Capable of matching the wail of a fire engine and yet just as affecting when singing barely above a whisper, R&B legend Patti LaBelle has enjoyed one of the longest careers in contemporary music. Active since the early '60s with the Bluebelles -- the girl group that evolved into '70s funk trailblazers LaBelle -- she has notched hits in a variety of sounds including girl group pop, gutsy soul, space-age funk, hard-hitting disco, lush quiet storm, and high-tech pop. The singer began a solo career in 1977 that has been highlighted by 13 Top Ten R&B singles, including the chart-topping quiet storm classic "If Only You Knew" (1983) and crossover hits such as "New Attitude" (1985) and "On My Own" (1986). Although she's known more for her singles than for her albums, two of her later full-length projects, Burnin' (1991) and Live! One Night Only (1998) have won Grammy Awards in the R&B field. LaBelle since then has recorded albums rooted in gospel and jazz, namely The Gospel According to Patti LaBelle (2006) and Bel Hommage (2017), while remaining active as a performer and actor.
Born Patricia Holt in Philadelphia on May 24, 1944, Patti LaBelle grew up singing in a local Baptist choir, and in 1960 teamed with friend Cindy Birdsong to form a group called the Ordettes. A year later, following the additions of vocalists Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash, the group was renamed the Blue Belles. With producer Bobby Martin at the helm, they scored a Top 20 pop and R&B hit in 1962 with the single "I Sold My Heart to the Junkman," and subsequently hit the charts in 1964 with renditions of "Danny Boy" and "You'll Never Walk Alone."
Gonna Take a Miracle The quartet, now known as Patti LaBelle & the Bluebelles, signed in 1965 to Atlantic, where they earned a minor hit with their version of the standard "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." In 1967, Birdsong replaced Florence Ballard in the Supremes. The remaining trio toured the so-called "Chitlin' Circuit" for the remainder of the decade before signing on with British manager Vicki Wickham in 1970. Wickham renamed the group simply LaBelle and pushed their music in a funkier, rock-oriented direction, and in the wake of their self-titled 1971 Warner Bros. debut, they even toured with the Who. The trio also collaborated with Laura Nyro on the superb R&B-influenced album Gonna Take a Miracle. By 1973, LaBelle had gone glam, taking the stage in wildly theatrical, futuristic costumes. A year later, they became the first African-American act to appear at New York's Metropolitan Opera House. The landmark performance introduced "Lady Marmalade," which in 1974 became their lone chart-topping single, produced by Allen Toussaint.
After two more full-lengths, 1975's Phoenix and the following year's Chameleon, LaBelle disbanded, and their namesake mounted a solo career with Epic, where she released a studio album each year from 1977 through 1980. During this period that produced Patti LaBelle, Tasty, It's Alright with Me, and Released, she worked with David Rubinson, Skip Scarborough, and Allen Toussaint. LaBelle all the while stuck to straightforward and sophisticated R&B with some dancefloor appeal. Nine A-sides from this phase charted, including the Top 40 R&B singles "Joy to Have Your Love" (a funkier number co-written by Ray Parker, Jr.), "It's Alright with Me" (a typically graceful and warm-hearted gem from Scarborough), and "I Don't Go Shopping" (a retro-contemporary ballad). Her biggest club success came with "Music Is My Way of Life," which peaked at number ten on Billboard's disco chart.