Q&A: Patti LaBelle Talks Doja Cat, Her Shih Tzu and Living on the Main Line

The Philly music icon appears at Caesars Atlantic City on March 11th and on Jimmy Fallon's That's My Jam a few days later. 

Patti LaBelle

Patti LaBelle / Photograph by Jonathan Pushnik

On March 11th, the larger-than-life icon Patti LaBelle brings her new show to Caesars Atlantic City before appearing on Jimmy Fallon’s That’s My Jam a few days later. We reached LaBelle at her Gladwyne manse to talk about her illustrious career onstage and her lucrative second one selling pies at Walmart. She even sang a little Doja Cat for us.

Hi, Patti. We last spoke two years ago to the day, when I was compiling an oral history on your friends Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and their iconic Sound of Philadelphia. How has life been since then?
I certainly can’t complain.

And what’s the saying? If you could, nobody would listen anyway?
You got that right!

But seriously, so much has changed for many people over the past couple of years. How about you?
Ooooh, a lot has changed. So much. I’m still waking up in the morning after the pandemic. I say after, but it’s not over yet. Things changed a lot for everybody. I was very bored during the pandemic. Stuck at home. I created new recipes on an almost daily basis, and I organized a lot and cleaned. I couldn’t work, and I’ve always worked. But I’m glad I was able to play with my dog and my grandkids. They all kept me happy.

I know you’re an amazing cook. Tell me about these recipes.
I can’t even remember. I’m spontaneous, and it was just a spontaneous thing. I couldn’t remember a week later how I made whatever I made the week before. What was that special thing I did, what was the extra ingredient, whether it was shrimp fried rice with bok choy or Italian. Miss Patti doesn’t learn how to cook by watching YouTube. I create.

So you were bored but kept busy.
Oh yes, always busy. And lots of time on the treadmill, walking the dog … sometimes I feel like there are 18 Pattis all doing different things.

You’ve mentioned your dog a few times now. Could this be the same dog you told me about back in 2014, when I interviewed you fresh off your performances on Broadway?
Yes, my shih tzu, Mr. Cuddles. He’s about 78 years old. [laughs] And he does everything I tell him not to do. He tears up his blanket just to be spiteful. He eats what he wants to eat when he wants to eat it. He’s cute and bad. I have a cute and bad dog and cute and bad grandkids. Well, the grandkids are not bad. They’re … “precocious.”

I heard you no longer live in Wynnewood.
I am now in Gladwyne, 20 minutes away from that house. My son Zuri tore that old house down, and it now looks like some house in Malibu. When I go in, I can’t even remember where the kitchen was or where my bedroom was. But I love Gladwyne. It’s so quiet and dark at night. Sometimes I feel like I am living in a jungle.

I see that you’re playing Atlantic City on March 11th. You regularly play A.C. but not so much in Philly, the place where you grew up. What’s with that?
Atlantic City is just where I tend to get booked.

I vote for Patti at the Met on Broad Street. That would be a magnificent venue for you.
I would love to play the Met. I saw Mariah there.

The last time I was there, it was for Madonna, where some people paid $1,200 per ticket to watch her terrible show.
Twelve hundred dollars?!?

Yes. Okay, if Live Nation — the operator of the Met — is reading this: Book Patti!
[Laughs] And so it shall be done. No problem. I’ll be there. And it won’t be some miserable $1,200 ticket.

I understand you have a new album in the works.
I’ve been at it for a year and plan to release it before this year is out. It’s a combination of covers and originals, and that’s pretty much all I want to say about it right now.

Well, I read that Mariah Carey, Ledisi and Jazmine Sullivan are all expected to be guests on it.
It’s true. They are on the list.

Some artists now use apps like Cameo to send video messages to fans to earn some extra cash. Can a fan pay $500 for a 30-second happy birthday from Patti LaBelle?
[Laughs] No. I’m pretty squared away.

If the love thing happens, it will happen, and when it does, I’ll be ready for it.

So many performers these days are “discovered” on YouTube or TikTok. Do young people ever ask you for advice on how to pursue a career in this world?
Yes. I tell them to believe in themselves. Never listen to anyone telling them no. You need to turn noes into yeses. And know how talented you are, even if you’re not.

Wait, you’re suggesting untalented people should still go for it?
Of course. There are a lot of folks who aren’t talented, but they believe in themselves, they keep persisting, and they succeed. I’m not naming any names, but …

Have you faced much rejection?
No. Not too much. But these days, Zuri is my manager, just as he has been for over 15 years. He deals with all of that. So I’m possibly rejected all the time, but he might not be telling me about it. [laughs] As far as I know, I’ve been doing pretty good.

What’s it like having your son as your business manager? I’m trying to imagine how that would go with me and my mom.
I trust him, and it’s wonderful. We have lots of fights — he’ll tell me I shouldn’t wear something I want to wear, or he’ll tell me not to try something I want to try. Do this. Don’t do that. But I usually win.

I can imagine. If I come to your show, what would I expect to see? Are you playing with a large ensemble, or more stripped-down?
Definitely a large ensemble. Five singers. A nine-piece band. And who knows what I will play? As I said, I’m very spontaneous. A lot of people do the same show in every city. I would get bored with that. I even change up my set in the middle of the show sometimes.

Wow. You must have players that you trust, people you’ve worked with for some time.
Debbie Henry has been singing with me for more than 40 years. She’s my main lady. Others have been with me for 15, 20, 25 years.

How are you as a boss?
Too nice.

Would your musicians say that?
Yes. There are people I should have fired years ago. They’re still there. It’s hard for me to say goodbye, and jobs are hard to get, so they stay. We’ve had some not-so-pleasant moments. But nobody killed anyone.

My favorite song of yours is your rendition of “Over the Rainbow.” Every time I hear it, I get chills. Literally. I’m not sure how accurate these internet set lists are, but it seems you haven’t been playing it as much in recent years.
Yes. At some shows, I replaced it with “You Are My Friend.” And that’s not a good thing. I don’t want to cheat people out of the song. So it’s coming back on this tour.

In that 2014 interview we did, I asked you about your designation as a diva, and you said that people who call you that “may be correct.” You went on: “I’ve paid the dues, as have Gladys, Aretha, Barbra and Bette. So it doesn’t bother me. It bothers me when they call some of the newcomers divas who should never deserve it. I’ve been a diva for about 30 years.” Okay, so that was 2014, and the way we think about women and the way we talk about women has changed significantly since then. Are you still comfortable being called a diva?
If people call me that, they call me that. Do I love it? Not anymore. I’m not gonna hurt you if you say it, but it’s something grand and untouchable. All of the things I am not. I know when people say it, it’s from the heart, with love.

Looking back on your storied career, is there a concert that stands out the most?
I once sang “Over the Rainbow” for Coretta Scott King, and I gravitated — I was flying. I don’t know what happened. It was a moment that I could never explain. I literally flew.

[Ed. Note: The video of this performance is truly amazing, and you can watch it below.]

You were one of the performers­ at JFK Stadium for Live Aid in 1985. You sang the covers “Over the Rainbow,” John Lennon’s “Imagine,” Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,” and your own songs “New Attitude” and “Stir It Up.” Any big memories from that day?
It. Was. Hot. They were spraying water everywhere. And during “Forever Young,” I wanted to go out into the front row of the audience, but there was all this water around the wiring, and my people said I was going to get electrocuted. I went out anyway. I didn’t get shocked. And it felt so good. Live Aid was an extreme moment.

You also sang on the encore, which was, of course, “We Are the World.” I once asked Kenny Loggins about that, and he said: “She was screaming on the microphone. It was so loud. So overwhelmingly loud. There were at least 12 mics onstage, and the sound guy had to be trying to figure out what mic she was on to turn it down. It was hilarious.”
[Laughs] I got the spirit!

patti labelle

Patti LaBelle performing at Live Aid in Philly in July 1985 / Photograph by Paul Natkin/Getty Images

Any regrettable performances in your life?
Thank God, no. But there have been nights where bad things happen. I had food poisoning at one show and did my best to calm it down beforehand. But I walk out onstage, and as I’m singing, it all comes bubbling up, and I threw up all over the place.

Oh, God. I just YouTubed it. Wish I hadn’t.
But then you’ll see that I wiped off the mic and went back to it. Then there was the recent scare during my show in Milwaukee. A lady in the audience was not feeling so great — she was drunk — so they removed her. And I was told that her son said he was coming back to destroy everybody. Nobody was allowed back into the theater. I’ll be making up that show in Milwaukee.

Returning to our 2014 interview for a moment, you said that the biggest problem with the modern music industry is that “they let all these sorry acts through.” Harsh! Do you listen to any of the new artists today?
Some are blessed. Some are not.

Okay, but Lizzo — she’s blessed, right?
I like that Lizzo is in her own world, doing her own thing. Doja Cat? [sings] “You ain’t nothin’ but a dog, player.” I like that song. I like certain songs that some of these artists put out. But there’s not one where I’m waiting to see what they put out next. So that’s not good.

About a decade ago, you described your relationship status as “empty.” Still apt?
Awwww. I have so much love, honey. I do have men who are attracted to me. But there are no “hookups,” and there is no marriage. I am perfectly content to remain single. Child, I’m 78. I’m so blessed just waking up in the morning. If the love thing happens, it will happen, and when it does, I’ll be ready for it.

At 78, what have you done to preserve your voice? I’ve seen recent live videos, and you’ve still “got it,” as they say.
I am so blessed. I don’t do any training. No lessons. No vocal coaching. My voice is just still the way it always was.

You’ve been selling your pies and other baked goods at Walmart for the better part of a decade. You once sold one pie every second over a three-day period. How is the pie biz these days?
Thank God, it never stops. It is my second life. People have not stopped buying. It’s still strong.

Okay, I know our 30 minutes are up, because you’re traveling. Anywhere good?
We’re off to play a show in Nashville and then some shows in Florida. Some other things I have going on: I did two episodes of The Wonder Years. They should be out soon. And I did That’s My Jam with Jimmy Fallon, which will air soon as well.

I can’t wait to see them, and I’m looking forward to seeing you in Atlantic City in March. I’ve always been a fan, but this is the first time I’ll be seeing you live, I’m ashamed to admit.
Listen, I always enjoy talking to you. Every time. I really do.

Oh, that’s so nice of you. I’ll tell my boss. Meanwhile, I hope to see you at the Met soon.
You better believe it.

Loving LaBelle

We asked three in-the-know Philadelphians to share their thoughts about the one and only Patti.

Patty Jackson, DJ, WDAS-FM

“You know, everybody likes to throw around this phrase ‘It’s a Philly thing.’ Well, guess what? Patti truly is a Philly thing. She is Philly through and through, and not only is she from Philly, and not only does she still call herself a Philadelphian; she wears it on her sleeve and embraces it. Patti represents Philly so, so well. She is truly a one-and-only. A one-woman force.”

Martha Graham Cracker, Drag queen

“Patti is singular. She makes me proud to be a Philadelphian. Hell, she makes me proud to be an American. My favorite song is ‘Over the Rainbow,’ particularly the version she did at the 1984 MLK celebration. That video makes me laugh with wonder. It makes me weepy. What she does with it almost seems like a performative miracle, or a possession. It goes beyond singing.”

Bobbi Booker, Music journalist

“Patti hits you right in the heart. She is extraordinary in that her style of singing is emotional and infectious and hits its mark sure and strong every time. Her voice has a way of just searing itself into your soul, and it stays with you. And I believe it is this emotional connection that has maintained a level of love and embracement through multiple generations and will do so for years to come.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Published as “On Her Own” in the March 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.