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Hey Sister, Go Sister, Soul Sister 

Patti LaBelle caps CIAA invasion of uptown

The CIAA's Charlotte debut is cause for the city and local black community to put its best foot forward. And -- this being the tail end of Black History Month -- it's a chance to further work out some of the lingering tensions of the New South's afterbirth. I mention this because some people have grumbled concern over the influx of black folk to Charlotte for the CIAA Tournament -- and because of ongoing reactions to Karen Shugart's recent CL cover story "Party Politics," about racial tensions in uptown nightlife. The anxieties of club owners provoked by the black presence on any regular weekend are about to be amplified a thousandfold by CIAA-celebrating out-of-towners. They ain't callin' it the "Get Down in Uptown" for nothing.

The city and dissenting local subcultures will simply have to work it out. Some of us -- including True Divine, Charlotte's own Showtime at the Apollo competitors from Johnson C. Smith -- are sho'nuff looking forward to the par-tay. This is our chance to revel in the cultural and commercial coup of wresting the CIAA away from Raleigh. Of the plethora of nightlife being rolled out from the College Street corridor to NoDA, there's no hotter ticket than the Apollo amateur search showcase at the Convention Center -- a throw-down between 12 student acts representing CIAA colleges, capped by a spotlighted performance from über-diva Miss Patti LaBelle.

Competing amongst these, the local inspirational group True Divine, hastily assembled by four JCSU choir members in late January, will vie for the shot to appear at the Apollo's Amateur Night, taped live at the hallowed Harlem theater. The group's members -- singers LeDessa Brown, Amanda Davis, Brianna Sullivan and Brandi Woodson and keyboardist Joshua Fleming -- won their spot with a performance of "Oh, How I Love Jesus." Perhaps they will triumph on the Convention Center stage and get to cross the secular line to back Patti-Patti on "Lady Marmalade"?

LaBelle may now be mostly celebrated for her excessive performance tics so beloved by drag queens everywhere; her exclusive HSN apparel line; her 1980s-vintage kabuki hair; and her kitchen prowess, including best-selling cookbooks and supplying the Rolling Stones with bespoke chicken dinners when they play Philly. Yet the obscured importance of LaBelle's arrival in Charlotte is the black-rock legacy she brings. The Apollo amateur night hopefuls and the bulk of the attending students can be expected to delight primarily in sharing space with the author of such anthems from their youth as 1980s totemic "New Attitude." Then there's LaBelle's "When You Talk About Love" and ultimate slow jam "Somebody Loves You Baby (You Know Who It Is)," for the coaches and other elder playas to appreciate. But the fiery, glitter-glam Patti that became an icon in the early 1970s will likely be little in evidence at the Convention Center.

As the 1960s gave way to the Me Decade, the former Patricia Holt and her seminal girl group, the Bluebelles (Sarah Dash, Nona Hendryx, Cindy Birdsong), morphed into an overt rock group under the aegis of Dusty Springfield manager/biographer Vicki Wickham. Through the group's relationship with the British Invasion clique, the newly-rechristened Labelle (minus Birdsong) memorably covered the Stones' "Wild Horses," Thunderclap Newman's "Something In The Air" and electrifying, show-stopping versions of The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" and Cat Stevens' "Moon Shadow" (9:22 of pure genius).

It's significant, though, that Labelle's most memorable and lauded hit, "Lady Marmalade," was penned and produced by a black artist from New Orleans: Allen Toussaint. His legendary and varied career, including collaborations with former Ikette/"Brown Sugar" subject Claudia Lennear and Canadian rock group The Band, tied Labelle to a wider crossover musical network (especially the cream of early-1970s studio mafia) and sectors of rock subculture previously closed to R&B artists.

Other than working with Toussaint, the high point of Labelle's brief rock career was recording the album Gonna Take a Miracle with Laura Nyro, an underrated meditation on the sensibilities and aesthetic highs of the girl-group era. Eventually, even such a glam titan as David Bowie was indelibly influenced and turned on by the spaced-out template of Labelle. Anyone who's seen the Dick Cavett show footage of Bowie performing "1984" with Patti LaBelle's late friend Luther Vandross and company singing in churchy chorale can taste the transference.

Now, I ain't mad at Patti. Her latest joint on Def Jam, Classic Moments, might disappoint for dovetailing so neatly with the cash-cow standards sets from her peers Rod Stewart and Barry Manilow. On the other hand, picks such as Dame Elton's "Your Song" and The Pretenders' "I'll Stand By You" allow LaBelle's great interpretive gift to stretch and shine.

Still, Labelle is my favorite female rock & roll band of all time and it's frustrating that Nona Hendryx alone -- she wrote most of the group's original material -- has stayed closest to the rock world in her art (Sarah Dash occasionally sings with Keith Richards' solo projects). Once in a blue moon, LaBelle busts out her former band's radical rock classic "What Can I Do For You?" Yet the post-psych rock masterpieces "Pressure Cookin'" and "Chameleon," plus twangy highway tunes like "I Believe I've Finally Made It Home" never get an airing in LaBelle's latter-day, tightly controlled diva format.

Here's a theory why La Diva eschews this material and simultaneously garners less of a crossover following these days: It seems one public view of LaBelle as some sort of aberrant remnant of excessive soul and Africaninity makes the record playas with the narrow sonic and cultural purviews nervous. How anyone could hear LaBelle scream "C'mon and sock it to me-e-e!" before the coda of "Moon Shadow" and shrink in terror, I jes' don't know.

While enjoying the highlights of LaBelle's Apollo performance, I will be internally hoping that some catalyst materializes to convince her to reunite with Dash and Hendryx for one last summer tour hurrah. Meanwhile, as has been demonstrated in the past (SEE Live Aid), LaBelle's voice alone could ring down glory throughout the entire uptown loop. To those with fears of a black uptown: be forewarned.

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