Patti LaBelle: New Jazz Attitude

On her first standards album, R&B empress Patti LaBelle confronts her jazz fears

Photo of Patti Labelle

Patti LaBelle was just 18 when her 1962 cover of “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman” set her on the path to stardom. Fifty-five years on, there’s little that Patti LaBelle hasn’t accomplished. Hailed as the “Godmother of Soul,” she’s been a disco pioneer, a cornerstone of the Philadelphia Sound and a mainstream chart-topper. She’s successfully ventured into psychedelic soul and synth-pop, headlined Broadway musicals and, just for good measure, become a bestselling cookbook author with a top-rated Cooking Channel show (Patti LaBelle’s Place) and a popular line of prepared foods. She’s earned three Grammy Awards, seven NAACP Image Awards and myriad lifetime-achievement citations from the likes of BET, the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Apollo Theater.

Yet only now is LaBelle releasing an album of standards. Selecting songs associated with vocalists who’ve influenced her personally and professionally, LaBelle proves a standout jazz stylist—yet another feather in her overcrowded cap. Recently, she spoke with JT from her Philly home about the coyly titled Bel Hommage (GPE).  –CHRISTOPHER LOUDON

JazzTimes: “Fearless” seems an appropriate word to describe you, yet you had trepidations about making this album.

Patti LaBelle: That’s true. I was fearful to perform jazz all my life. When my [ex-husband/manager Armstead Edwards] came to me with the idea of recording a jazz project, I said, “No way!” I was afraid to mess up something I’d never done before, and I wanted to respect the memory of Nina Simone and Shirley Horn and Gloria Lynne and Frank Sinatra. Whomever’s songs I did, I wanted to do them so that they wouldn’t wake up from their place of rest and slap the fool out of me! I was cautious and fearful, but I’m not now!

Your voice is remarkable, its power and range barely diminished.

My secret is I pray. There was a year, not long ago, when I had no voice at all. My son and everybody around me said, “What are you talking about?” I said, “My voice is not what it used to be.” I wasn’t making my notes as long and strong as I should. But my voice is back, and stronger than it was when I was 30. So I’m blessed.

Among the singers you honor is Billie Holiday, with “Don’t Explain.”

I admired her so. She was so raw and full of life. I felt bad that she needed to use substances to see or feel herself, but there could never be another Billie Holiday, just as there could never be another Nina Simone. These women had problems in their lives, as we all have. I can relate to that. I’ve never done a drug or smoked a cigarette, but I’ve done some red wine!

You cover Simone’s “Wild Is the Wind” and “Go to Hell.” You and she became quite close.

We did Carnegie Hall, the [2002 Rock for the Rainforest concert] for Sting and his wife, Trudie. At rehearsals, Nina called me over and said, “C’mere, girl. You know you’re one of the best singers out there.” We became buddies. … From then on, she would call me from wherever she was living and would always ask if I’d found her a man! We had a wonderful relationship. You pray that you do her songs OK. Hers are killer songs.

For Shirley Horn, you’ve included “Here’s to Life.”

The ways she plays [that song], and her phrasing, there’s nothing like it. I perform it at the end of shows with just my piano player. And I always say before I do it, “Please just listen to the lyric. You don’t have to listen to my voice, but listen to the words.” There are tears out there, and half the time I’m crying too!

For Sinatra, you chose “Softly, as I Leave You.”

I sang for him and with him. I sang at his 80th birthday party and did “The House I Live In.” When I finished, he stood up and then the whole audience stood up. He was crazy about my voice. Before that, we met and he said, “Would you record with me [for 1994’s Duets II]?” We did “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” That song just takes me away, and his voice! He’s just got you; he sure has me!

You superbly navigate “Moody’s Mood for Love,” one of the trickiest songs in the vocal-jazz canon.

The [vocalese] part got me a bit. I had to work on that. But it became easier when [R&B singer] Kem joined me, and his voice on that is phenomenal. We’d done a recording together before that, “Jesus” [from his 2012 Christmas album], and he said he wanted to do this with me. I think it’s awesome.

And you tackle “Moanin’.”

I’ve always loved that song. There’s something fun about it. It says you’re moanin’ all the time, but at the end I let you know I’m not really moanin’.

Bel Hommage is the debut release for your new label, GPE. Will there be more jazz projects?

There are so many songs I’ve heard since we completed this and thought, “I should have done that.” So I intend to do more and also work in clubs, not with my band but with my trio—those smoky clubs, though nobody smokes anymore! That’s how I always envision jazz, with a lady sitting on a piano with a cigarette [sings, “Peel me a grape, boil me a crab”]. So I plan to do a lot more with jazz.

Preview, buy or download songs from the album Bel Hommage by Patti Labelle on iTunes.