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Patti LaBelle Is Letting Go

Of stale relationships, fitness perfectionism, dirt and clutter, and shyness about speaking truth or celebrating wins: ‘Say everything. Do everything. Never block your blessings.’

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Tom Corbett
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Editor’s note: Let’s face it. Patti LaBelle is like family. She is that auntie who will tell it like it ’tis, that mamma who will care for us and love on us, that sassy sister-girl who is still our ride or die. Whether she entered our lives during her Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles stage (1960s), her Labelle stage (1970s) or her solo diva stage (1980s to … oh, heck, today), we feel like we know her. Patti’s the Philly girl who went through the heartache of watching all three of her sisters succumb to cancer before they’d reached the age of 44. She’s the author of a memoir and four best-selling cookbooks, the lady behind Patti’s Pies and her Patti’s Good Life line of packaged foods, which recently added a breakfast component.

 We’ve watched Patti as an actress in recurring roles on A Different World and Greenleaf, and she will appear in a few episodes of the upcoming season of The Wonder Years. But it’s her onstage antics that stand out. Vintage Patti watchers know that seeing Patti in performance — rolling around on the floor, back arched, shoes kicked aside, legs flailing — is a sight not easy to forget. Lawd. Have. Mercy. Yet the real reason we loved Patti is the reason we love her still: She possesses a range and a vocal virtuosity that simply stirs the soul, even as it changes and gains nuance with the passage of time. Now 78, Patti says that she doesn’t sing as fast as she did years ago and that “there is something in my voice that wasn’t there back in the day,” but she’s still hitting those high notes. And she’s still performing — sometimes sharing the bill with seasoned songstresses like Stephanie Mills and Gladys Knight.

The divorced mother of five and grandmother of four (she had one biological son and later adopted two of her sister’s children and two neighborhood children after their mothers died), Patti attributes her vocal longevity to the fact that she doesn’t smoke, drink, party or do drugs. Here are more insights from her interview with AARP’s Rob Tannenbaum.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

On Becoming Patti LaBelle

You should never hide your light, but [as a child] I hid it for as long as I could until I had somebody in my ear say, “You can really do this! Don’t be afraid!” Ms. Chapman, my church choir director, was the reason I became Patti LaBelle.

On Getting the Most out of Life

Say everything, do everything, never block your blessings by holding in and by being shy. I was very shy. I still am, but I realized that I had to let go and let God, and let everything [insided me] out, because people have to find out who you are.

On the Secret to Success

You’re going to have to pay dues. As people say, “paying dues” shows who you really are. You can’t just jump in this business and get all the props and all the love because you have a good voice. We worked for it. I worked for it. Traveling in a station wagon from Philadelphia to Los Angeles and eating sardines. At the Apollo Theater, saving my hot dog between shows on a light bulb to keep it warm. I paid dues. I was so happy that I was able to be that girl, to pay dues and not for anyone to just give me something. I’m trying to teach my grandbabies, you’re going to have to work for it. … I never wanted to just be given things because I had a great voice. I wanted to work.

On Who She Turns to for Advice

I turn to God, and I turn to myself. I don’t share very much, as far as having an issue to solve. If anyone, I’ll go to my son Zuri. That’s about the only one that I will go to.

On a Not-So-Secret Vice

I’m quiet. I’m only loud if we play cards and I win and I want to rub it in [my friends’] faces. That’s the only time I’m loud. I just make them so mad when I say, “Give me the money!”… We play 500, gin rummy, pitty pat, acey deucey. When I’m performing at the casino, I’ll play blackjack, if my son lets me out of the room. He’ll say, “Ma, you’re not gambling again!” There was a time I would gamble so much I would just lose money like crazy. I said, “There is no future in this.” I don’t gamble as much, but I still play cards.

On Other Pastimes

I like to stay up. … I like to clean late at night — if I see a spider web, there it goes, I start cleaning. I like to cook at night. … When we are in Philly, I never go out. I stay home. I love home. I can’t drive. I can’t swim. I can’t smoke. I don’t do anything but cook, watch TV and watch my puppy and grandbaby.

On the E- (exercise) Word

I just don’t like doing it. When I’m on stage, I get on the floor sometimes. I call that my exercise. I’m not a girl to get up at six o’clock in the morning to exercise for an hour. I don’t think so … I’m not going to lie. I have all kinds of equipment in my basement. Every now and then, once a month or so, I’ll exercise, but I will walk my little dog. I drink a lot of water. I don’t do drugs. I don’t drink liquor. I’m good.

On Ending Her Marriage but Remaining Friends

After being married for 33 years, we got to the point where I did not want to be married any longer to him, nor did he to me, but it ends up that we are best friends. We have a wonderful son. I don’t know what keeps you married longer or shorter. I just don’t know. Respect is one thing, and trust. When you don’t feel it, it’s time to say bye-bye. The respect and trust in our marriage was there. He is an early night person. I’m a late, late-night person. I would have the TV on when he was trying to sleep. Just little stupid things that made us realize that we couldn’t live together, but we can love each other from a distance.

On Sharing a Blessing

God has given me this. He has blessed me with this voice that I have, and I believe in always putting it all out and passing it on to people, giving them information and loving on people. It’s not about holding back and holding your thoughts and information from people when you can enhance their lives by talking about some stuff that they may not have heard before, something that could help them.

On Over-Singing and Over-Emoting

Yes, I think sometimes I’m that girl. Sometimes I sing so big and so loud and so strong, after a show one night I said, “Dag, I didn’t have to do all that!” But I did, because it was in me, and it came out. Sometimes on shows people say, “We don’t want to do a finale with Patti LaBelle, because she sings so hard and so strong. She’s loud.” Yes, I’m loud and I love it! I love it! I can’t be anything but!

This article has been adapted from AARP The Magazine. The definitive lifestyle publication available to AARP members only, it offers celebrity interviews and features on health and tech, plus tips, recipes, book and movie reviews, and more. If you’re not yet an AARP member, join today to get your subscription to AARP The Magazine.