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Patti LaBelle Talks Being 80 Years Young, 65th Career Anniversary: ‘How Can You Retire From Something You Love?’

“Still fabulous!” That was one of the compliments overheard as fans filed out of the Hollywood Bowl following Patti LaBelle’s 8065 Tour kickoff on Sunday evening (July 7).

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The numbers refer to LaBelle’s double celebration this year: her 80th birthday in May and 65-year career in entertainment. Those 65 years represent a pioneering, Grammy-winning music career that began in the early ‘60s as frontwoman for Patti Labelle & the Bluebelles, which evolved into the innovative trio LaBelle in the ‘70s with Nona Hendryx and the late Sarah Dash before LaBelle embarked on a solo career.

After opening her set with the emotion-packed “You Saved My Life,” LaBelle was definitely in her element as she kicked off her shoes not once but twice, cracked jokes (“Don’t get it twisted, I want my shoe back,” she told an audience member who’d caught one of them), busted a couple of dance moves with her singers and even did some of her trademark wing flexing. She also dedicated her own moving take on “If You Asked Me To” to Celine Dion (who covered the song after LaBelle in 1992). 

LaBelle’s soaring vocals especially took center stage on the ballad “If Only You Knew” (a surprise as it wasn’t on the set list provided by the Bowl) — eliciting a standing ovation — and on show closer “Lady Marmalade.” For the latter, she chose several males from the audience to join her onstage and try their hand at singing the hit themselves, which met with audience cheers and laughter. Her nearly 90-minute performance also included classics such as “Love, Need and Want You,” “On My Own” (her duet with Michael McDonald) and “You Are My Friend.”

Upcoming stops on LaBelle’s 8065 junket include Sacramento (7/20), Phoenix (8/11) and Memphis (9/12). In between, she’s still busy with her successful food company, Patti’s Good Life, which recently added a new pancake and waffle mix to its menu. And coming soon: Patti LaBelle Wines. In an interview with Billboard prior to her Hollywood Bowl show, LaBelle reflected on her career, the new wave of R&B female artists and the R word: retirement.

What else can fans expect when they catch you on this 2024 tour circuit?

I’m very eclectic and very spontaneous. I will do a whole lot of different kinds of music. You never know what I might do, but it’s going to be nice. They [the shows] will be about who I am: a Bluebelles girl, a member of Labelle and then Patti LaBelle. It will be a reminder of what I’ve done all my life, you know? I just want to give a public thank you for all the years that people have been on my page with me. I can’t take that for granted because people can spend their money in other places, on other entertainers. But when they decide to see a Patti LaBelle show or to buy a Patti LaBelle record, I feel blessed.

Are you working on any new music?

I have been working on something for the last two years. But you know, sometimes when you record, of course, you’re going to start, and then you’re going to stop. Or something might come into play where you say, “Well, God, I have to stop this right now and then go back into recording again when I get good music.” I’m very picky. I want to do age-appropriate music for an 80-year young woman. I can’t do anything that makes me feel as if I’m stretching out on something that I shouldn’t be. So this is going to have to be something that’s well thought out. It’s hard for me to find good material that I want to put out. But I’m not going to stop. I hope that something might be out in the next six months.

Did you ever envision having a 65-year career? A lot of people can’t say that.

Because of my three sisters dying before they turned 50, I would always pray that I could make 50. When I did, it was like a miracle. God has given me grace and I’m still here. And to say that I’m still here at 80, still doing what I did when I was 20, 30 and 40 … it’s another blessing. Because you can’t always take for granted that you’re going to be here at the age of 80, still performing and still in your right mind. So every day I say, “Thank you God for another day.”

Nona Hendryx, Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight attend Patti LaBelle's

Nona Hendryx, Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight attend Patti LaBelle’s Surprise 80th Birthday Celebration at The Glasshouse on May 23, 2024 in New York City.

Johnny Nunez/Getty Images for Patti’s Good Life

Please describe the feeling that you get as you’re preparing to step on stage.

It’s a rush that I’ve gotten all my life. I’ve never, ever not been nervous before a show; I’m always petrified. Especially when you go out and see the crowd standing or saying your name and making you feel just wonderful. That doesn’t happen all the time for a lot of people, but it’s still happening with me. My band and I have our prayer before we go on. They continue to push me and keep me feeling good onstage for 75-90 minutes. I’m always saying to myself, “God, I wonder if they’re going to care for me tonight like they did years ago.” That’s always on my mind because I don’t want to become an afterthought, like “Why is she still singing?” I just don’t want to be that person. So every time I go out there, I’m praying that they [the audience] will accept me.

Where do you get your energy?

That’s God, girl. Like I said, I’ve outlived most of my family members but I still have a show to do tomorrow, the next night and the next night. So that’s energetic for me. Sometimes my body might be sore, but I’m going to go out there and do my thing. I don’t feel any pain when I’m performing, you know? And I thank God for that after a show. And that makes me feel great that I can still do it. I don’t know what 80 should feel like, so I don’t know if I feel 80. Maybe I feel about 40 inside [laughs]. For exercise, I have a pool that I get in. I can’t swim but I can kick. And I walk my dog. I move my body to do things that I know will help me.

What one life lesson have you embraced during your 80 years? And what one music career lesson do you still carry with you after 65 years?

For the first: to not hold grudges. In 80 years, you can have a lot of things that could set you off or put you in a place where you say, “I hate this. I hate that.” But I don’t have hate in my life. I’ve learned to forgive those who have put me in such awful positions that you can’t think a person will forgive someone for doing that. But I’ve always taken the high road. So the older I get, the more I’ve become a forgiver. Because I always say there must be a real reason why a person is hurting, why they’re so ugly inside. So those people you pray for, and I sometimes bring them closer to me. It’s not going to hurt you to be nice to someone who’s not nice to you.

And for the second: that not everyone is going to accept me. There have been times in my 65 years of being in show business when there’s been a lot of rejection for Patti LaBelle: for my music, for my shows, for my acting, for whatever I’ve done in life. I know that everybody’s not going to accept it; that I’m going to get no’s and sometimes I’ll get some yeses. All of that stuff has happened in my life and will continue to happen because everybody’s not going to love Patti LaBelle.

Is there one song that you still love to perform after all these years?

I enjoy “If Only You Knew.” It’s a hard song to sing, but I can still sing it. Those notes at the end: I’m amazed every time they come out. So that’s one of my favorites for that reason. And I haven’t changed the keys to [my] songs; they’re in the original keys.

What do you think about the new wave of female singer-songwriters in R&B right now?

There are a lot of great singers in young women such as Coco Jones and Victoria Monét. I continue to bless them on, honey. Don’t stop; don’t stop. And of course Beyoncé, my girl. I’m just happy for her period for everything she’s doing and will continue to do. I’m seeing a lot of goodness in these young ladies performing and selling the way they’re selling. When Beyoncé did her country album, I said, “You go, girl” because music is music. And she is from Texas and she’s holding them. I just want her to continue to do any type of music that she wants to do. Music doesn’t have a color; it doesn’t have a race. Music is music period. 

When I was coming up, it [the industry climate] was nowhere near what it’s like now. It’s a much better place being a Black female performer; much more so than when we — Sarah, Nona, Cindy [Birdsong, a member of the Bluebelles] and I — were doing it at the time. So I’m very happy about the climate where Black women are singing anything they want. I wish it had been like that when we were coming up. But then again, if it was like that I might not appreciate what I have now as much as I do. We paid our dues. 

Is the R word — retirement —  in your vocabulary?

How do you spell it? [laughs]. That’s not in my book. No way. I’m going to keep on going. There’s no reason to stop unless you just can’t do anything anymore, right? And how can you retire from something you love?

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