On a humid Saturday night at Memorial Hall’s Please Touch Museum, Temple University Hospital held its 2017 “Acres of Diamonds” gala.
The opulent soiree, this year marking the hospital's 125th anniversary, drew a record-breaking 1,100 attendees (including Mayor Kenney) and raised more than $300,000 during an auction that lasted just 30 minutes (to say nothing of its $1 million-plus ticket sales and donations for charity).
Though the black-tie evening honored Temple president Richard M. Englert and celebrated all things great about the not-for-profit hospital, the evening’s truest treat was a private concert from one of this city’s own, Patti LaBelle, who had several of her own reveals that night.
“My son Zuri was born at Temple Hospital a little over 40 years ago,” LaBelle said from the stage before shouting out a maternity ward doctor's name. “We are grateful for Temple, and we are blessed.”
Whether anyone knew ahead of time however, LaBelle had an even bigger -- or decidedly more musical -- reveal when she and her large ensemble went into her smoky new song, “The Jazz in You,” from her first album since Miss Patti’s Christmas 10 years ago. Bel Hommage (due May 5) is her first jazz album in a recording career that started in 1962 with the release of the curious R&B romancer "I Sold My Heart to the Junkman."
“I had to work up to this, you know,” LaBelle said from her Wynnewood home before the debut showcase for Bel Hommage. “I’ve been working on and talking about this whole album for 15 years,” she laughed. “The music of jazz, and these songs, was old and welcome to me, even if singing jazz now was new and fresh. Either way, obviously, I wasn’t rushing it.”
What LaBelle has done in between talking about and slowly recording Bel Hommage with executive producer Armstead Edwards (her ex-husband and the father of LaBelle’s son-manager Zuri Edwards) is become a culinary world entrepreneur, a superstar in the food game just as she is in music. She has a deal with Walmart for tasty morsels such as Patti LaBelle Sweet Potato Pie, which quadrupled in sales after a giddy fan’s video went viral in November 2015, prompting LaBelle to come up with other offerings.
Along with readying her third season of the Cooking Channel’s Patti LaBelle’s Place, she’s published her fourth cookbook, Desserts LaBelle: Soulful Sweets to Sing About.
Her acting career is no slouch, either. After appearing in Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story: Freak Show with a particularly gory death (“I didn’t think I could bleed so much,” she laughed), she appeared on fellow Philadelphian and old pal Lee Daniels’ Fox network hip-hop soap opera Empire, with plans for more guest spots. “He’s forever trying to get me into something -- I love him.”
Music for LaBelle -- the diva behind rich hit ballads such as “On My Own” and Philly soul smashes such as “If Only You Knew,” to say nothing of the raunchy, pre-disco seducer “Lady Marmalade" -- seemingly took a backseat to her food and business endeavors. Or did it?
“Music never takes a backseat to anything with me,” she said with a regal, humorous haughtiness. At the suggestion of her ex-husband (“sure we fought through it -- he’s my ex,” she laughed), LaBelle entered the inner world of jazz, and not as a tourist. She covers three of Nina Simone’s signature songs (a sauntering “Don’t Explain,” a breathlessly nuanced “Wild Is the Wind,” a sassy “Go to Hell”). She was a pal to Simone when the latter lived in Philadelphia. “Nina was a queen, and her songs reflected that. Plus, she used to call me every other week to ask me if I found her a man yet.”
When LaBelle covered Dave Frishberg’s coolly comical “Peel Me a Grape,” she says she did it to remind her audience about her other gig. “You think of Patti, you think of good food.”
It is, however, the Tony De Vita/Giorgio Calabrese love ballad “Softly as I Leave You,” that finds LaBelle at her most emotionally raw. Bel Hommage is a study of a passionate woman -- happy and sad. “I was not confident about my voice at that point in my life, feeling real low, and you can hear me crying on that song,” she said. “That’s part of the journey, you know, jazz or otherwise.”