Spring, 1984.††† Palace Theater†††† Columbus, Ohio
Summer, 1999, The Columbus Zoo Amphitheater†††† Columbus, Ohio
I'll be honest. I really don't remember Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles. Hey...I was still pretty young when they had a hit with "I Sold My Heart To The Junkman". Sure I've since heard the controversy about it being a song about heroin use. (this makes as much sense as the "Puff the Magic Dragon" and "Along Comes Mary" pot rumors...I suspect the CIA or FBI had something to do with all this) But I don't remember the song on the radio...and...as most of you already know...I AM a white boy. So forgive me.
I DO remember LaBelle. The seventies group lead by Patti and backed by Nona Hendrix and Sarah Dash who had a BIG disco hit entitled, "Lady Marmalade" with the refrain of "Will you sleep with me tonight (loosely translated)" sung in French. They all wore these cheesy, R-rated space suits a la "Barbarella". Very...VERY 70's. At the time I really, really, really hated it...which was totally unfair because I was very ignorant of Patti's range of styles and vocal prowess.
In the early 80's I was working in the library with a guy named Marlon...who sometimes went by the name M-Rion. Don't ask me why. M-Rion was a very unique person. He was like a toned down version of RuPaul...well, I guess he wasn't THAT toned down. He just didn't wear a dress to work...silk blouse and long feather earring yes...dress no. I suppose times have changed enough that this is no longer the case but I don't know. I've lost track of him. Anyway...we got to be friends. I enjoyed his outrageousness...and he was genuine. I went out dancing with him and his friends a couple times and had a riot. Here's the thing I learned from M-Rion right off. The more you open your mind the more FUN you can have. That...and if you want to go somewhere good to dance forget the hetero clubs. Go straight to the gay night spots....better music...better light show...better sound system...AND for those of you a little leery of my suggestion...the beer in gay bars WILL NOT...I repeat...WILL NOT make you a homosexual...and neither will the dancing.
So, in the spring of 1984 M-Rion asks me if Yvonne and I would like to go see Patti LaBelle with him. Ironically, I had just seen her on the Tonight show a few evenings prior to his invitation. It was one of those nights where you really donít want to go to bed so you stay up for Carson's monologue only to end up staying up until 1 a.m. She sang "Over the Rainbow". Well...she more like DEVOURED the song, soaring to notes so high and to an intensity so amazing that Judy Garland would have blushed had she been there. When you hear something that soulful coming out of a 3 inch television speaker (this is 1984 remember) you go to see the performer. And as a baby boomer "Over the Rainbow" holds a very special place in my heart. I had probably heard it 200 times. Patti made it sound like the first.
The Palace Theater is one of those delightful, old halls that has survived Burlesque, movies, rock shows, conventions. You name it. Elegant staircases in the lobby take you up to the balcony or the boxes on either side. The place was packed with a joyful, boisterous crowd that was a wonderful mix of black, white, gay...put 'em all in a bowl and mix them up extravaganza. Soon after the three of us settled into our seats the lights went down and the crowd went UP! WAY, WAY, WAY up. As the curtains began to open and the band played the opening strains of...you guessed it..."Over the Rainbow"...people in the audience began to shout, "Patti! Patti!" I mean these folks were SWOONING!!!! People were standing, arms raised to the heavens, shouting, "Patti! Patti! Patti!". From atop a huge spiral staircase descended Ms. LaBelle...hair big as a skyscraper, evening gown, and high, high heels...singing like she was an angel coming down from the heavens. Chills were going down my spine. Tears were welling up in my eyes. The hair on the back of my neck was standing at attention.
I remember most of the songs. "Bo Didley's, "Can't Tell a Book by It's Cover", "Lady Marmalade", "You Are My Friend". Actually, it doesn't matter which songs they were because no one can sing like this woman. No one. She sings not with just her voice but her entire being. The memory is kind of a wonderful, joyous blur. It was one of those experiences...and there aren't many...where you smile so much that you face hurts the next day. And you've applauded so much that your hands are sore.
After the show M-Rion says," Let's go meet her." Hmm. I wasn't sure what he meant. So M-Rion, Yvonne and I are standing with about 20 other people outside the Palace Theater stage door. There was this BIG...I mean BIG black security guy who had a hook on one arm where a hand used to be. He looked quite menacing...which I suppose is why he was a security guard. He kept looking over at me and I kept thinking, "Shit man. This guy is going to walk over here and poke out my only good eye with that goddamned hook! Pull it right out of my skull and eat it in front of all these people!!!" I got myself pretty paranoid...which is sometimes a hobby of mine. After a while he comes walking over and I'm sweating bullets. He walks right up to me and says, "Here. You look like you could use this." And in his hand was a backstage pass. He gave me a friggiin' backstage pass!!!
Soon I'm backstage waiting in a hallway wondering what the hell I'm doing there when all of a sudden here she comes! Patti LaBelle and some 4 or 5 others...which I believe is what's called an entourage. This is when I lose my shit. Before I know it (and it seems like I'm watching myself do this) I'm hopping up and down blurting out, "Patti!! OH Patti!! The show was GREAT!!! JUST GREAT!!! I saw you on The Tonight Show and...well...I just HAD to meet you!!!" Patti looked up at me...she's only about 5 feet tall not counting the hair which at the time was as big as she was...with this look like, "Who IS this cracker?" But I stopped hyperventilating and asked her for an autograph. She was very, very nice and all too soon the encounter was over.
Yvonne and I ended up going to see Nona Hendrix about a year later with M-Rion. Know what? I met her too. But this time I contained myself a bit more.
And last summer the two of us went to see Patti at the Columbus Zoo Amphitheater. I knew what to expect this time. I enjoyed it just as much. Patti is more down to Earth these days. She joked about the heat and how she was already going through the change of life and how she had just eaten and she wasn't holding her belly in for anybody. She has a cookbook out so instead of buying a t-shirt I bought an apron.
I had reservations about going because I had seen the Neville Brothers at the zoo. The predominantly white crowd was too uptight and the show wasn't so hot. But Patti's following was there. Black, white, straight, gay. We danced. We sang. She brought guys on stage and sang to them. She brought a drag queen on stage and danced and sang with him. Then she began preaching about how Jesus loves EVERYBODY!† EVERYBODY!! Jesus loves the DRAG QUEENS because he loves EVERYBODY!!!! It was wonderful. Church should be so wonderful. Life should be so wonderful. EVERYBODY!! Jesus loves the DRAG QUEENS because he loves EVERYBODY!!! It was wonderful. Church should be so wonderful. Life should be so wonderful.††††††††