Fitter than ever, singer rocks house
In the 50 years since Patti LaBelle started in show business, a lot of singers have tried to imitate the vocal stylings of the R&B diva, with her unique combination of jazzy phrasing, gospel passion and pop drama.
But after all these years the pretenders still can’t touch the original, a fact made abundantly clear when LaBelle, 67 and currently celebrating her golden anniversary as a singer, performed before an audience of 1,584 at the Orpheum theater on Friday.
LaBelle actually arrived in Memphis a day before her concert, presented by the group Cultural Arts For Everyone for a fundraising event at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Memphis. The singer, who has lived with diabetes for 14 years, talked about the disease and shared recipes from her cookbook, “Recipes for the Good Life.” And indeed, her recent focus on health seemed to pay dividends in her powerful performance the next night.
After kick-starting the show with an energetic reading of her hit “New Attitude,” which earned her a standing ovation, and the slow jam “If Only You Knew,” which showcased her acrobatic melisma, LaBelle shed the black and silver church-like robe she was wearing to reveal a lean and trim body that was a shock to people who remembered her more Rubenesque form of the ’80s.
Later, in her rendition of “If You Asked Me To,” an example of how her vocals can elevate a wisp of a song, LaBelle put her newfound fitness to the test, holding the climactic, full-throated note for better than 10 seconds. Other highlights of the night included her version of the Skyliners hit “Since I Don’t Have You,” a version of her 1986 number one duet “On My Own,” with her band director substituting for Michael McDonald, and “You Are My Friend,” which took on added emotional heft thanks to a montage of images of the singer with famous friends from over the years (Al Green, Michael Jackson, President Barack Obama) culminating with her three sisters and parents.
For the obligatory performance of what is perhaps her best-known song, the 1974 funk classic “Lady Marmalade,” originally performed with the group Labelle, the singer put a fun twist by inviting three men from the audience to sing and dance to rather hilarious effect.
LaBelle saved the best for the close of her 80-minute show, however, bringing out the Memphis Central High School Concert Singers and Women’s Chamber Chorale, both under the direction of Gaylon Robinson, for a rousing one-two of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “When You’ve Been Blessed (Feels Like Heaven).”