BORN PATRICIA HOLTE — her family called her Patsy — on May 24, 1944, LaBelle was raised in the Eastwick neighborhood in southwest Philadelphia, a largely Black working-class community, by her parents, Henry and Bertha Holte. She was the second youngest of five children: Her brother, Thomas, was the eldest, and she had three sisters, Vivian, Barbara and Jackie. In her memoir, “Don’t Block the Blessings” (1996), LaBelle recounts a doting father, a railroad man and sometime nightclub performer who braided her hair, cooked her breakfast and had a voice like Nat King Cole. Her mother worked in food service before becoming a full-time homemaker. When her father became abusive toward her mother, the two divorced. On one occasion following her parents’ split, LaBelle was sexually abused by her mother’s new boyfriend. After that, it was the music of Nina Simone, Gloria Lynne, Dakota Staton and James Moody — introduced to her by her brother — that became LaBelle’s “escape hatch … [and] gave me something to believe when I thought I had lost my faith.” She started singing shortly thereafter, with “the broom as a microphone,” as she recalled. She then moved on to the church choir at Beulah Baptist Church — which was close to her childhood home — at a time when the church played a prominent role in the daily lives of Black Americans. It was the choir director, Harriet Chapman, who forced LaBelle to take a solo. “‘Oh, no, Patsy, you have to come in front and do the lead,’” LaBelle remembered her saying. When she protested, Chapman suggested a duet with her son, Nathan. LaBelle got the bug quickly thereafter, singing “God Specializes,” and received the amen from the whole congregation: “They all stood up saying, ‘Hallelujah!’ That’s when I first realized I had talent.”
The pace of ballads allows LaBelle to explore a range of emotion that 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.
LaBelle began her career in 1960 when she joined a quartet that had originally included Jean Brown, Yvonne Hogen and Johnnie Dawson but would later feature the singers Nona Hendryx, Sarah Dash and Cindy Birdsong. (Birdsong would go on to join the Supremes in 1967, making the quartet a trio.) The Ordettes, as they called themselves, signed with Harold Robinson’s Newtown Records label in 1962 and were rechristened the Bluebelles; their lead singer, “little” Patsy Holte, became Patti LaBelle. But the group was largely overshadowed by others like the Shirelles and the Supremes, the latter of which became one of the most successful groups ever; their lead singer, Diana Ross, became a global superstar. But Ross was never tied to one place like LaBelle — she moved to Los Angeles in the early 1970s, and later relocated to New York City. LaBelle, on the other hand, remained, becoming synonymous with her hometown. Diana Ross was a pure pop confection; Patti LaBelle is, and has always been, a home-style meal.