After more than 50 years in the music industry, Patti LaBelle — the powerhouse soprano voice behind such hits as “Lady Marmalade,” “If Only You Knew” and “Somebody Loves You, Baby” — still has to deal with the mundane enemies of day-to-day life. Which is to say: Patti LaBelle gets the flu. She has, in fact, been fighting off the flu for two weeks when she calls to talk about her upcoming performance at the Kennedy Center for the Duke Ellington School of the Arts’s annual fundraising event.
“I’m going to be okay,” she says, in her instantly recognizable (albeit slightly scratchy) voice. It is hard to imagine there was ever a time when LaBelle, who started touring professionally as a teenager as the lead singer of Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles and has been performing nonstop ever since, was once too scared to sing a single note without an entire chorus backing her up.
“I performed in the choir, which gave me a lot of courage and inspiration to become what I have become, and that’s a not shy singer. I used to be very shy. Always quiet. Always!
“I started singing, of course, with the choir, [because] I wasn’t going to start solo. That would’ve been a no-no for me. I don’t think I would have ever done it. But having the chance to do it with other children, it makes you strong, because you have someone to fall on. . . . I was a homebody, never wanting to do anything. Thank God I was able to tap into my talent, like these children [from Duke Ellington]. They’re also going to get the chance to do the same thing, with their music and so much talent.
“It was one Sunday, I was singing a song called ‘God Specializes.’ And after singing the song, I got a church standing ovation. And so many hallelujahs. It was just beautiful. They stood and they shouted and they told me that I was really a wonderful singer and God has his hands on me, so many beautiful things. And that’s the one moment that let me know that I could do something special.
“After knowing that, I was in school, and then I met up with three young ladies and we formed a group and started performing on the road. And that’s when I knew for sure that this was my calling.
“[My family] loved it. They traveled everywhere that I was performing, totally backing me, and they loved my voice.
“I think [if I’d had a school like Duke Ellington], it would have helped me in my growth quickly. . . . Because that’s what those schools are for: to let you know that you’re carrying something that the world would like to see. You could be the next Stevie Wonder, the next president. You can be whoever you want to be, with some encouragement.
“[I had a teacher], Miss Brown; she’s still living. . . . She’s just been like that little angel. After I was singing in the choir, she was bragging about me in school. And, gosh, she’s just done a lot for me. She works at Cambridge College, and I got my doctorate there, through her. And just — she’s, we still talk. Last week we talked. And she’s always pushing me.
“I still have a little bit of shyness. I look back and say, ‘Thank God I got through it and took chances and sang my butt off.’
“If there are any kids that I meet who have a little bit of doubt about becoming who they think they could become, if there’s something blocking their minds and saying, ‘Don’t take a chance, forget it,’ don’t forget it. Even if you make a fool of yourself. Sometimes that’s the best thing that can happen to you.
“[The Duke Ellington fundraiser] is just a great cause for these kids, who are between 15 and 18, to be able to perform their talents in this way. . . . Thank God there’s this school to provide for them to do these things, because if not, they might be out there doing some things that aren’t so good.
“I’m going to perform ‘You are My Friend’ and ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ [with the students]. And they sound wonderful. I heard a tape of their rehearsal. They’re going to blow everybody’s minds.”
7:30 p.m. Monday, 2700 F St. NW; kennedy-center.org; 202-467-4600