Patti Labelle once thought she would never live beyond 50, but here's how she turned tragedy into soul magic
LaBelle's career is a testament to longevity and talent triumphing over obstacles. And, given the dire circumstances the legendary soul singer has risen above, her life is truly an inspiration
Patti LaBelle, who was seen in the latest Verzuz Battle episode alongside Gladys Knight, has enjoyed an incredibly successful career spanning six decades. Dubbed the 'Godmother of Soul', LaBelle has had a string of hits, both as a solo artist and with the all female vocal group Labelle. From 1974's platinum record 'Nightbirds', to 1986's Billboard 200 number one album 'Winner In You', LaBelle's career is a testament to longevity and talent triumphing over all obstacles. And, given the dire circumstances the 76-year-old legendary soul singer has risen above, LaBelle's life nothing short of a source of unending inspiration.
Born in 1944 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Henry and Bertha Holte, LaBelle was the second youngest of five children. Her father, a railroad worker, was also a club performer while her mother was a stay-at-home mom. LaBelle's four siblings–Thomas Hogan Jr., Vivian Hogan, Barbara and Jackie–were all very close to her while growing up; especially her sister Jackie, the youngest of the five siblings.
Tragedy first struck in 1975 when LaBelle's eldest sister, Vivian, passed away from lung cancer at the age of 43. Then, in 1978, she lost her mother to diabetes. Unfortunately, just four years later, in 1982, she lost her second-eldest sister, Barbara, to colon cancer. Barbara was 40-years-old. LaBelle was still reeling from the deeply personal losses when, in 1989, she lost her father to emphysema and the same year, her youngest sister Jackie to lung cancer. Like Vivian, Jackie was also only 43 when she passed.
Talking about the pain of losing Jackie in an episode of 'Oprah's Master Class' on the Oprah Winfrey Network, LaBelle said, "She (Jackie) asked me to make her an egg sandwich. I said to my aunt, because Jackie couldn't speak very well then, 'Aunt Hattie, tell her that I'll make it tomorrow.' The next day I made the sandwich. I said, 'Hattie, I'm on the way.' She said, 'Don't rush. Your sister just passed.'"
LaBelle, who sang at her sister's funeral, revealed that after burying Jackie she had to rush to shoot the music video for her song 'If You Asked Me To' in 1989. She did so, because she said she knows that's what her sister would have wanted. The song featured shots of a black-clad LaBelle singing in an empty church and letting tears roll down her cheeks. The emotion captured on camera that day, she says, was very real. “The tears were tears because that was the day her casket was closed,” LaBelle says of her sister. She also said she misses her sister Jackie 'like crazy' and adopted her son and daughter after her sad and untimely death. Later, LaBelle dedicated her album 'Burnin'' and her song 'Wind Beneath My Wings' to Jackie.
None of LaBelle's sisters lived to see their 45th birthdays which led her to believe that she, too, would be dead before 50. Talking about this, LaBelle said "We just had a fun-loving, fighting family; and then they all died".
Not letting it break her, LaBelle learnt from the deaths of her sisters how to live her life. Imparting an important lesson, the legend said, "Live your life today, because you have no idea what can happen in the next hour of this day. Jackie knew I loved her, but I was busy touring, and I was too tired to make that sandwich that day, so do it now. Do everything now you can for your family."
The singer said her sisters are also the reason why she's lent her voice to the American Lung Association's LUNG FORCE initiative to raise awareness about the dangers of the disease for women. Other associations she has supported include Bells for Peace, Carma Foundation, Clothes Off Our Back, Elevate Hope Foundation,Elton John AIDS Foundation among others.
Despite all the difficulties LaBelle faced throughout her life, the 'Lady Marmalade' singer has been one of the most prominent musicians of all times. In addition to selling over 50 million records worldwide, she has, out of 13 nominations, won the Grammy Award twice, once for Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance in 1991, and again for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance in 1998. She has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, Legends Walk of Fame, BET Walk of Fame, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Apollo Hall of Fame, and the Songwriters' Hall of Fame. LaBelle has also been nominated for the Emmy Awards twice for Outstanding Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program, and has performed for President Barack Obama at the 9/11 tribute singing 'Two Steps Away'.