By Mark Anthony Neal
Photographs by Hank Willis Thomas and Deb Willis
Styled by Alex Harrington

During their early years, the Bluebelles, like many of their peers, made their living on the so-called chitlin’ circuit, a network of clubs and theaters primarily in the eastern and Southern parts of the United States that catered to Black artists and audiences throughout much of the 20th century. Chitlins, short for chitterlings, was a Black American delicacy derived from scraps — pigs’ intestines — so the chitlin’ circuit was a metaphor for the leftover opportunities granted to Black performers in segregated America. Yet it was also a story of resilience, as theaters like the Fox in Detroit, the Howard in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia’s own Uptown and, most famously, New York’s Apollo became incubators for Black music. “I’m happy we had a chitlin’ circuit,” LaBelle told me. “It makes me be a better me.” Those things that have made her better included cross-country drives, because the group couldn’t afford airfare, or surviving on a paltry per diem by buying candy bars, cans of tuna and 10-cent sardines. “I have a pantry full of sardines and tuna,” LaBelle half-joked, noting, “That’s what I had yesterday, a nice tuna sandwich, and sardines the other night.” She grinned. “Our good Black was good,” she said, again referring to the circuit — a reminder that Black Americans had long ago established their own criteria of cultural affirmation.

But not everything on the chitlin’ circuit was “good.” It was on one such tour that the singer Jackie Wilson attempted to rape her, as LaBelle recounts in her memoir. Such stories about life on the R&B circuit, or the “Rough and Black” circuit, as the fictional character James (Thunder) Early describes it in the film “Dreamgirls” (2006), rated very little attention in the 1960s. LaBelle’s willingness to share her story about Wilson, who was revered by audiences and whose legendary stage performances were an inspiration for a young Michael Jackson, was especially brave at the time — 20 years before #MeToo — and highlighted the precarious position of being a young woman, in particular a young Black woman, in the record industry.

Such experiences inspired the music that the group recorded in the 1970s, as women who were taking control of their image, their bodies and their sexuality. When the Bluebelles transformed into Labelle in 1971, they also redefined the very idea of the girl group. Absent were the bouffants and Bob Mackie gowns that the Supremes made so famous. As the scholar Maureen Mahon writes in her book “Black Diamond Queens” (2020), Labelle instead emphasized “individual voices and personalities in vocals, clothing and onstage style.” Girl groups? No, Labelle was about grown-ass Black women who were “bold, brash [and] brazen,” which is how the group’s manager Victoria Wickham imagined them. As LaBelle recalls in her memoir, Wickham believed the trio would be revolutionary: “Three Black women singing about racism, sexism and eroticism.” On their first albums they covered signature songs from the Rolling Stones (“Wild Horses”), Gil Scott-Heron (“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”), the Who (“Won’t Get Fooled Again”) and Cat Stevens (“Moonshadow”), forcing themselves into a domain dominated by male performers. As Mahon notes, Labelle’s “rebellious performance stances, frank engagement with sexuality and adventurous, high-energy music positioned the group to take a place on the rock stage.” And indeed, their styles, which seemed inspired by the Afrofuturism of Sun Ra — metallic headgear, midriff tops, skintight bottoms, short skirts and full-length boots — were a blueprint for more popular Black acts at the time like Earth, Wind & Fire and Parliament-Funkadelic.

It was during this period that LaBelle married her longtime friend and future manager Armstead Edwards, in 1969, giving birth to their son Zuri in 1973. (The couple would later adopt four more children: Stayce and William, LaBelle’s niece and nephew, whom she took in after her sister Jackie’s death in 1989; and Stanley and Dodd, her neighbor’s children, whose mother had also died.) But marriage and motherhood didn’t keep LaBelle from her music. The trio’s biggest success, the now-iconic “Lady Marmalade,” came only a year after her son’s birth, with a New Orleans-style swagger that struts like a drunken sailor intent on satiating his desires, if only for the night: “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?” That these desires are being expressed by three women, breaking some unspoken social contract of decorum, is what made the song so provocative — and an inspiration for women in the burgeoning days of the feminist movement.

THE GROUP BROKE UP in 1976, and LaBelle emerged as a breakout R&B singer; since her 1977 solo debut, she’s recorded 23 albums. If there’s something that could be called a definitive Patti LaBelle album, it’s “I’m in Love Again” (1983), which produced one of her most successful songs to date as a solo artist, “If Only You Knew.” Just as LaBelle says that she knows a Philly song when she hears it, audiences know this is a Patti LaBelle song. “If Only You Knew” is a slow, slow burn — a certified slow drag, as folks would’ve called it a generation earlier, during those blue-lights-in-the-basement house parties that LaBelle would have come of age attending. At its start, LaBelle sings, “I must have rehearsed my lines / A thousand times” with a level of restraint that betrays what audiences had come to expect from her. But it’s a setup: She lulls her listeners — the lyrics rendered as gentle coos and soft murmurs — until the sudden release, when the song turns into what can only be described as fits of ecstasy.

“Patti LaBelle is a balladeer. I love ballads,” she told me. Among her signatures are “Somebody Loves You” (1991) and “If You Ask Me To,” a song that made a minor ripple when she first recorded it in 1989 but became a major pop hit when Celine Dion covered it three years later, using the same arrangements, as LaBelle noted. Though she also admitted, “She sang so good, and we’re friends, so I said, ‘I’m happy you did it.’” The pace of ballads allows LaBelle to explore a range of emotion that, when mapped onto feelings of desire, betrayal and even eroticism, speaks so palpably to the lives of everyday folk: Ballads are the comfort food of soul music — melodies that stick to the bones, sustenance for working-class communities whose very humanity is challenged on a daily basis. When LaBelle sings “Somebody Loves You,” it is a reminder that their lives matter.