There aren’t many people at Capital Grille — three, maybe four tables’ worth — but it’s enough to make an entrance. As the maître d’ winds our large, rather unwieldy party through the restaurant to a round table smack in the center, a frizzle of excitement zips through the place, like someone’s lit a match. People start to whisper. I can’t hear what they’re saying, but I don’t need to. The darting eyes and craned necks say it all: “Hey, isn’t that … ” and “I think that’s her.”
I grab the maître d’ and point to an empty back room set off from the rest of the diners, where we can eat unbothered. Can we sit there instead?
He looks frazzled. “Well, you can,” he says, “but, uh, she has requested this table?” He swings his eyes to the woman standing next to him.
“Oh, yes, honey,” she says. “I want to sit here! I like to be where the action is.” And with that, Patti LaBelle swings off her red fur coat, looks around the room like a queen surveying her subjects, and smiles warmly, knowingly, at the other diners:
Yes. It’s me.
When you’re Patti LaBelle, all the world’s a stage. There was the altar of Beulah Baptist Church in West Philadelphia, where a 12-year-old Patti earned her first standing ovation. There was New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, where, in 1974, Patti — dressed in silver feathers like a fabulous space-age peacock — descended from the ceiling to join her fellow Labelle bandmates. There was Philly’s old JFK Stadium, where Patti outsang more than 100 other vocalists during the 1985 Live Aid “We Are the World” finale. There was the White House, where Patti belted “Over the Rainbow” for the Obamas in 2014, and, the following year, there was the Los Angeles ballroom of Dancing With the Stars, where a 70-year-old Patti shimmied to rapper 50 Cent’s “In Da Club.”
There’s also the stage at the Academy of Music, where this month Patti will stomp and strut and sing her face off as part of her latest tour. And, of course, there’s the set of her popular Cooking Channel show, which she’ll resume filming this summer.
But right now, Patti LaBelle’s stage is the Capital Grille at Broad and Chestnut, where she sips red wine and nibbles on shrimp as a rapt audience of power lunchers looks on surreptitiously. They’re happy for the show, and Patti is more than happy to oblige.
“I love it when people recognize me,” she says. “That’s why I dress up! When they recognize me, I feel blessed.”
Luckily, when you’re Patti LaBelle, people do recognize you: the Godmother of Soul, a feisty, fiery performer who famously kicks off her heels and rolls around on stage floors while she’s singing; whose hair defies gravity and whose powerful soprano voice defies logic.
But lately, Patti LaBelle is also being recognized for something else — her culinary chops. She’s parlayed a natural talent for cooking into a multimillion-dollar empire with four cookbooks, that cooking show, and a successful line of baked goods for Walmart. (Yes, you can find the Godmother of Soul at Walmart.)
Yet despite her accomplishments and that voice, Patti has always lingered in others’ shadows: Aretha, Diana, Whitney, Barbra. “I’ve learned to take seconds when I know I’m worthy of first prize,” she says in a tone that’s more matter-of-fact than bitter. It’s what’s kept her on her toes, hustling harder and constantly evolving.
Consider this the second coming of Patti LaBelle, one of Philly’s most famous voices, who shirks the “diva” label but wears the “legend” title like a crown, who can out-croon and out-cook almost anyone but who, at 73, still finds herself in second place. And so she’s still driven to sing and shimmy and cook and perform. Patti LaBelle still has something to prove.
“Patti. PAT-TI. C’MON, PATTI! Patti!” James Wright was licking pie off his fingers and talking, singing, screeching into the camera. “On my ownnnnnnn,” he sang, flapping his fingers as he belted one of Patti’s hits, then took another bite of pie. “Mmm. MMM. C’mon, Patti!”
James Wright had found the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit was in Ms. Patti LaBelle’s sweet-potato pie, which retails for $3.98 at Walmart.
It was 2015, a few weeks before Thanksgiving. Patti LaBelle had just launched her line of pies, exclusive to Walmart, a couple months before. It had been relatively successful — as successful as a line of pies can be in a store not particularly known for its bakery. And Patti hadn’t really been promoting the pies; she was busy rehearsing for a solo tour. But God provides, she says, and, well, God just happened to provide her with James Wright, a guy in a bejeweled baseball cap who has a powerhouse voice, a larger-than-life personality, and a fierce YouTube following.
Wright, who lives in L.A., posted his off-the-cuff pie review to his channel early that November, and it became an instant viral sensation, racking up more than 5.7 million views. The video catapulted Wright to semi-semi-stardom (he made the talk-show rounds and nabbed a role on a reality TV show), but, more importantly for Patti, it triggered a feeding frenzy: According to a Walmart spokesperson, in the 72 hours after the video aired, the company sold about one pie every second. “Patti Pies” were suddenly out of stock everywhere and appearing on eBay for upwards of $50. Per pie.
“Well, isn’t that special?” Patti said when she got the news, with a sweet, almost grandmotherly appreciation for the unmatched power of YouTube virality. She called Wright to thank him, and then, in a turn of events Wright couldn’t possibly have anticipated, the queen of pies and Godmother of Soul invited him to meet her. At her house. For Thanksgiving dinner.
“It was a feast,” Wright says. “You’re kind of speechless at first. Like, oh my God. I’m here.”
“Here” was Patti LaBelle’s 1920s colonial in Wynnewood, a white stone house with a library, a solarium and an indoor pool. It’s where she lived for decades before recently buying a new home on the Main Line, which she moves into this month. It’s where she lived with her husband of 32 years, Armstead Edwards, before the couple split in 2000, and where she raised her son, Zuri (the 43-year-old is her manager), as well as her late sister’s two children, Stayce and Billy. It’s also where she tweaked the recipes that she shares on her popular Sunday-morning show on the Cooking Channel, Patti LaBelle’s Place, in which she invites her celebrity friends — everyone from the aforementioned 50 Cent to Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts — to be her sous-chefs in the kitchen.
The show is part of Patti’s food empire, which, since the sweet-potato pie takeover, has taken off. Her line of food products, called Patti’s Good Life, has expanded to include puddings, cakes, cobblers and sauces, stuff she learned to cook from her mother and father back when she was a shy, “homely” kid growing up in Southwest Philadelphia. Then, cooking was a way for her to avoid playing with other kids; she much preferred to hide in the folds of her mother’s apron, learning how to boil crabs and bake cakes. Now, cooking is a way for Patti to interact more intimately with her friends and fans and to snag a foothold in the widening trend of “culinary pop culture,” as her executive producer, Rochelle Brown, calls it.
“This isn’t a soul-food show,” Brown says. “Patti cooks everything — we’re doing octopus, sea bass, Italian, Greek. And she’s got her guard down, not decked out with diamonds or glitz. It’s good old girlfriend talk.”
Patti’s stories — the good and the bad — always weave back to food. There were the tins of sardines that her early group, the Bluebelles, ate in their de facto tour bus (a station wagon), partly because of money and partly because down South, they couldn’t get served at “white” restaurants. Patti would repeat the quip that made the rounds in the days of segregation: “They’d say to me, ‘We don’t serve blacks,’ and I’d say, ‘Well, I don’t eat ’em.’”
And there was the egg sandwich, which is probably the one thing that Patti LaBelle regrets. Her youngest sister, Jackie, was sick — brain cancer; all three of her sisters died of cancer before age 44 — and she called Patti to ask for an egg sandwich. But Patti had just come off tour, and she was tired; she’d bring one over in the morning, she said.
“The next day, my aunt called me and said, ‘Don’t rush with the eggs. She died,’” Patti says. “How selfish of me? Her probably knowing that it was her last day, and she wanted some of my cooking — I still … ” Patti’s voice, which is so booming that she can walk away from the microphone while singing and still be heard in the very back of a venue, becomes so quiet that I can barely hear her. “I go to Jesus about that. That will always follow me.”
Everything else, though, Ms. Patti seems to have shrugged off, from “If you weren’t white, you weren’t right” prejudice (her “If You Asked Me To” single bubbled under, while Céline Dion’s later version — with a near-identical arrangement — was a mainstream pop hit) to niggling wouldacouldashoulda moments, like letting certain opportunities slip through her talon-like nails. For instance, Patti says Dolly Parton wanted her to record “I Will Always Love You,” but Whitney Houston got to it first. Montell Jordan wrote “Nobody’s Supposed to Be Here” for Patti and she passed on it; the song later became singer Deborah Cox’s biggest hit.
“That’s life,” she says. “Every bump was a boost. No matter what color I am, no matter how I sing, I’m fierce. You have to know that you’re phenomenal. And I am. I am.”
Patti LaBelle has gone to discos with Prince, had her Tupperware stolen by Elton John, and cooked for Oprah. She has also “partied big-time” at a tiny house in South Philly, at least according to the dapper-looking gentleman who’s just approached our table at Capital Grille.
“I been knowing you since you was like 16 years old,” he tells her. “I brought you to a party at 16th and Latona back in 1962. Not many people would come to South Philly back then, but you did, and we had a great time.”
You see, when you’re Patti LaBelle in Philadelphia, you also get recognized as Patricia Louise Holte, a regular-looking girl who lived on a regular-looking street in, as Patti puts it, “a regular old black-people house” in Southwest Philly.
Patti is delighted at hearing this forgotten story from her childhood. The man continues, ticking off their once-mutual friends: “I knew your sister Barbara. I went with Kenny and Lawrence. … ” That’s Kenny as in Kenny Gamble, the legendary music producer from South Philly who grew up with Patti and remains one of her dearest friends.
“Oh, God,” she says. “I knew that I knew your face. You are my people.”
Later, I ask her if she remembers that night in South Philly. “No,” she admits. “But I know he ain’t lying.” She becomes quiet, maybe trying to recall the outing. Or maybe she’s content just knowing that it happened. “I love hearing my stories,” she says.
One of her stories is of growing up in a middle-class home on Washington Avenue. Patti was the third of the four girls, born in 1944 to a train factory worker and a homemaker who divorced when she was young. She was inspired to sing by her father, a part-time lounge singer who crooned melodies as he walked around the house and worked in the garage. Patti sang classics into a broom in her bedroom, sometimes serenading the family pets, and she probably would have been content with this small, rather oblivious audience had her mother not forced her to join the choir at the local Baptist church. And she probably would have been content with singing in the chorus, too, had the choir director, Harriett Chapman, not plucked her from the ranks and forced her to sing lead. And that is when Patti LaBelle got her first standing ovation, her first “Hallelujah!” — and when she stopped being content to be so quiet.
Or, in her words: “I joined the choir and I upset the world.”
Kenny Gamble remembers sitting on stoops, hiding the beer.
He had friends in Patti’s neighborhood, other 13- and 14-year-old kids who clambered about the streets like they owned them, especially in the summertime. He became good friends with Patti, and the two would sit on the stoop of her mother’s house, sneaking sips of beer from bottles concealed beneath knobby knees.
“One day we were sitting out there and Patti started singing, and we couldn’t believe it,” he says. “I could not believe that she had this kind of voice. And every time someone would see Patti, everybody would say, ‘Patti, sing a song for me, sing a song for me,’ because this voice was just incredible.”
Word travels fast, especially in Philly, and soon people from outside the neighborhood recognized how good she was. In 1960, Patti formed a group, the Ordettes, with high-school classmates. About a year later, the Ordettes shed three of the original members, replacing them with a trio of girls from Trenton and Camden: Nona Hendryx, Sarah Dash and Cindy Birdsong. Before long, the quartet landed a manager — a local used-car dealer named Harold B. Robinson — and a new name: the Bluebelles.
The group, all ’60s-sweet in shift dresses and bouffants, scored a few doo-wop hits, but the success was less a tidal wave and more a series of ripples. Hardly anything to change the world, especially when you’re stuck in the shadow of Diana Ross and the Supremes.
“We were doing the same shows at the Apollo or the Uptown Theater in Philadelphia, and we would go out and buy outfits and the Supremes would buy them the next day,” says Patti. Then, perhaps remembering that her infamous feud with Ross was snuffed out years ago thanks to providential seating at a ball hosted by Oprah, Patti softens. “I don’t know who went on first, but somebody was copying somebody. For whatever reason, we were always in competition.”
Patti explains this with a sort of resolve. She was hopping mad back then, but looking back on it, well, they were young, both climbing blindly to the top. You have to step on toes to get there, right? And in any case, they were far different. Diana Ross was all sex, with her sultry, breathy vocals. And Ms. Patti? She was that gospel, glory-glory-hallelujah kind of singer — big, bold and unrestrained. She just needed a new look, a hook, and it came in 1970, three years after her group-mate Cindy Birdsong defected to the Supremes — a traitorous move for which Patti ultimately forgave her. The Bluebelles brought on British TV producer Vicki Wickham as their manager, and she refocused the group with a new name (Labelle, with a lowercase “b”), a new look (Bowie-esque glam rock), and a new direction (less R&B, more psychedelic soul). They ditched the pat, pretty verses of typical girl groups for politicized, provocative lyrics and began opening for white rock bands like the Who and the Rolling Stones. They started dressing in elaborate futuristic costumes that led bands like Kiss to track down the group’s designer, Larry LeGaspi, for their own stage looks: silver breastplates, majestic plumes of feathers, lamé space suits that fell somewhere between sexy and Star Trek.
“We did that to draw attention. You can’t just go out there as Labelle. Because you’re black ladies, you have to wear something crazy so they say, ‘Who are those crazy ladies?’ And then once they see us in the crazy, they said, ‘Oh, they have a message. They can sing. And they’re not talking ’bout no kiddie stuff,’” explains Patti, a savvy marketer even back then. “It was a gimmick, and it worked.”
Labelle released six albums, shooting to stardom with “Lady Marmalade” and breaking barriers along the way. They were the first African-American group to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House, and in 1975 they became the first female African-American vocal group to land the cover of Rolling Stone. But eventually, musical differences splintered Labelle — Hendryx wanted rock, Dash wanted disco, Patti wanted ballads — and they broke up in 1976.
For the first time since singing a solo at the Beulah Baptist Church in West Philadelphia, Patti LaBelle was on her own.
Elton John took off his rings, chunky, heavy knuckle-dusters that were interfering with his piano playing. He was seated at a glossy tomato-red piano in Las Vegas in 2005, recording a duet of “Your Song” with Patti. It was more than 35 years after Elton — then a relatively unknown piano player named Reggie Dwight — and his Bluesology band played backup for the touring Bluebelles. Back then, when Patti was on tour in London, she’d invite Elton and his bandmates over for card games and home-cooked meals.
“I kept groceries and would cook, because nobody had money,” Patti explains. “[Elton] had lost his money in card games with us, and he was hungry, and I said, ‘Okay, I’ll give you some food in Tupperware to take home, but I want the Tupperware back.’”
Patti doesn’t really remember dates, or the name of the hospital where she was born, or that party in South Philly. She has to pause and really think about which group came first, the Ordettes or the Bluebelles, and she can’t recall whom she adopted first — the two children of her late sister Jackie, or the two kids of a neighborhood acquaintance who “needed some love.” But Patti LaBelle never forgot that Elton John still hadn’t returned her Tupperware.
She asked for it back in London, and then again years later when Elton, now a glitzy superstar, visited Philly to play the Spectrum. (“He called me and said, ‘Patti, can you come and see me tonight?’ I said, ‘Reggie, who are you opening for?’ and he said, ‘I’m Elton John now.’” Patti’s response: “You punk. You made it before I did.”) Fast-forward to Vegas, 2005, Patti leaning over Elton’s red piano. She was a successful solo artist by then — even if she hadn’t had the same crossover commercial success as, say, Whitney Houston — with 15 albums, dozens of tours and two Grammys under her belt (along with two movies, two cookbooks, a best-selling memoir, a sitcom, a Broadway play and a docuseries). Elton slipped one of his rings onto her index finger and then kissed it.
“That’s yours, Patti,” he said. “For the Tupperware.”
“I had it appraised the other day,” she tells me now. “It’s expensive. So that’s my Tupperware.”
Patti has endless stories like this — juicy, behind-the-scenes anecdotes of the fellow stars in her orbit — and most revolve not around her voice, but her food.
Like that one time the Rolling Stones asked her to cook for them when they came to Philly for a show. She did, packing up brisket, fried corn, cabbage, rice, short ribs, beef, chicken and desserts, on the condition that they share it all with the opening band and crew. And there was the time that Franco Moschino, the founder of the Italian fashion house Moschino, flew her to Italy after seeing her perform at Live Aid. She arrived to a hotel room filled with clothes, all presented in bow-tied boxes; then she visited him at his house, where she cooked him pasta. Whenever he came to the States, he would make a pit stop in Philadelphia for her fried chicken.
And there was the time she recorded with Prince at his Paisley Park estate outside Minneapolis, after which he asked her to cook for him in his kitchen. She whipped up some dish — she doesn’t remember what it was — but Prince only ate a roll.
“What is it? You just wanted to see me cooking in your kitchen?” she asked him.
He looked at her and smiled. “It was a pleasure.”
When you’re Patti LaBelle, even Prince’s kitchen is a stage.
Patti LaBelle would like to take her shrimp home, please. She hasn’t finished her lunch at the Capital Grille, but she has plans for her leftovers. She’ll add some mayonnaise, some celery and seasonings, and she’ll make a shrimp salad. Beneath a thick fringe of mink eyelashes, her eyes are heavy; she’s getting tired. It’s been a long day. It’s been a long road.
In a 1986 article in the New York Times — then timely, as Patti was emerging from the “leaner years of [her] show business career” with a month-long residency at Broadway’s Minskoff Theater — Patti talked about her goals. She wanted, she said, to become a household name — to be “richer than Onassis” so that she could help people. “I want to shower the world with food,” she said then. “I don’t know how I’d do it, but I would find a way.”
She’s planning on adding iced teas and lemonades to her Walmart lineup, and savory dishes aren’t far behind. Despite always feeling like she’s second fiddle to some of her soul-singing contemporaries, it’s now Patti who’s casting the shadow: In 2016, Aretha Franklin announced plans to launch her own food line. It hasn’t yet materialized.
Patti has other plans, too. (“I’m a Gemini,” she says, “always busy. Always got stuff.”) She wants to get back to her roots and record another R&B album. Her latest studio releases, a holiday album and a well-received jazz record last year, were her first in nearly a decade. Recording has always been difficult for Patti, as her emotional minutes-long riffs — the ones sometimes sung while she’s rolling barefoot across the stage floor — don’t translate particularly well to short, radio-friendly songs. “She can start howling and screaming and stuff, but you can’t have too much of that,” says Gamble. “She will go off on you in that studio.”
Speaking of Gamble, he has a song for her to sing; they’ll be recording that together soon. She has more television roles lined up — her guest spots on Fox’s Empire and FX’s gore-fest American Horror Story were hits — along with a Pfizer health campaign. And there’s always the possibility of more Broadway, and a reunion tour with Labelle.
“I wake up, I’m blessed,” she says. “I can still sing, I’m blessed. I can still do my little Patti no-dance dance, I’m blessed. My bones, they move. I’m blessed.”
By the time Patti pushes away from the table, she’s outlasted everyone in the restaurant. She weaves her way through the empty tables and out into the late-afternoon sunlight, into the small knots of people clogging the sidewalk. She’s bundled against the cold and ready for her next show.
“She’s a force of nature, a dynamo,” says Randy Alexander, an executive board member of the Philadelphia Music Alliance who was integral in getting Labelle, the group, a plaque on Philly’s Walk of Fame last year. “She’s in her mid-70s. She doesn’t have to do this anymore. But she does. And we’re all the better for it. Long may she rock,” he says. “And rule.”
Published as “Sing. Bake. Slay. Repeat.” in the April 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.