The Philadelphia singer – who, along with James Brown, will perform Saturday at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City in a fund-raiser to pay for renovations to Margate’s Lucy the Elephant – expressed excitement over the younger artists who are behind the revival of rhythm-and-blues, funk and soul music. “I’ve seen it through my music,” LaBelle said. “The kids are doing it now.”

She cites a cover of “Lady Marmalade” on the “Moulin Rouge” film soundtrack that features Christina Aguilera, Pink, Mya and Lil’ Kim. Additionally, she said, a song called “Dilemma,” performed by Kelly Rowland and Nelly, is a variation of her song “Love, Need And Want You,” and the rap duo OutKast will sample the same song on a forthcoming album.

“It’s a compliment,” she said. “It’s the highest form of flattery. It’s like they’re reaching out to the older people. I mean, we’ve been there, we’ve done it. I’ve broadened my audience a lot with these young kids.”

LaBelle, who grew up in West Philadelphia, formed a vocal group called the Ordettes with her friend Cindy Birdsong. In 1961, the group changed its name to Patti LaBelle and the Blue Belles after Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash signed on. The group scored a few hits, including a song called “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman” that reached No. 15 on the charts in 1962.

Birdsong left the group to join the Supremes in 1967, and the Blue Belles’ fortunes changed dramatically in 1970 when Vicki Wickham, whose clients have included Dusty Springfield and Morrissey, began managing the trio. The group received a makeover, both literally and figuratively.

With a new moniker – LaBelle – and a wardrobe that eschewed sequined gowns in favor of “glam” costumes, the group toured with The Who and the Rolling Stones, collaborated with singer-songwriter Laura Nyro and recorded the aforementioned “Lady Marmalade” before breaking up in 1976.

As a solo artist, LaBelle abandoned the group’s energetic combination of R&B and rock music for more tranquil ballads. She has won two Grammy Awards, and her vast catalog includes the platinum-selling album “Winner In You” (1986) and three others that have been certified as gold. She has performed as an actress, written an autobiography and received recognition for her activism, including her efforts in the fight against cancer, diabetes and AIDS.

LaBelle signed with Def Jam Recordings’ Classic imprint in early July and expects to complete a new album later this year. She spoke of cameos by Carlos Santana and Bono and promised some high-octane dance music.

“It’s going to be a departure,” she said. “It’s not going to be like a (weepy) ballad album.”

LaBelle admitted that these days she rarely listens to music.

“Today, I don’t listen to anything,” she said. “I don’t even listen to me. After I record a song, I never listen to it again, unless I have to learn it for a TV show or something. You know the CD players in my house? I don’t know how to work them.”

Tickets for Saturday’s concert run $55, $75 and $95, and the concert begins 8 p.m. at Boardwalk Hall, between Mississippi and Georgia avenues. Organizers are offering a two-for-one price on the $55 and $75 tickets. Call (609) 736-1420 or online at

Eric Fine is a free-lance writer from Philadelphia.
Copyright, 2003, South Jersey Publishing Company t/a The Press of Atlantic City

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