Patti LaBelle: June 2005

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Patti LaBelle (June 2005)

Chicken Soup for the Positive Soul

Just as the incomparable Patti LaBelle’s indelible talent has earned her a place among R&B royalty, A&U’s B. Andrew Plant discovers firsthand how her unwavering devotion to people with medical challenges has earned her an honored place among leading health advocates and why her commitment to touching the lives of people affected by HIV/AIDS always starts with a hug.

Patti LaBelle (June 2005)
Patti LaBelle (June 2005)

When Patti LaBelle called me for our interview, she was quintessentially Patti: On time, gracious, forthcoming, cheerful, and passionate about her causes. I was starstruck. After all, this is the Grammy-winning songstress whose forty-year run in the music business is unprecedented.

About the only other thing Patti could have done to prove it was really her on the other end of the line was to demonstrate that signature four-octave vocal instrument that has been heard in concert halls around the world. But that wouldn’t have been situation-appropriate—something that is very important to the famous Philadelphian. Instead, a quieter voice than I might have expected greeted me, immediately thanking me for the opportunity to “talk about this terrible disease.”

In fact, throughout our time together, the true Patti shone through increasingly. Her easy manner and matter-of-fact pronouncements about health, healing, and unselfconsciously doing the right thing put me at ease. As with the rest of her gazillion fans, I began to feel I was simply talking to a friend on the phone.

That outcome would please the woman who has scores of albums and many, many television and film credits to her name. After all, as she explained to me, one of her goals is to bring a healthful, loving, and equalizing embrace to people, figuratively and literally.

“I remember this one time early on [in the AIDS crisis] I hugged a man who was very sick with AIDS,” she says. “He was covered with [lesions]; he looked very sick. But I grabbed him and gave him a big hug and just held him a bit. He needed that, and I did, too. Just as soon as I let go of him, someone said, ‘How could you hug him like that; aren’t you afraid?’”

Patti lets that comment hang there just a moment before decisively answering. “How could you not hug him?” I asked. “I still don’t understand that. We didn’t understand enough then to know if it was really safe to hug and touch someone with AIDS, but I was somehow blessed enough to know it was okay. It just felt right. I get angry with people who are prejudiced!”

Yes, Patti LaBelle understood both the dire nature of AIDS and the need for action from the very beginning. She did not wait until AIDS was a popular cause for celebrities. She did not hesitate in asking questions about the then-new epidemic.

“I knew one person who was [affected] and I saw what this might do to a whole lot of friends,” she tells me, “and unfortunately I was right. I began doing everything I knew how to do to help, and sometimes it was hard to know what to do, but I had to do something, anything….”

Indeed, I remember being at a Patti LaBelle concert in the 1980s and hearing her talk about health. About taking care of yourself. About the need to take the threat of AIDS seriously. And she has been consistent in the role of caring messenger. Still today in concerts she talks from the stage about AIDS, about healthy choices, about the effect diabetes and other diseases have had on her friends and family.

“I am blessed with this voice,” she says, “and people come to hear me and part of what they are going to hear is what needs to be said about this.” My new friend Patti tells me she feels part of her calling is delivery not only of song, but also these healthful messages.

And, just as she has been a musical pioneer—sometimes teaming with unlikely duet partners and often taking on new genres—Patti has indeed been a pioneer for doing the right thing, above and beyond AIDS. She told me right up front that she hates prejudice, and that’s a theme we would revisit several times during our interview.

“AIDS hit gay people first [that we knew of], but it’s not just about ‘gay’ or ‘straight,’” she says. “We were seeing and saying then what people know better now…that AIDS can and will touch everybody.”

“I became a banner carrier for people [with AIDS] for what they were just getting into,” Patti says, “maybe because nobody else was noticing or doing enough. I keep carrying that banner because we still haven’t gotten serious enough about this thing. It’s [affected] too many people in too many ways in too many places.”

This remarkable lady who helmed the legendary Patti LaBelle & The Bluebelles (1960s) and the 1970s group Labelle, and who has had two decades of phenomenal solo success, obviously does more than just talk about the issues she cares about. She lovingly tells the story of visiting a friend who was dying of AIDS.

He was in the hospital and Patti took him food and hand-fed him. Even more incredible, she did so right after a concert. That’s right, the woman who gives concerts that are so spiritually and physically exhausting that even her audience is tired went to a restaurant that was open late, “got noodles and shrimp to go,” and essentially played nurse and Mom to her friend.

“I also worked to get him into another hospital and to get him the cocktail,” she proudly told me. “He is healthier.” And the legendary singer makes clear she believes it was the love and attention and food and prayer that helped her friend rebound, just as much as it was the right medication.

After years of giving of herself, the singer has finally taken her own admonitions about health to heart. She talks of Luther Vandross’s health problems and about losing both of her parents, her sisters, and a best friend (to diabetes and cancer).

“I woke up [after seeing illness up close and losing those close to her] and started taking better care of myself,” she says, telling me that she for too long took her own diabetes diagnosis too lightly. “I’ve realized now only I can make the decision to be healthier. I’m not always on time [with my medication] and not perfect about it every day, but I do my best.”

The most important thing, she says, “is to remember I’ve got a disease—it doesn’t have me.” The same goes for HIV disease and other maladies, she says. “Don’t ever think that it’s a death sentence. Do what you can! Don’t ever let it be in control….”

She goes on to tell me that, on this very day, she is headed to her doctor to investigate the viability of an insulin pump. “Is it for me? Am I a candidate? Would it make me healthier and make my life easier?” she asks rhetorically. “When I hang up from talking to you, that’s what I’m going to go find out.”

Patti concedes that her own health issues and those of her family are probably part of what give her a better understanding of people with HIV/AIDS. “I understand some of the same issues,” she says, at least in regards to having to take medication and it being inconvenient and having to go for medical appointments more frequently. “Living with a disease means you have to think about health choices every day, like it or not.”

As for the friends she has lost—to AIDS and otherwise—Patti is philosophical. “They are in a better place,” she says, “but love never dies. Their essence is still here. I feel their spirits in my house.”

But she’d rather not lose friends who are ill in the first place. “You put on that happy face for them. Pray for them to get better. You don’t have to be an angel, just be someone who can give,” she says.

And she certainly gives. Patti serves as a spokeswoman for the National Medical Association (which administers a scholarship in her name) and the American Diabetes Association. She also serves on the boards of the National Alzheimer’s Association and the National Cancer Institute. Recently, the University of Miami’s prestigious Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center dedicated a special research laboratory in her honor for her tireless work on behalf of cancer awareness.

Notably, at amfAR’s annual gala last November in New York City, Patti was honored with the nonprofit’s Award of Courage, “for outstanding leadership and distinguished service in furtherance

of the Foundation’s mission and for helping to increase AIDS awareness and accelerate the pace of HIV/AIDS research.”

For nearly a decade, she has served as honorary chairperson of the National Minority AIDS Council (as a spokeswoman for the Council’s Live Long, Sugar campaign). The Council previously presented her with a Lifetime Achievement Award. She also has participated in benefit performances and prevention campaigns for a variety of other AIDS organizations, including Mpule’s Children’s Center in Botswana, the African American & Hispanic Leadership Conference on HIV/AIDS, Agouron Pharmaceuticals’ Fighting HIV through R&B campaign, the Songs for Life album benefiting the Royal Initiative to Combat AIDS in South Africa, the 2004 Super Bowl Gospel Celebration benefiting Houston’s Project WAVE, the Black AIDS Institute’s Rhythms for Health campaign, the 2004 Fashion Cares benefit, and the 2004 YouthAIDS benefit in New York.

Patti has received three honorary doctoral degrees—from Cambridge University, Drexel University, and the Berklee School of Music—so I ask if we are now allowed to call her, “Dr. Patti.”

“You sure can!” she says. “I am so blessed with that…that they’ve given me doctorates. I appreciate the recognition and respect.” She goes on, at my insistence, to talk a bit about her Grammy Awards and her many other accolades.

“Those are wonderful, especially when they come from people in the industry or people on the street. Fans. You know. They’re letting me know how I can make them feel and that feels good to me,” she says. “My success is not measured by [book and record] sales or all the accolades, really. To have the respect of people who want to come listen to me. That’s what makes me feel successful.”

Given that Dr. Patti is famous for her cooking (she’s cooked for more than one talk show host, is said to carry hot sauce in her purse, and is the author of two cookbooks), I wanted to know what she would cook for someone with AIDS. “I would make them my healing, feel-better soup,” she says. “I make it for myself and for anyone who is feeling bad. It’s like medicine for the body and for the soul.”

She goes on to tell how she recently made the soup while staying in a New York City hotel. (With a little detective work I found this particular trip to New York was made so she could sing at the wedding of Star Jones Reynolds.) “I didn’t feel good and was hoarse and my friend had a bad, bad flu, so I whipped up this good chicken soup and had the bellman and everyone in to eat it,” she says matter-of-factly. Don’t all international superstars cook for the masses?

The origins of the soup recipe are as wonderful as the cook. Patti talks of her long-time music director, Budd Ellison, and the fact that he was diagnosed several years ago with prostate cancer. Ellison had long been a vegetarian, but his doctor told him he wanted him to actively add protein back into his diet, including fish and chicken [see Sidebar].

“So I made him this chicken soup with all kinds of vegetables and stuff in it,” the cook tells me proudly. “I was so happy when he asked for more later. There wasn’t any, but I made more!” Since then, “Budd’s Back-to-Life Soup,” as Patti named it, has become a staple for her and her extended family, prepared whenever someone needs a healthful boost.

In addition to LaBelle Cuisine, the bestselling cookbook in which Budd’s eponymous soup appears, LaBelle is the author of three other bestsellers: Don’t Block the Blessings: Revelations of a Lifetime (her autobiography), Patti LaBelle’s Lite Cuisine (cookbook number two, with a nod toward healthy eating), and Patti’s Pearls (helpful insight from a woman who has lived, loved and learned).

Okay, so we know what she would cook for her ailing friends. What would this music legend sing for people with AIDS? “‘The Best Is Yet to Come,’” Patti says. “A song I recorded with Grover Washington [Jr.]. It’s got a good message…that you must hold on, keep on….”

“There’s another one I would sing too,” she says. “‘New Day.’ It’s a newer one…about new possibilities…spreading your wings.” “New Day” appears on Patti’s Timeless Journey album that was released in May 2004, in conjunction with the diva’s sixtieth birthday.

When I marvel that Lady Marmalade has hit this milestone, she proudly says, “Yes, I turned sixty and I celebrated.” Like the lady said, the best is yet to come.

As we wind down, I ask the humble legend for her final words on the AIDS crisis. “I want the world to stop being so mean, you know?” she says. “We have the ability to make a person feel better. And we can make them better. I am praying we do right.”

“We as a people can’t give enough to people living with AIDS,” Patti says. “Take them a meal or have a conversation about the people who love them or pray with them. There’s something we can all do.”

She’s quiet for a moment on the other end of the phone before saying, “Tell people that I will keep doing whatever I can for people with AIDS. Tell them I will do whatever. Tell them I care.”

B. Andrew Plant interviewed Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton for the April 2005 issue.

Budd’s Back-to-Life Soup

Makes 8 to 10 servings
One 3-1/2-pound chicken
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 medium onions, chopped
1 medium leek, white part with 2
inches of light green top, chopped and
well-rinsed
8 ounces green beans, trimmed, cut
into 1-inch lengths
2 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels
3 medium carrots, chopped
One 15-ounce can diced tomatoes,
with juice
1 small green bell pepper, seeded
and chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
Rinse the chicken under cold running water. Season well, inside and out, with salt and pepper. Place in a soup pot and add enough lightly salted cold water to barely cover. Bring to a boil over high heat. Skim off any foam that rises to the surface. Reduce heat to medium-low and cover. Simmer until the meat falls off the bone, about 1-1/2 hours. Remove the chicken from the broth. Remove and discard the skin and bones. Chop the meat and set aside.

Add the onions, leek, green beans, corn, carrots, tomatoes, bell pepper, and garlic to the broth. Simmer until the vegetables are tender, about 30 minutes. Return the meat to the broth. Skim any fat from the surface. Season with salt and pepper. Serve hot.

Recipe taken from The New York Times best-seller, LaBelle Cuisine: Recipes to Sing About, by Patti LaBelle, with Laura B. Randolph

June 2005