By Lawrence Ferber
Few people can call up Elton John, ask permission to sing one of his songs, have him offer to perform it as a duet…AND get a big fat diamond ring as thanks. But soul legend Patti LaBelle is one of those few people, and her newest CD, Classic Moments (Def Soul), features luxuriously produced covers – by Babyface and Darryl Simmons – of rock, pop and soul hits like The Pretender’s “Stand By You,” Rose Royce’s “Love Don’t Live Here Anymore,” Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” The Delfonics’ “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind,” and longtime friend/former pianist Elton John’s “Your Song.”
Now what was that about a big fat diamond ring? LaBelle and John recorded “Your Song” one afternoon at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, during John’s “The Red Piano” engagements. “I held both of his diamond rings because he took them off to play the piano,” LaBelle, a Philadelphian, recalls. “I was standing there crying like a baby and when the song was over I gave the rings back and he said, ‘No, keep them.’ I said, ‘No, no, I can’t.’ He told me he learned so much from me [from our years together] that he wanted to give me those rings right then and said, ‘Then please keep just one.’ I couldn’t say no because it was from his heart. So he gave me a ring! Big, big ring, it’s so big and so manly. I wear it, though. I wear it really proud.”
A two-time Grammy winner, LaBelle has fronted such exalted soul outfits as Patti LaBelle & The Bluebelles and later in the 1970s, Labelle. She’s also been a much-lauded solo act (of those trademark sky-high, Aqua Net-solidified hairstyles, she admits: “It would stay up for a week, or as long as I needed it. That was very sharp hair. I think someone could have been sliced with it.”) She’s struck pop culture gold with such chart hits as “Lady Marmalade,” “If You Asked Me To,” “If Only You Knew,” and “On My Own,” a Burt Bacharach-written duet performed with ex-Doobie Brother, Michael McDonald.
McDonald was called upon yet again for Classic Moments – LaBelle covers “I Keep Forgetting,” his infectious ditty about someone who can’t remember that their ex-lover is over them. “Thank God that’s just a song I love and I’ve never had that experience!” LaBelle laughs. “‘I keep forgetting that you don’t love me no more…’ You stupid heifer. Go home, leave that man alone! No, I am not that one. But there are some girls I see, they are so stupid. ‘Don’t you remember girls, he don’t care for you!’ ‘Oh yeah, I forgot, but I love him!'”
Regarding her selection process for Classic Moments, LaBelle says, “I just chose songs that I loved, songs I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Elton and I were first going to do a Donny Hathaway song, ‘A Song For You.’ Then I thought that song’s been done a lot – I don’t think anybody’s done ‘Your Song’ with you. And we decided on that one that way.”
Other standout tracks include a powerful duet with Mary J. Blige on Aretha Franklin’s “Ain’t No Way,” and a hidden track, Kristine W’s “Land of the Living.”
Speaking of Kristine W, who has a bigger gay fan base? “I think we’re even,” LaBelle ponders, amused. “We didn’t have a contest but I know we’re about even! I just looked up one day and had like a 60 percent gay audience. And then they followed and it grew and it grew and it grew. I never count it. I just pray there’s more.”
LaBelle has been endeared to gays – friends, fans, and fellow performers – since her early Philadelphia days. LaBelle and Elton John’s association reaches back to the 1960s. John, then known as Reginald Dwight, was pianist in LaBelle’s backing band, Bluesology, although LaBelle admits she didn’t know he was gay at the time. “I didn’t have a clue,” she laughs. “I guess he did, huh? It’s funny. I end up with most of the gay children anyway so I should have known. But I didn’t. I just knew he was phenomenal on the piano. I’m so proud of him.”
During the 70s, LaBelle was also close to very out disco legend Sylvester: he recorded her hit, “You Are My Friend.”
“He was a major drag queen,” she reminisces. “I loved him. He had style, he was working it. When I say work it he really worked it.”
And Nona Hendryx, an out lesbian, was member of the Bluebelles and Labelle. “A great songwriter and a lady who chose her own way of living,” LaBelle says of Hendryx, with whom she will reunite for another Labelle album and tour later this year.
As for whether she’s “worked it” herself when it comes to same-sex love, LaBelle admits that she hasn’t. “Honey, at 61 if I ain’t done the ‘fish trip,’ I ain’t doing it,” she laughs. “Some of my friends are lesbians, I have a lot of gay friends, but I will never do a woman.”
LaBelle is well aware of the current rift between her gay fans/friends and another of her dedicated fan bases, the Churchgoing community over the gay marriage debate (one intended Classic Moments track, Sly and The Family Stone’s “Thank You For Letting Me Be Myself,” is being saved for an upcoming inspirational album). But LaBelle, who also has been on the receiving end of a few self-righteous individuals in the church, isn’t torn over the issue at all.
“I think God means for you to marry whomever you love,” she affirms. “When people start judging, you have to watch those people. I used to go to Church all the time until my minister told me I was a rock and roll devil worshipper because I was singing ‘Lady Marmalade’ and ‘Over the Rainbow.’ But every Sunday he would take the devil’s money when I put that green dollar bill in that church pot! He didn’t see the devil on that dollar – just ‘mo’ money, mo’ money.’ So when my minister started judging me I lost some of my faith in the church but I didn’t lose my faith in God. I said, I’m gonna keep it in my heart and have a church within. A lot of these people who say they’re God’s children, they’re not – they’re hypocrites.”
Besides being a musician, LaBelle is also an AIDS activist (she won an amFAR Award last year and is performing with Elton John at a massive AIDS awareness/fundraiser event, The Philadelphia Freedom Concert and Ball, July 4), proprietor of several namesake product lines, an actress, an author, and a heck of a cook. Indeed, she’s written two cookbooks: 2003’s “Patti Labelle’s Lite Cuisine: Over 100 Dishes With To-Die-For Taste Made With To-Live-For Recipes,” a diabetic-friendly tome (diagnosed with diabetes in 1994, she’s a vocal spokesperson for living with the condition), and 1999’s “LaBelle Cuisine: Recipes to Sing About.” The latter featured campy, song-derived dish names like “Say-My-Name Smothered Chicken” and “Geechee Geechee Ya Ya Gumbo.”
“I’m a foodie and I like to give things food related titles,” she says, noting that colors in her LaBelle clothing line include Chocolate and Vanilla. “I like to incorporate food into whatever I do.”
Although judgmental folks – like that former minister of hers – will get a different kind of dish from the lovely LaBelle. “You know what,” she laughs, “if I was cooking back in the day he would’ve gotten more than Geechee Geechee Gumbo!” she chuckles. “But you stay strong, that’s what I say to all my gay friends, and know that the real people are behind you and believe that somewhere over the rainbow, you’ll find your peace. The phony ones – you don’t even want them on your side. Keep your head up.”
See http://www.pattilabelle.com for more info. Patti LaBelle’s Classic Moments is in stores June 21 on Def Soul Classics.