Patti Labelle

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Patti LaBelle pays tribute to the crew of the space shuttle Columbia.

Patti LaBelle (born Patricia Louise Holt May 24, 1944 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is a hugely successful American R&B/soul singer who fronted two successful groups before rising to stardom as a solo artist in the 1980s influencing a new generation of female singers. Born the youngest of five children including three sisters and a brother, Patti began singing at the age of 14 in church. A shy girl, Patti had a voice of a torch diva. A school teacher advised her to start a singing group.

With friend Cindy Birdsong, she formed a four-member girl group called the Ordettes in 1958. In 1959, when two of the original Ordettes left, Holt and Birdsong brought in singers Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash.

Two years passed until the girls auditioned for Blue Note Records. The president, at the time, nearly passed on the group upon hearing the lead singer was Patti, or "Patsy" as friends and family calls her, whom he had said didn't fit the traits of a traditionally beautiful lead singer. But he changed his mind when Patsy began singing. The president signed them to the label under two conditions: The Ordettes were now the Bluebelles and Patricia "Patsy" Holt would be given a new name - Patti LaBelle. For a woman that didn't have traditional beauty traits, the last name meant "beautiful" in French. The name was changed again to Patti LaBelle & the Bluebelles after the manager of the group who had the same name sought to sue.

In 1962, Patti LaBelle & the Bluebelles scored their first Top 40 pop hit with the release of the doo-wop single, "I Sold My Heart to the Junkman". That same year, they began wowing audiences at New York's legendary Apollo theater later given them the name "The Apollo Sweethearts". Throughout the '60s, Patti LaBelle & the Bluebelles were one of the hottest touring acts at the Chitlin' Circuit while the hits continued: in 1964, they scored again with songs like "Danny Boy" and "Down the Aisle".

In 1966, the group signed to Atlantic Records and scored what later became Patti's signature song with their version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow". Around this time, LaBelle was engaged to be married to Temptations member Otis Williams, but asked to get out because Williams wanted LaBelle to retire from the music business. The next year, LaBelle, Dash & Hendryx received a shock when Cindy Birdsong left to join The Supremes. LaBelle was furious by this that she refused to talk to Birdsong in the next eighteen years.

In 1970, Patti and the Bluebelles moved to England where they met promoter Vicki Wickham, formerly Janis Joplin's promoter. The next year when the girls returned to America, they came out with a different name - simply LaBelle - and a new attitude plus a new wardrobe. The former "Apollo Sweethearts" were now women. Wearing casual clothing and African adornments, Labelle often sung of racism, sexism and politics. Their sound was not taken by heart from consumers.

In 1974, however, learning of a cult following, the women changed their looks again now adorning space-like, rockish and biker uniforms, they began to sing about sex, space and outwardish things that many funk and rock bands were singing about at the time. Their following had grown so much that in October of that year, they were the first African-American contemporary act to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House. That December, they released their greatest record, "Nightbirds", featuring their breakout hit, "Lady Marmalade", which hit #1 on the Hot 100 in 1975, helping "Nightbirds" to go platinum. It was as far as they got as success couldn't ring twice.

In 1976, the group decided to disband leaving all three singers to go into solo careers. LaBelle, now 33, released her self-titled debut in 1977. The album became an important hit for Patti at least on the R&B charts and was notable for the stand-out ballad, "You Are My Friend". Success was mostly eluding Patti until 1983 when she released her first charted hit album, "I'm In Love Again". The album featured LaBelle's first #1 R&B hit with "If Only You Knew" and a radio hit with "Love, Need & Want You". In 1984, after an eighteen-year estrangement, she reconciled with Cindy Birdsong while she was on stage in Los Angeles. By 1985, LaBelle was on her way to pop stardom after her song, "New Attitude", from the "Beverly Hills Cop" film, peaked at #7 on the pop charts.

By the time of her rise to pop stardom in the mid-1980s, LaBelle was now infamous for her wild hairdos, for cutting in on shows outsinging mostly everybody in ensemble closings, kicking off her shoes in a "Holy Ghost"-like rage, rolling over the floor while singing, putting the microphone stand down and then yielding it up in the air and choreographing the now-legendary "spread my wings" move that she incorporated during her show-stopping performances of "Over the Rainbow". In 1986, she released her best-selling album to date with "The Winner In You". The album yielded her first solo #1, "On My Own" with pop balladeer Michael McDonald, and a Top 20 hit, "Oh People".

By the end of the 1980s, she was one of the best-selling R&B music artists of all time and after having scored a cult success with the Diane Warren ballad, "If You Asked Me To", in 1989, she entered the 1990s on a high but not without tragedy. That year, she lost her third sister to cancer. Patti's two elder sisters had similar fates, with the oldest dying in 1977 (at the height of LaBelle's success) and the second-eldest dying in 1982. Her brother, father and mother all followed suit dying around the same time making Patti the only living member of her extended family while being the mother of six kids - one born by Patti, three of one of her sisters' children and two adopted and wife of Armstead Edwards (married since 1969), who had become her manager.

In 1991, Patti released the critically-acclaimed "Burnin'" album, which helped win Patti her first Grammy Award for Best R&B Female Vocal Performance. That success continued onto subsequent albums like 1994's "Gems" (featuring the hit, "The Right Kinda Lover"), 1997's "Flame" (featuring the hit, "When You Talk About Love"), and 1998's "Live One Night Only" (which won her a second Grammy). In 1993, LaBelle became the first, and so far only, artist to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame thanks to a petition by her legion of fans.

In 2000, in a stunning move, she divorced her husband, Armstead. The same year, she released "When A Woman Loves", an album mostly of heartbroken love ballads by Diane Warren. LaBelle's popularity would be heard loud and clear on younger artists' covers of some of LaBelle's legendary songs including "Lady Marmalade" (resung by Christina Aguilera, Lil' Kim, Pink and Mya, and which became a #1 hit all over again 26 years after LaBelle's original), "Love, Need & Want You" (sampled by rapper Nelly and Destiny's Child singer Kelly Rowland in their #1 hit, "Dilemma" and later by rap group Outkast, who later featured LaBelle re-singing parts of the song on their hit, "Ghetto Musick") and "If Only You Knew" (which has been covered by a lot of R&B singers and also sampled by hip-hoppers).

In 2004, she released "Timeless Journey", which debuted at #16, making it LaBelle's highest charted album in eighteen years and the album went gold. She scored a modest hit in 2005 with her duet with The Isley Brothers in the song "Gotta Go Solo". In the meantime, she's currently performing on tour.

Vocal Profile


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