Armed with a new jazz album and cookbook, plus concert dates and a third season of her cooking show lined up, Philly’s own Patti Labelle is proof that life is greater later.
A sparkling 73 years young in May, Patti LaBelle, Philly’s Godmother of Soul—be it music or food—has more on her plate than at any time in her five-decades-long career. The fact is, she looks better than ever doing it. "And God bless to that," says LaBelle, with quiet assurance.
LaBelle is looking forward to even more blessings with the May release of her first album in 10 years. Titled Bel Hommage, the smoky jazz recording is a joint venture between Sony Red and her own label, GPE Records, and the first of several new albums to come. The Grammy Award-winning singer herself says the album is "something you’d never expect from Patti."
What we have come to expect—in no small part thanks to the "Patti LaBelle Sweet Potato Pie" viral video in November 2015—is the singer’s double life as a celebrity cook. She’s furthering her culinary connection to Walmart by developing the Patti’s Good Life trademark and bringing new dishes to the table. Along with readying her third season of the Cooking Channel’s Patti LaBelle’s Place this spring, she’s published her fourth cookbook, Desserts LaBelle: Soulful Sweets to Sing About. She is in talks with fellow Philly pal producer-director Lee Daniels about appearing in his hit Fox series, Empire, again as well as having "LaLa" ("that’s what he calls me") in his new Fox show, Star. All that, she adds, happens with the aid of her son, manager Zuri Edwards. "He’s as shy and quiet as me, but with a clearer head," she says with a laugh. "Great manager or not—and he’s watched me through them all—we still fight like mother and son. To tell you the truth, sometimes I’m willing to fight even when I’m wrong. Just something about me. I want to give people a run for their money."
LaBelle is able to give everyone—her son, ex-husband Armstead Edwards, who executive-produced Bel Hommage and came up with the jazz concept, and her adoring public—a run for their money because of how career possibilities have expanded for women over the years, regardless of age.
"It’s not so much about hustling. I was always too shy to hustle or be pushy. I believe now is a time of greater, more diverse opportunities for women—and in my case, black women—to do it all and do it all well. I have been doing this now for over 50 years, and it seems as if the older I get, the more comes on my plate."
LaBelle confesses that her shyness goes back as far as her childhood days singing in the Beulah Baptist Church Choir in Southwest Philadelphia. This may be part of the reason that she still calls the suburbs of Philadelphia home, avoiding the glare of Los Angeles ("too boring") or New York City ("too fast"). "I’m not about going to parties. I’m very laid back. Philly is just my pace," she says.
Everything LaBelle does, from choosing dynamic songs from the catalog of "the queen" Nina Simone, Peggy Lee, and Frank Sinatra for Bel Hommage to deciding what chain will sell her sweet potato pie, banana pudding, and peach cobbler, is carefully considered and must be filled with "class and thought," she says. "I was never one to just take whatever came my way. My thinking was always as long as something is quality and made sense [for me], then I’d say yes."
"If you care about your reputation, how you view yourself and how the world views you, then you have to do things with a sense of pride and decide what can last and be great." Maybe that’s where LaBelle’s shyness and reticence paid off; she doesn’t rush to judgment or action. "I know you’re gonna bring up that we’ve been talking about this new album of mine for 15 years now," she says with a laugh, recalling several conversations we’ve had about the newly titled Bel Hommage. "Things have to simmer."
LaBelle is the first to admit, however, that shyness didn’t always work to her advantage. Like when she auditioned for Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film The Color Purple and gave what she and the director agreed was a performance that "needed more energy, but he wanted me to try again." LaBelle never went back for a second audition. "Maybe I didn’t want my first film to feature me in a love scene because I was so shy," she says. When it came time to audition for 1990’s Ghost, LaBelle’s limo got stuck in Lincoln Tunnel traffic and Whoopi Goldberg tried out before her and got the part.
She was a bit deflated, but pleased for her friend. "Whoopi of course won the Oscar, and God bless her for that."
LaBelle’s film star has risen, but it’s only been over the last few years thanks to memorable appearances in Empire, 2014’s American Horror Story ("I died so hard in that one, I ain’t never coming back," she laughs, considering that series’ countless star turns), and, of course, as herself through a now-three-seasons-and-counting run with the Cooking Channel.
Ask if there is synergy regarding what she’ll cook on her television show, what she’s designated as her next Good Life sweets project for Walmart ("lots of cobblers coming up"), and what she’s writing about for her latest cookbook, and the singer says that she believes things happen organically. "I like working with Walmart because they’re smart and they, like me, wish to keep things affordable so everyone can enjoy them, no exclusions. That’s the same reason that, in Desserts LaBelle, I made sure to include recipes for those who can’t eat sugar, because I’ve been diabetic for more than 20 years. You want sugar now and then—so do I—so I want you [to] have what you want."
That same synergy is what finally made Bel Hommage a reality. She says she started the project at a time when she wasn’t completely happy with her voice. The emotions of feeling her way through that initial struggle coupled with finding footing in a genre she loved but hadn’t devoted herself to in the past ("my ex-husband wanted me to do this for a while... he knew me and my voice") bubble to the top of every high note in Bel Hommage, from Nina Simone’s "Go to Hell" to Shirley Horn’s "Here’s to Life," a vibrant cut that LaBelle states will close her upcoming shows. The album has been a true labor of love, but LaBelle wouldn’t have it any other way. "All good things in good time, baby."
Photography by Derek Blanks. Styling by Tameka Foster. Hair by Norma Harris Gordon. Makeup by Lona Azami