As I expected, last weekend’s BET Awards was a mess. One of the few bright spots of the show-in between repeated showings of Chris Brown’s spoiled, entitled mug, trying to figure out exactly what it is DJ Khaled does, and recoiling in horror at Rick Ross’s bare stomach, was a spirited tribute to Patti LaBelle. The singer/actress/author was receiving a (long-overdue, in my opinion) Lifetime Achievement Award, and she got props via not only a trophy, but a heartfelt speech from her longtime friend Gladys Knight, as well as performances dedicated to her by ne0-soul singer Marsha Ambrosius, gospel giant Shirley Caesar, and the ever-outrageous Cee-Lo Green, who was outfitted with a “New Attitude”-era spiked wig.
After delivering a somewhat off-kilter speech, Patti did what she does best-sing. The Philadelphia native has been exercising those elastic pipes of hers ever since she first charted in 1962 as part of the Bluebelles with “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman”. In the five decades since, she’s successfully navigated through songs from the girl group era, Motown (remember the Gonna Take a Miracle project with Laura Nyro?), glam rock, Philly soul, disco, synth-pop, hip-hop, gospel and everything in between. Much as I love some Aretha, on some days I wonder if the true Queen of Soul isn’t Miss Patti (or Chaka Khan, for that matter), neither of whom has slept through the last two decades in much the same manner that Miss Franklin has.
In 1989, Patti was coming off of the most successful run of her career. Her previous album, Winner in You, had become her first Platinum album, bolstered by the success of “On My Own”, a duet with blue-eyed soul brother (and Popdose favorite) Michael McDonald. For the follow up, Be Yourself, Patti found herself working with a who’s-who of ’80s pop/soul, including Diane Warren (who wrote the first single, “If You Asked Me To”-yes, the same song that wound up being a Top Five hit for Celine Dion three years later), Full Force, and Prince. The diminutive Paisley dynamo was behind the controls for the haunting message track “Yo Mister”, a Top Five R&B hit that is the featured track in this week’s column. Songs discussing drug abuse and parental neglect were not novel, especially in the socially conscious late Eighties, but very few people sang about these things with as much soul as Patti LaBelle. The accompanying video finds Patti having ditched her infamous wigs, but still sporting a variety of musical “O” faces, skittering across a makeshift stage in ridiculously high heels, and showing off the acting chops which would win her a sitcom (the short-lived “Out All Night”, co-starring Morris Chestnut and Vivica A. Fox) at the dawn of the next decade.