Winner In You – Patti Labelle (MCA 1986)
UK Chart Position – 30
US Chart Position – 1
In March 1975 an extraordinary thing happened. “Lady Marmalade” a tale of a New Orleans prostitute, a song which was blessed with at least three hooks topped the American pop charts. The transformation of Patti Labelle and The Bluebelles to space-age funksters Labelle, with outlandish costumes and headgear was complete. It marked their first appearance in the US Pop 40 for over ten years and gave them a UK#17. The song is an all-time classic and turned them into very hot property overnight helped by their strong visual image and great live performances. It seemed like Labelle would become a supergroup. But………..with the unpredictability of the pop world, nothing much happened. Subsequent singles and albums performed very well in R&B, Soul and Disco Charts but there was no more commercial crossover. By 1976 the group was falling apart with arguments over musical direction and the stress of the flicker of fame getting to the girls and they went their separate ways after 14 years together. Solo success seemed inevitable for all three members, in particular rock-chick Nona Hendryx and the outrageously talented Patti Labelle.
Labelle’s initially remained with Epic Records but they were unable to break her into the big time as a solo artist. There was an astute move back to her home town of Philadelphia and internationally celebrated label Philadelphia International (who had made stars of acts such as O’Jays, Three Degrees, Harold Melvin & Bluenotes and Billy Paul in the mid 70’s). It has also given another bite of the fame cherry to Lou Rawls, Jerry Butler and Dee Dee Sharp so it would seem to have been a sound move linking her with label supremos Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. By 1981 they had lost a number of the acts they had broken big and Patti was expected to put dwindling fortunes right. At her time in Philadelphia she made a number of what are now classic soul singles (especially “If Only You Knew” and “Love, Need And Want You”, which was used by Nelly in his number 1 hit “Dilemma” where the vocals were given to Kelly Rowland with Labelle appearing in the video). She became a regular visitor at the top of R&B charts but still could not put her back in the pop listings. Her Epic and Philadelphia albums have strong tracks but there are patchy moments suggesting that they still hadn’t found quite the right direction for Labelle. Patti might have expected more of the same when she signed to MCA in 1985. She must have seen a glimmer of hope as another old trouper had recently made a huge comeback at an age where most female artists were struggling for record label’s attention- Tina Turner had exploded with a force she never had with her years with Ike and the breakthrough of a new artist, one Whitney Houston suggested that first class vocals were back on the menu.
Patti in latter years with Gamble & Huff
MCA’s first plan was to drop a couple of tracks onto the soundtrack of “Beverly Hills Cop”. The rather brash, uptempo “New Attitude” and “Stir It Up” fitted in perfectly with the brash, uptempo Eddie Murphy movie and the first of these tracks saw Labelle in the pop charts after another 10 year absence when it reached number 17, the first time as a solo artist.
And it is at this point in this lengthy career where this album was released. Ten tracks using a range of top flight producers and songwriters such as Nik Ashford and Valerie Simpson, Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager and Richard Perry who had pretty much masterminded the return to top chart honours for The Pointer Sisters. Patti was entrusted with the role of Executive Producer. MCA must surely have been quietly confident of their new signing despite erratic chart positions in the past. Their faith paid off. It became Labelle’s only charting UK album reaching number 30 but in her homeland she was back on top again. Her biggest selling album by a clear mile. It went platinum, has sold over 7 million albums worldwide, and extraordinarily for a 42 year old woman who had found pop success elusive topped the US album charts for two weeks. Patti Labelle was back!
The explanation for this reversal of fortune is down to the first track chosen as a single which reignited Labelle’s career. A quality vocalist needs quality songwriters and they don’t get that much better than Burt Bacharach. Together with his then wife Carole Bayer Sager they wrote a lament of coping after a lost love, “On My Own” which was given to Patti to record. The decision was made that, despite a blistering performance from Labelle that the song could work even better as a duet. Ex-Doobie Brothers singer and possessor of a great soul voice himself, Michael McDonald, took up the daunting challenge of singing with Patti. This might have been one of the early occasions of phoning in a duet as the two did not meet in the studio. Labelle’s vocal was recorded and McDonald added his to this. They did not meet for the video, where, perhaps appropriately given the theme of the song, their contributions were filmed on their own. They actually met the first time, according to Patti in her 1996 autobiography “Don’t Block The Blessings” when they turned up to perform it on Johnny Carson’s television show. Despite all this suggesting this shouldn’t work, the chemistry between the two voices is terrific. The split screen video is something of a kitsch classic with Patti drenched in furs and with super-high hair which became her identifying trademark around this time but the song is fantastic. This is despite a friend who nearly ruined it all for me who would sing the song impersonating northern comedienne Hylda Baker (listen to the first line Patti sings – this is where this comes from as there is an undeniable hint of Baker in the delivery). Hylda Baker passed away around about the time this was released so we were spared a reunion with Arthur Mullard to give this song a go, in the way in which they completely annihilated the songs from “Grease” for me with their hit version of “You’re The One That I Want- I still hear “When you’re filled with infection” as the song lyric). However, once I get Hylda “I must get a little hand on this watch” Baker out of my mind this track is an absolute joy. It gave Labelle her second US chart-topper and was held off for three weeks from the number 1 spot in the UK by (the wonders of the UK singles chart in the 1980’s!) “The Chicken Song” by Spitting Image, one of the worst novelty songs ever! It also reached number 1 in the Netherlands and in Canada and number 4 in New Zealand and attained a high chart position in many other countries. Neither artist would have this sort of success again.
One of the problems Patti Labelle had been having with her crossover pop career is getting any consistency, yet this album provided her with a second hit on both sides of the Atlantic. “Oh People” with its message of banding together to fight poverty and conflict over a mid-tempo beat might not have seemed the most obvious choice for a follow-up single, but it is surprisingly catchy and whilst I have been listening to this album for the purposes of this review it has been the track which has crept into my ear to keep me awake in the middle of the night. It reached #26 in the UK, #29 in the US. There were certainly more potential hit singles on this album as far as I am concerned. Two other tracks are certainly first-class. “Finally We’re Back Together” was produced by Nick Johnson (who co-wrote the song) and Budd Ellison which leads off with an impressive sax solo by David I (any relation to Kenny G?). This track shows what makes Patti unique vocally as she swoops and soars over the simple melody. “Sleep With Me Tonight” is an impressive power ballad and is another Bacharach and Bayer Sager production on a song written by them alongside Neil Diamond. The title might have killed off airplay in 1986 but this sounds like another hit single to me. It’s a good song with a performance of real honesty and warmth.
Check out the hair!
There’s also quality in the driving “Something Special (Is Gonna Happen Tonight)” which sounds like the group Labelle at their best, the more subtle “Kiss Away The Pain”and the closing Ashford and Simpson title track which was apparently taken from a musical play “Pipes”. It’s another dramatic track in which Patti wrings out every ounce of emotion, a powerful closer.
It was great to see Patti Labelle at the top of her game with this album, which ended 1986 as the fourth biggest selling album in the US that year. Patti had certainly been waiting years for that level of fame to come. The three year absence between this and 1989’s “Be Yourself” was too long in the fickle world of showbusiness and that limped to #86 in the US Album Charts. Through the 1990’s she was recording gold and platinum albums for MCA but nothing with the commercial appeal of “Winner In You”. An association with hip-hop Def-Jam Records under their Def Soul Classics umbrella did bring about a comeback with two good selling albums, “Timeless Journey” (#18- 2004) and an album of covers of her favourite songs “Classic Moments” (#24-2005). This latter CD is, for me, the most essential of her post-Winner recordings.
Patti also has recorded a number of Christmas albums and had a chart-topping Gospel album with a return to her roots with “The Gospel According To Patti Labelle”. At 72 she is still going strong, combining live performance work with Broadway and regular US TV appearances. In the UK we last saw her in “American Horror Story: Freak Show” and in “Empire”, both too brief appearances. In 2015 she participated in America’s version of “Strictly”- Dancing With The Stars in 2015 partnered by ex-Strictly Champion Artem Chigvintsev leaving the show in 8th place. This CD for me remains the crowning glory moment of her illustrious career.
Patti On “Dancing With The Stars”
The Winner In You is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £16.27, and used from £1.24. In the US it is currently $17.97 new and used from $0.01. and as a download for $5.99.