Patti LaBelle can say anything she damn well pleases. First of all, she’s Patti LaBelle – legend, icon, trailblazer, Hall of Famer, the Godmother of Soul. Second – there is no second. When you’ve been belting it out for a half-century, there doesn’t have to be.
So when the beloved singer rang me recently before her Jan. 26 gig at Sound Board at MotorCity Casino Hotel, LaBelle wasn’t about to mince her words when she talked about her player haters, “all the little heifers who can’t sing” ravaging the once-honorable “diva” title – and the singer who was too intimidated by Patti’s talent to open her show.
We can’t wait to see you, Patti.
I can’t wait to see my children! It’s been a long time. Well, I was in Detroit for a brief Christmas show with KEM and Ron Isley (in December 2013), but that wasn’t a Patti moment. (Laughs)
When did you first know you had a big gay following?
I’ve been in this business for maybe 51 years, and so I think 50 years ago. (Laughs) The first year I wasn’t sure, but the second year of performing I got this love – I mean, great love – from my gay fans. I always questioned, “Why do they love me? Why do they really, really give a damn about Patti LaBelle?” And I think it’s because I’m such a free spirit and such a drag queen, really, myself. The original drag queen.
What’s your relationship with them been like over the years? Has that bond gotten stronger?
It’s much stronger. I think if I ran for president of the gay community, they might elect me. And I would handle it so well. It would just be one of those things I was born to do. So I think every year it grows and grows and grows. A lot of gay fans who come to see me, I think they’re afraid to be out until I say something and let everyone know it’s fine to just be yourself.
If you were president, what would be the first thing you might do for the gay community?
I would let everyone gay who wants to get married – no matter what city, what country, what state – say “I do.” That would be my first order. Everybody say “yes” to gay marriages.
For you, what does it mean to be a diva?
That word is used so loosely that I don’t even consider myself a diva. I always considered myself a woman who sings her heart out and who gives 120 percent. “Diva” is a word that I wouldn’t wanna call myself because it’s so loosely used. It’s not cute anymore.
Is there a negative connotation to it now?
Yeah, because all these little heifers who can’t sing are called divas! It doesn’t mean anything to me and probably to some of the other ladies who have been doing it for as long as I have: Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick. You know, I’m speaking for me – I don’t know if they like to be called divas – but I know I wouldn’t call them divas, because it’s not in good company.
But it used to be a respectable term at some point.
Well, for opera singers, and for ladies who earned it, but that was way, way back when. Now you can look up to them, but you might not see what you wanna see. A hot mess! People who are doing it and doing it with about 40 people on stage with them to hide their pitifulness – that’s not a word, but you know what I mean.
You’re the president, Patti. Make up words if you want.
You got that right.
Do you notice when your gay fans are in the audience? Do you feel that energy?
Yes! We were in Durham or Raleigh, N.C. – I don’t know where I was Saturday – and it was a front row of white gay men, and when I sang “Little Girls” they hugged each other and stood up after. A lot of people stood for this particular song, but they were so happy to be there, listening to me, knowing that it’s OK to kiss, that it’s OK to hug, that it’s OK to just let yourself go. And I do notice my children. At every show I do – I notice them.
What are the songs you can’t leave the stage without performing?
Of course “Over the Rainbow,” and of course “Lady Marmalade” or “Lady M” or whatever you wanna call it. “If Only You Knew,” “You Are My Friend” and “New Attitude.” There are so many. I like to end the show with the Lord’s Prayer, but I haven’t lately. I think I will when I see you.
Detroit needs a prayer.
I know, baby, I know.
What happens if you don’t perform these songs?
They don’t get angry, because I’m making sure I’m giving 120 percent of whatever song I choose – and they accept that.
It’s been said that some singers are intimidated by your voice, as they very well should be. Has anyone ever turned down the opportunity to perform with you because of that?
Actually, Phoebe Snow did not want to open the show for me. She said she didn’t wanna be in the building with Patti LaBelle as a compliment, and she was one of my great friends. She passed on, but she was one lady who said, “I refuse to go on the same bill as Patti LaBelle,” because she loved me. There are a lot of ladies who don’t love me and they don’t love what comes out of this mouth … vocally, you know. So they player hate, and I congratulate. Heyyy!
You keep it real.
Oh, there’s no reason to do anything else but.
You’ve even said you’re honest to a fault. When has your honesty got you in trouble?
A few times that I can’t talk about. (Laughs) Once recently, too. At this show in – oh, I don’t know where I was this past weekend – but I said something that was totally gross and my son, who’s my manager, stands in the back and watches everything, and when I come off (stage) he kills me. He killed me. “Mom, how could you say that?” I said, “It just slipped out.” It was something about drinking water. It was something about a particular kind of water that I hate. I was just dissing the water but (he said), “Don’t talk about it, because they might sue.” Chris, I do a lot of things that after I do them I say, “Why?” (Laughs)
But please don’t stop.
I promise not to.
Your last non-Christmas studio album was in 2006 with “The Gospel According to Patti LaBelle.”
Hard to believe, isn’t it?
Gosh, well, I’m working on a jazz CD that should be out this year, and then not only that, darling, but simultaneously I’ll be doing a dance album and an album of ballads.
You have three albums in the works? You’re gonna spoil us.
Yes, I am, honey. It’s about time! It’s been so long.
Can you tell me a bit about this dance album?
It’s just gonna be dance music. I’m not sure who’s gonna produce or anything; I just know that I’m doing that this year. As soon as I know something about it, I will let you know.
Lastly, Patti, what’s the greatest life lesson you’ve learned?
I’ve learned to love my family while they’re here and give them anything they want … within reason. Never neglect going to the hospital to see your sister who’s dying of cancer. I missed that one. I missed my last sister, Jackie, who died five minutes away and she wanted an egg sandwich and I said, “I’ll bring it tomorrow.” And tomorrow she was gone. My life lesson is to do for those who you care for today. Right now. Like, when you hang up, Chris, call somebody and tell them you love them.
I’ll tell my mom as soon I’m off the phone with you.
Tell her I love her too.
7:30 p.m. Jan. 26
Sound Board at MotorCity Casino Hotel
2901 Grand River Ave, Detroit