Powerhouse vocalist Patti LaBelle has been an R&B musical icon for so long (55 years since her debut single) that, even when she’s veered into other entertainment territories and business opportunities, they have soul. “Now you know that’s just how I roll,” says LaBelle with a sly laugh from her Wynnewood home in the suburbs of her native Philadelphia.
From good-girl-group pop to wanton pre-disco funk (The Bluebelles trio, which eventually became LaBelle, the women behind “Lady Marmalade”), from her role as the silken matron of Gamble & Huff’s “Sound of Philadelphia,” to synth-pop goddess (“New Attitude”), from R&B balladeer to Broadway belter (“After Midnight” and “Fela!”), LaBelle has sung it and wrung every emotion from it. She’s even recorded a holiday album, 2007’s “Miss Patti’s Christmas” (Def Soul Classics), which wound up as her last record until now.
There is only one sound that LaBelle has never recorded during this long career. She takes care of that on May 5 when she releases “Bel Hommage,” a jazz covers album executive produced by her ex-husband Armstead Edwards (“he’s known me and my voice for over 30 years, so why not?” she says of the musical marriage) on a new label (GPE Records) she co-owns with their son and her manager, Zuri Edwards of Edwards Entertainment.
“I have been telling people — press, friends, business associates — about my jazz album for so long with nothing to show for it, I bet they thought I was lying,” she said.
Anyone who has followed LaBelle’s career during the last decade knows that she’s had other work and career opportunities on her mind. “That’s exactly what they were: opportunities that came my way. I’m too shy to hustle or push. I am, however, smart enough to know what is good, right, and of high quality. My son is sharp and intuitive and he knows, too, but he can only push me so much. If and when I want to do something, I do it.”
LaBelle has become a culinary household name for her Good Life foods imprint with Walmart, starting with the famed “Patti LaBelle Sweet Potato Pie,” which got a massive jump in sales when mega-fan James Wright posted a YouTube video of his initial tasting. From there, every new pie and dessert item from LaBelle’s Walmart deal has been nothing but cake. Speaking of sweets, the diabetic LaBelle just published her fourth cookbook, “Desserts LaBelle: Soulful Sweets to Sing About,” which partially focuses on sugar-free morsels.
She is also currently putting the finishing touches on her third season of the Cooking Channel’s “Patti LaBelle’s Place.” Other television gigs, though, have proven to be even more visible. LaBelle has appeared on her Philadelphia producer-director Lee Daniels’ (“he’s my baby”) Fox hip hop drama, “Empire,” with another go-round to follow shortly, as well as a role in Daniels’ other music-related soap opera, “Star.” “He’s always got me in mind when he’s writing,” she says of Daniels. Then there’s producer-director Ryan Murphy, whose “American Horror Story: Freak Show” featured LaBelle in a death scene so horrid, “I don’t think he could write me back into anything I died so hard,” she laughs.
Music, jazz in particular, remains her first and truest love, so much so that when her ex-husband suggested that she record her jazz favorites, she jumped at the process, even though — at the time — she wasn’t completely confident in her vocal abilities. “I just didn’t like how I sounded. My voice wasn’t being kind to me. I knew I could be better. I didn’t think I could do it, but Armstead said ‘Blanche’ — that’s his nick name for me and my drama — ‘I know you have it in you.’ So I did it, and was in it to win it. Now, it sounds more beautiful than I ever imagined.”
LaBelle goes on to say that she fought with Edwards throughout the entire “Bel Hommage” recording process, “even when I knew he was right, just to stir thing up. There’s a lot of laughs, joy, and pain in that album.”
“Bel Hommage” allows LaBelle to be more nuanced and intimate than she normally gets the chance to be on the tender Tony De Vita/Giorgio Calabrese song, “Softly as I Leave You,” Shirley Horn’s quietly theatrical “Here’s to Life,” and the brassy, big-band tones of Gloria Lynne’s “The Jazz in You.” Most particularly haunting, though, are several signature numbers from the late Nina Simone’s songbook such as “Don’t Explain,” “Wild Is the Wind,” and “Go to Hell.”
Not only was Simone one of LaBelle’s favorite songwriters (“her tunes make you feel like you’re floating”) and performers, the two were old pals, as illustrated by a story LaBelle told about her friend. “We did a rainforest benefit for Sting at Carnegie Hall and I get there, backstage, just in time to hear that Nina wasn’t going on stage until I cooked for her. That’s my thing. So got kielbasa, spicy too, and made sure she had brown bread and mustard to go with it — she’s not eating it otherwise. They brought us red wine in plastic red cups, and before I took one sip she yelled, ‘don’t ever drink wine out of plastic! Get us crystal!’ She taught me to be a lady. I loved her and could have made this album all Nina songs. Maybe next time.”
There will be a next time, too. LaBelle claims to have several albums finished for GPE, including a gospel album, a dance-music album, and an album featuring the new first songs penned by fellow Philadelphians Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff — the principles behind Philadelphia International Records — in decades, a fact confirmed by Gamble himself. “When Patti calls, I listen, and we wrote some beautiful numbers just for her,” he said on the 2016 occasion of Gamble, Huff, and LaBelle winning the prestigious Marian Anderson Award.
“This is like a new beginning for me,” says LaBelle of “Bel Hommage,” “new, but still an old friend.”