The First Time I Heard…Patti LaBelle

By: Toya Haynes

There is a scene in the 80’s movie “White Men Can’t Jump” where Woody Harrelson is in the car with Wesley Snipes and they start talking about Jimi Hendrix.  Wesley Snipe’s character says to Woody Harrelson’s character “Just because you are listening to him, doesn’t mean you are hearing him.”  This is exactly how I feel when I think about the first time I actually “heard” Patti LaBelle.

The first time I really heard Patti LaBelle was in the wee hours of the night while listening to the Quiet Storm way past my bedtime during the mid-eighties.  Now let me tell you something about the Quiet Storm program in Patti LaBelle’s hometown of Philadelphia. Nobody does it better than the legendary R&B station of close to 60 years, WDAS-FM.  While most kids would probably put this station on to fall asleep to, I would be fully awake on most nights listening to this format with rapt attention. Now of course being from the Philadelphia area I was already familiar with Patti LaBelle; her gravity defying larger than life hair that matched her larger than life voice; her rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” that would end with her hitting a note so close to breaking the sound barrier while she symbolically flapped her wings in hopes of taking flight over the rainbow with the teeny weeny birds.  But it wasn’t until the DJ played Patti LaBelle’s ballad “Little Girls” off of her 1978 album Tasty, that I really truly heard Patti LaBelle for the first time. This particular song displayed an emotional side of her that I had never heard before.  Gone were the theatrics that I associated with her as an artist.  Her vocal on “Little Girls” displayed a soft but powerful vulnerability that was so moving, I remember thinking about it long after the song went off.  I could surely say right then and there that I had finally heard Patti LaBelle and was most definitely a fan.

Since then, my most favorite Patti LaBelle songs have been her emotional ballads that are much in the same vein as “Little Girls”.  It doesn’t matter who you are, songs like “Come What May” and “If Only You Knew”, still have the potential to get you in your feelings even after over thirty years later.  Like she sings in one of her most signature hits, when it comes to love songs, if you are talking about love, you should definitely be talking about her. Patti LaBelle’s ability to convey the emotions of the heart in love is like no other vocalist of our time.  No wonder you don’t hear too many Patti LaBelle covers.  Not too many singers out there should be so brave.

Singing aside, what I really love most about Patti LaBelle is that although she is undeniably a star, she has always had this down to earth relatable charm about her that has made her so easy to love; much like your favorite auntie or a mother.  Who can forget her as the hilarious, prune cobbler pushing, over protective mother of her “little chipmunk” son Dwayne Wayne on A Different World?  She just has such a knack for engaging her audiences with so much endearment while at the same time blowing us all away with her dynamic talent.

Without a doubt, Patti LaBelle is a prominent jewel in not just the history of African American music, but music as a whole. She is truly a national treasure.  I think many music lovers across the globe will agree that we will always “love, need and want” Patti LaBelle’s music until the end of time.

Here are my absolute favorite songs by the legendary Miss “Patti Patti”: