An unsurprising attitude, perhaps, coming from the pop-soul diva with the megawatt voice and the hardest-to-ignore hair in the business. But LaBelle has always kept much of herself hidden from fans. "Onstage I'm like a lion; offstage I'm like a mouse," she says. "I'm very low-key, very shy, the opposite of the way people expect me to be." In her new, bestselling autobiography, Don't Block the Blessings, written with Ebony senior editor Laura B. Randolph, the mouse speaks up. "I realized my memory was about to fail me," says LaBelle, 52. "And to be honest, I never thought I had a book in me until now."
She was also too busy trying to live with the pain to be able to write about it. Between 1975 and 1989, LaBelle, who lives in Wynnewood, Pa., with Armstead Edwards, her husband of 27 years, lost all three of her sisters to cancer. "How do you live with so much heartache?" LaBelle asks in Blessings. "I threw myself into my work. I wrapped my very soul in my song."
It was a coping mechanism she had perfected years earlier. Growing up in Philadelphia, little Patsy Holte, the daughter of a railway worker, was an insecure child with, she says, a "big nose and nappy hair," whose parents battled frequently. "I remember, at 7 or 8, singing in front of the mirror with a broom as a mike—yelling my heart out," she says. "I thought, 'This is what you do—you sing!' "
Her parents separated when she was 12, and not long after, Patsy was molested by a friend of her mother's. "It was an ugly time that I tried to bury afterward," she says.
But she forged ahead with her music. She formed her first group, the Elmtones, at John Bartram High School, and in 1962—named LaBelle by a record company executive who initially judged her too homely to succeed—scored big with the single "I Sold My Heart to the Junkman" with the Bluebelles. Success, she was soon to learn, had its own perils. The Blue-belles were sharing a billing with soul heartthrob Jackie Wilson one night in the mid-'60s, she reveals, when "Mr. Excitement" himself attempted to sexually assault her backstage. LaBelle screamed until he backed off. "I tried to bury that memory too," she says.
Marriage to Edwards, a childhood friend she turned down three times before realizing "I'd never find anyone as decent," provided an emotional anchor—as well as a son, Zuri, now 23 and a student at Temple University. Then, just as her new group LaBelle was socking it to the 70s with hits like "Lady Marmalade," the dying began. Sister Vivian, LaBelle's senior by 12 years, died of lung cancer at 43 in 1975; Barbara, two years older, suffered with colon cancer for two years before dying at 40 in 1982; and, finally, 43-year-old Jackie—"the one who pushed me because she knew I should be better than Barbra Streisand," LaBelle says—was stricken with brain cancer in 1988. "When Jackie was dying, she asked me to do minor things—like fix her one of my egg sandwiches—that I didn't do. I just didn't feel like it then. It was pure selfishness," Patti recalls. "I'll beat myself up for the rest of my life for saying no."
LaBelle spent years torturing herself for surviving as well. "I felt guilty," she says. And though her career was blooming—she went solo in 1977, began acting (in sitcoms and in the movie A Soldier's Story), and won a Grammy in 1992 for the album Burnin'—she was consumed with a fear of death. "I was saying, 'I'm getting ready to leave too,' " she says. Spending time with family at the country, French-style home she and Armstead share helped. (In addition to Zuri, LaBelle has two adopted sons, Stanley, 33, a lawyer, and Dodd, 37, a graphic artist, as well as her sister Jackie's two children, Stayce, 32, and Billy, 35, whom she took in after Jackie's death.) LaBelle, who tours often and is about to record her sixth CD in as many years, hasn't had a hit single since 1989. But this is one rocker who seems delighted simply to be among those still present. "I always said if I make it to 45, I will be cool, and if I turn 50, I'm really over the hump," LaBelle says. "I'm 52, so now I say, 'God spared me.' "
ANNE LONGLEY in Wynnewood
- Anne Longley.
LISTEN UP, CELEBRITY WATCHERS: If you should ever run across Patti LaBelle out in public, don't even think about respecting her privacy. "You know when entertainers say they can't stand people coming up to them in a restaurant?" says LaBelle. "Well, I say, if you don't want to be bothered, stay home. When I go out, I hope they notice—I'll cry if they don't."