The Seventies were all about getting it on. James Brown felt like being a sex machine; Roberta Flack felt like making love. But Patti LaBelle, with the help of her group at the time, Labelle, had perhaps the coyest coitus cut of the decade, “Lady Marmalade,” in that the big refrain from the song wasn’t even in English. American audiences didn’t seem to mind the tease, though; the line “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi (ce soir)?” — French for “Do you want to sleep with me tonight?” — propelled the funky track to Number One in 1974.
The Patti LaBelle story neither begins nor ends with “Lady Marmalade,” though. The Philly singer has had plenty of other hits, from the steamy “If Only You Knew” to the frenzied “New Attitude,” and recently capped a run on Dancing with the Stars. LaBelle’s latest move finds her back on television, but she will not be performing, exactly. This Sunday on Cooking Channel, she’ll host Patti LaBelle’s Place, a cooking special on which she’ll cradle ladles, not microphones. Her guests will be Whoopi Goldberg, vocalist Michelle Williams and her partner from Dancing with the Stars, Artem Chigvintsev, and the menu includes signature LaBelle dishes such as Over the Rainbow Mac and Cheese, and Patti’s Berry Parfaits.
In advance of the premiere of Patti LaBelle’s Place, LaBelle spoke to Rolling Stone about the show, Whoopi Goldberg’s food preferences and working with New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint.
Can you tell me a little bit about how this special came about?
I’ve been cooking all my life. As a child, I started coming up with recipes for hot sauces and barbecue sauces and ketchup, and all those kind of things. So I watched my mother cook, my father cook, who were very great cooks. And all through my life, I was cooking, so the show was inevitable. Having my own cooking show. Because I cook so well, and I’m not bragging, not patting myself on the back, but I cook, I think, better than I sing. I cook my face off, honey.
Well, that’s saying a lot.
I’m serious, though. Or maybe they’re equal. ‘Cause my passion for singing is amazing, and my passion for seeing someone smile after they taste my food, that’s the answer. They smile, and they laugh, and they say, “Can I have more, please? More. Can I take some home?” All of those things that make me feel great, so the cooking show is showing everyone that I cook very well. I have no sous chef. I do it all myself right in front of the cameras. Actually, I think people thought that I was pretending when I would say how well I make my macaroni and cheese, and the potato salad, and the fish. All these things I still make for other folks, because I’m a diabetic. But I still have to taste it to see if it’s great. You know, my fresh fried corn off the cob. Just … I can cook! So it shows that to people [laughs].
Now, is there a connection between music and cooking for you? Do you see them as connecting in some way?
No, it doesn’t. They both stand alone. I don’t sing when I’m cooking, that’s for sure. And I don’t cook with a pot onstage. I just cook onstage — hey [laughs]!
Can you tell me how you know Whoopi Goldberg and why you prepared food specifically for her?
I tried to bribe her into eating greens, because she doesn’t eat any vegetables. So I made kale for her, and they were very, very good. So she said, “You know, I don’t do vegetables, but for you, I’ll taste them, Patti.” So she tasted my kale, and she hated them. She didn’t hate them; she ate two forkfuls and she said, “Mmm … no.” I said, “Well, next time I see you, I’ll do some String Beans Patti LaBelle, or something with mozzarella cheese and garlic,” and she’ll probably like that.
Could you tell me about that version of “Over the Rainbow” you recorded back in 1966? That was really beautiful.
Oh, my, I thank you. I of course heard Judy Garland sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and we have the same sort of energy, she and I. And the song says so much. It’s a very positive song, and you know, you have to keep striving, and keep trying, and one day you’ll get over that rainbow. Whatever rainbow of your choice could be. And that song, when I sing it, I usually cry.
Can you tell me about your thoughts looking back on “If Only You Knew”?
“If Only You Knew,” that’s a real … it’s a love song. You know, “If only you knew how much ….” Sometimes you’re in love, and sometimes you don’t express it, and so you say to yourself, “If only he knew how much I love him.” It’s one of those love songs, and “If only you knew ….”
What about “New Attitude”? That one, for me, really represents the Eighties.
“New Attitude” is a song that’s saying to you, “Don’t be stuck in your place. Don’t get stuck in boredom.” Just wake up. Get a new attitude. Get a brand new hat, get some new six-inch pumps, and get that attitude, honey, and change your wig, or change your hairstyle, and just get a new hairstyle, and you become liberated, and you get this new attitude. And that song is so positive to me. And so uplifting.
“I had no clue what I was singing when we recorded ‘Lady Marmalade.’ I didn’t know it was about a hooker.”
And I saved my favorite for last. Can you tell me your thoughts on “Lady Marmalade”?
Oh, my God, I had no clue what I was singing when we recorded the song. I didn’t know it was about a hooker. And after it became such a hit, we found out from the nuns. Some nuns were upset: “How could they sing about a lady of the evening?” And I said, “Oh my goodness, that’s what “Voulez-vous coucher” means: ‘Will you sleep with me tonight?'” [Laughs] Every night, I have people coming from the audience, people that I don’t know — nothing’s planned — and they come up and they still sing their version of “Voulez-vous coupez avez ma may-ma.” They mess it up. But I have fun. Then after they mess it up, I let them dance. That’s a must-have song in my show.
And were you down with the Christina Aguilera version in 2001?
Oh, my God, those girls sang. I was honored. And Christina Aguilera is one of the best singers around. And I love Pink and Mya and Lil Kim and Missy Elliott. They were all involved in that recording. Whenever people say, “Well, how do you like the fact that they did really well, and they sold?” I said, “Honey, I did it first.” [Laughs] And I love the fact that they did it, and we did it together at the Grammys years ago. And it was wonderful. So keep on doing those songs, you know? Anyone young who does a song of Patti LaBelle’s, I am blessed. And it’s a compliment. I didn’t write it. I wish I had [laughs].
Do you remember working with Allen Toussaint as the producer on Nightbirds?
Oh, yes. Those times were priceless. Allen Toussaint is one of the nicest, most quiet producers, who never gets upset; he never raises his voice, but he loved the way Labelle recorded. He loved the fact that we could get a song in two takes. And when he recorded “Lady Marmalade” out of the session, that was the first song we recorded, because we all knew it was a hit. And I would love to work with him again.