Wednesday, 21 March 2012


Says Patti LaBelle, "Gay men are my glam squad. They are all my children."
(Photo courtesy Patti LaBelle)

Soul sister Patti LaBelle is looking for a pair of pink pumps given to her by supermodel Naomi Campbell when Joy, her housekeeper, interrupts to announce three boxes of brand new shoes have just been delivered.

LaBelle – a big-haired holy roller of a woman known for blowing other singers off the stage as well as for kicking off her shoes in the middle of gut-busting, gospel-stomping rave-ups – gives up the search.

The pumps are stacked somewhere among the thousands of other pairs of shoes in her Philadelphia home, a number I put at 3,000 in the course of our conversation. But if you ever doubted "Miss Patti Boom Boom" is a platinum member of the diva club, she dispels that notion when she tells me over the phone, "No, I’ve got 5,000 pairs and counting."

Mavis Staples
(Photo courtesy Mavis Staples)
It isn’t shoes that make a diva, of course. It’s inner strength and fortitude, a larger-than-life persona and voice, something LaBelle boasts in spades.

But two-inch eyelashes, fab hair and shoes go a long way.

"I say, ‘A diva got to do what a diva got to do.’ I’m a diva," LaBelle says. "I can’t deny that. But you have to pay your dues and I’ve paid mine."

So has gospel legend Mavis Staples, who with The Staple Singers rode I’ll Take You There straight to Number One and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But if LaBelle is a cosmic diva – the late Luther Vandross, onetime teenaged VP of Patti’s fan club and a soul legend in his own right, once noted, "If there was an intergalactic singing competition, I would suggest that Earth send Patti LaBelle" – then Mavis Staples is the earthly anti-diva.

"I think people use the word ‘diva’ in the wrong way," Staples told me. "And Mavis ain’t no diva."

For Deborah Cox, divahood is less a state of mind than being blessed with a big voice. When it comes to big voices, Cox – who like the late Whitney Houston was discovered, signed and groomed by music biz legend Clive Davis – was long compared to Houston until she matched Whitney chop-for-chop on the 2000 duet Same Script, Different Cast.

Deborah Cox
(Photo courtesy Deborah Cox)

In the studio Houston told her, "You can sang! You’re in the club now!"

Says Cox, "When I think of Mavis Staples, I think of her raspy, raw, soulful voice and inspirational music that resonated throughout my home when I was growing up. And Patti is an inspiration. I’ve been to many of her shows and she always gives it her all."

Just two weeks after our June 2005 interview, I saw Cox share the stage in July 2005 with LaBelle (who wept onstage before dedicating a gospel number to Luther Vandross, who had passed away a couple days earlier, on July 1) at the Montreal International Jazz Festival, the same summer Mavis Staples made her much-anticipated festival return in nearly a decade co-headlining with the Blind Boys of Alabama, who themselves recently pulled off one of the biggest comebacks in rock history.

Thank God for the devil’s music
"I’m so glad the Blind Boys decided to stretch out [on their recent string of Grammy-winning albums] because that’s what got them to this era," says Mavis Staples about the band that was formed at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind in 1939.

Now 72, Staples remembers when her cotton-picking guitarist father, Roebuck "Pops" Staples, brought her to see the Blind Boys when she was a child, and her mother used to cook them all dinner back home in Mississippi. Pops Staples founded The Staple Singers in 1948 and they finally cracked the top 40 eight times from 1971 to ’75, reaching number 1 with the funky, inspirational classic I’ll Take You There in 1972.
That’s when they were dubbed "God’s greatest hit makers."

Mavis Staples at Wattstax, with Pops behind her
 "I’ll never forget that time," Mavis says. "The Staple Singers at number 1! That was the best thing in the world. You just had to stop and listen to the radio. The DJs just jumped on the song and [Memphis-based Stax Records] didn’t have to promote it. That’s when [people] wanted to put us out of the church! They said we were singing the devil’s music!"

Born Patricia Holt 68 years ago, Patti LaBelle grew up singing in church too.

When word of a new lead singer at Beulah Baptist Church in southwest Philly spread, audiences flocked from all over the city. In 1959, 15-year-old Patti formed The BlueBelles and renamed herself Patti LaBelle. Cindy Birdsong left the girl group in 1967 to replace the late Florence Ballard in The Supremes, but not before the quartet recorded Patti’s signature song Over the Rainbow.

"My voice lends itself to high notes and I love to scream," LaBelle notes with considerable understatement.

In the 1960s she opened for The Rolling Stones. When she opened for James Brown, the Godfather of Soul was so jealous of The BlueBelles’ standing ovations he had the curtain closed before the audience stopped clapping.

(Incidentally, I got the last-ever sit-down interview with James Brown in December 2006. Mr. Brown would died just days later, on December 25. But I digress.)

The BlueBelles were even chased out of Texas by the Ku Klux Klan. During that tumultuous decade, Patti got engaged to Otis Williams, lead singer of The Temptations. Says Patti, "Honey, the ring was so big I could have used it as a headlight."

1970s disco funk queens LaBelle
(Photo courtesy Patti LaBelle)
Patti hit her stride fronting ’70s funk trio LaBelle, whose song about a New Orleans prostitute, Lady Marmalade, was a huge hit in 1975. Legendary hitmaker and New Orleans native Allen Toussaint - who produced the smash hit - once told me, "Patti was so professional. I remember her sitting down on a stool in the studio singing softly. She is such a great talent."

That same year, 1975, Patti's sister Viviane died of cancer. Then her best friend Claudette, 34, died of cancer. Her second sister, Barbara, would die of colon cancer in 1982. Then her third sister Jackie died of brain cancer. But LaBelle adopted and raised all of their children.

"Day by day I got stronger," Patti says. "My sisters would have wanted me to be a leader and take over. When they went through their chemo, and getting ready for their transition, I don’t think they knew they were leaving but they knew I was a survivor. I think about them every day. I got to be the mother of their children."

LaBelle was starring on Broadway with Al Green in the gospel musical Your Arm’s Too Short to Box With God when she learned backstage that her sister Barbara was dying. "I said [to Green], ‘Please take over for me.’ And he told me, ‘It’s not my fault your sister is dying’ and refused to give me time off."

So LaBelle lost it, smashed her glass of Courvoisier and lunged at Green. "I think he was going through something that made him mean and vicious. I hope he’s better."

Whitney Houston and Deborah Cox
Staples, meanwhile, finally received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. But she is most happy "Pops" was alive when The Staple Singers were inducted into the Rock Hall of Fame in March 1999. (Pops died of a heart attack on December 15 that year.)

"Daddy’d been sick [for a while]," Staples recalls. "But he said, ‘I’m getting my tuxedo ready ‘cuz I’m going to that!’ I was angry [when he died]. I got sad and depressed. ‘What am I gonna do?’ I said, ‘Daddy, you left me here and I don’t even know what key I sing in!’"

LaBelle’s vocals reign Supremes
After years of being guided by Pops Staples, and then by Prince, Mavis Staples won her first three solo W.C. Handy Awards (a big deal in the R’n'B community) last month for her latest album Have a Little Faith.

Patti LaBelle has also risen from the ashes a living legend, in the process rubbing other divas the wrong way.

But it is her rumble with Diana Ross that is the stuff of legend: When the BlueBelles and the Supremes were on the same bill, Ross would sneak into their dressing room, see what Patti was wearing, and have her gofer buy her the same outfit.

Then at Mo­town Re­turns To The Apol­lo 1985 Di­ana Ross showed up to sing the last song, I Want To Know What Love Is. She asked the rest of the star-studded cast for a lit­tle help and LaBelle pretty much blew Ross off the stage (click here for the video or watch it below).

"I have strong pipes," LaBelle says. "I think I have one of the loudest voices in showbiz. It’s not intentional. That’s just the way I feel."

Which finally brings us to the ever-loyal audiences of LaBelle, Staples and Cox:  Gay men.

Patti LaBelle
(Photo courtesy Patti LaBelle)
"I think it’s the big-voice syndrome," says Deborah Cox, whose song Absolutely Not has become a gay anthem. "Singers like Donna Summer, Martha Wash and Patti are adored by the gay community because of the bigness of our voices and the bigness of our femininity. Gay icons have lifelong careers and I am grateful and accept their love and affection."

"Bless them," Patti agrees. "They’re my glam squad. They are all my children. They look to me as a mother, a sister or a real good girlfriend. Because I am strong and I fight for their rights. I fight when I see a gay person denied like I fight for my children."

But it is Mavis who sums it up best. "Everybody is the same," she says. "I am no better than you and you’re no better than me. We are all God’s children."

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