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

Though LaBelle has written songs, she is at heart a stylist, someone who is as known for the songs that were written for her as she is for personalizing songs that were recorded by others. And while there have been many great stylists in the soul and R&B traditions — Nancy Wilson made a career out of it — no one takes ownership quite the way LaBelle does. “You’ve got to be careful what you cover,” LaBelle said, noting some of the songs she wanted to sing over the years but decided not to, like Phyllis Hyman’s “Old Friend.” But then there’s “If You Don’t Know Me by Now.” First recorded in 1972, it was a major pop hit for Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes — Pendergrass sang lead — yet it is the best example of a song LaBelle made her own. On the live 1982 recording, she initially sings it straight, but beginning with the first chorus, she extends the notes — hitting some before and some shortly after they’re expected, and shimmying on others. It is classic soul singing, but it is LaBelle’s range and her ability to personalize the lyrics that take the song elsewhere. Midway through, she breaks into conversation with the audience. She’s letting listeners in, teaching them the lessons of life. The call and response of the exchange is wisdom imparted and messages delivered. With performances like these, LaBelle earned her reputation as a diva — a term she dismissed, saying, “I’m a round-the-way girl from Philly. I’m not a diva.”

IT WAS AN auntie showcase this past September when LaBelle and Gladys Knight sat down to do “Verzuz,” a virtual artist battle, conceived by the producers Swizz Beatz and Timbaland and launched on Instagram in the early months of the pandemic. “Verzuz” quickly became a reprieve from Covid-19 lockdown fatigue and a lifeline for artists who couldn’t tour and audiences who weren’t able to gather — “It was like doing a concert because I hadn’t worked in seven months onstage,” LaBelle said. Though artists initially appeared remotely, LaBelle and Knight chose to appear together on a soundstage in Philadelphia.

Generations of viewers were drawn to the “Verzuz” episode with these veterans of soul; it was as if they were sitting across from us at the kitchen table, where so many aunties share secrets. The two dished on lost loves, and peers they would rather not talk about, or to; they knew the words to each other’s songs, and even invited another auntie, Dionne Warwick, onstage to join them in a rendition of “Superwoman,” a song they first recorded for a Knight album 30 years earlier. “We have so much great history. We’re the O.G.s. The real girls,” LaBelle recalled of her friendship with Knight of more than 50 years, dating back to their days on the chitlin’ circuit and through moments of tragedy, including the deaths of LaBelle’s three sisters and Knight’s son. “It was a blessing,” she said.
“A Philly girl,” she called herself, and yet she’s everywhere now. LaBelle turned to acting in 1984, with her performance as Big Mary in “A Soldier’s Story,” followed by her memorable role as Adele Wayne on the hit television show “A Different World” (1987-93), and in 2015, she appeared on “Dancing With the Stars.” In 1999, she expanded into cookbooks — with recipes like Aunt Hattie’s Scrumptious Sweet Tater Bread and Say-My-Name Smothered Chicken and Gravy — and a line of cakes, pastries and frozen foods called Patti’s Good Life, which is sold at Walmart. “She’s entrepreneurial in the most amazing way,” Dyana Williams said. “Not very many artists get to do what she’s doing at this age and stage of their careers.”

LaBelle’s has been a life joyfully lived. “I’m so happy to be the Black woman with the good food,” she said, and it was clear she meant it. And with that, she sent me on my way with a plate of her peach cobbler, just as so many of America’s aunties would have.

Hair: David Lamar. Makeup: Lona Azami. Manicure: Amanda Nguyen. Production: Prod’n. Digital tech: Willy Lukaitis. Tailoring: Hailey Desjardins. Set assistant: Todd Knopke. Stylist’s assistant: Sidney Munch