Patti LaBelle is burning up. The R&B; legend -- who's calling from the New York offices of Island Def Jam Music Group, her label for the past two years -- puts you on hold as she gives instructions to somebody in the room. "Hello?" she says. "They're bringing fans in here, baby. I'm having hot flashes as we speak."
At 61, the ever-candid performer shows no signs of slowing down. She has a new album in stores: Classic Moments, a covers project. And plans to tour behind it are in the works. On the record, she "Patti-fies" songs made popular by Aretha Franklin, Deniece Williams, the Jones Girls, the Pretenders, Elton John and others. But the record isn't much of a departure. In addition to her own classics, LaBelle has always redone the hits of others in concert. The gregarious diva says it was only a matter of time before she went into the studio to record the tunes she's loved for years.
"Honey, this is something I always wanted to do," she says. "I didn't want to do a regular album. I wanted to cover these freakin' songs my way. It's my way of paying homage to the artists and these songs and the great messages in these songs."
The 13 cuts on Classic Moments are mostly romantic gems from the '60s, '70s and '80s -- songs closely associated with the original artists. The new arrangements don't stray too far from the old versions. The first single is "Ain't No Way," an update of the heart-wringing 1968 ballad by the Queen of Soul. On it, LaBelle is joined by Mary J. Blige, who stretches her flawed voice to keep up with the Philadelphia-based powerhouse. "Your Song," the 1970 hit from Sir Elton, is a more enjoyable duet as LaBelle trades inspired ad-libs with the flamboyant superstar.
"Elton was my piano player when I started out years ago," the singer says. "That's my baby. I've always loved 'Your Song.' "
Classic Moments is heavy on the ballads. Earth, Wind & Fire's "I Write a Song," Williams' "Silly" and Michael Jackson's "She's Out of My Life" (LaBelle, of course, changes the gender) are among the highlights. Although she's in peak form vocally (the singer claims to have been hoarse during the sessions, but she still delivers strong performances throughout), the arrangements are often quite bland.
"Didn't I Blow Your Mind," the Delfonics chestnut, is barely saved by LaBelle's urgent vocals. And "Love Ballad," the intense slow jam Jeffrey Osborne recorded with LTD in 1976, is a bit listless. Because of the sometimes faceless production, overseen by the veteran artist and Island Def Jam president Antonio "LA" Reid, Classic Moments can feel like a Patti LaBelle karaoke record at times.
But the uptempo cuts are far more engaging. The singer gives "You Gonna Make Me Love Somebody Else," the '79 disco smash by the Jones Girls, a modern funk workout. And DJs in gay clubs around the world will surely wear out LaBelle's thumping version of Kristina's W's "Land of the Living."
"The song is for my gay friends," the vocalist says. "But it's also for everybody out here surviving. It's about hope. It's really positive."
LaBelle, who performs regularly around the globe, will soon start the second season of Living It Up With Patti LaBelle, her show on the TV One cable network that is, for all intents and purposes, a video diary of the legend's various activities. Also in the works is the artist's next album: a long-awaited reunion effort with Labelle, the groundbreaking '70s rock-soul group named after the singer, which included Sarah Dash and Nona Hendryx. The trio -- which stormed stages in wild, space-age get-ups back in the day -- is best remembered for its 1975 No. 1 smash, "Lady Marmalade."
After more than 40 years in the business, LaBelle still keeps a packed schedule. There's hardly time to sit down, but the down-home diva wouldn't have it any other way."Knowing that I'm still good keeps me out here," she says. "I can't stay home. I get lonely for my mike and the stage. Performing is in the blood. I'm gonna do this till I die, honey. They'll be dragging my old self out in my rock 'n' roll boots, OK?"