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Patti LaBelle & The Blue BellesPatti LaBelle & The Blue Belles' Sleigh Bells, Jingle Bells, and Blue Belles (Newtown, 1963) has been fittfully available over the years under many guises before being smartly reissued on CD as Christmas Classics by Hip-O Records in 1998. The pretty packaging and bright mastering, however, do not make up for the lame arrangements and strangely coy performances contained therein.

After all, this is Patti LaBelle we're talking about - one of the loudest women in the history of rhythm & blues. Shortly after Sleigh Bells was cut, the Blue Belles moved over to Philadelphia's Parkway Records where Patti began to find her true voice on songs like "You'll Never Walk Alone." Then with her brash, sexually confrontational trio LaBelle (best remembered for the monumental "Lady Marmalade") in the 70's, and especially during her subsequent solo career as a hyperactively melismatic dance queen ("New Attitude") beginning in the 80's, Patti LaBelle defined the term diva for a new generation. But, during her apprenticeship as a girl group siren with the Blue Belles ("I Sold My Heart To The Junkman" being the group's greatest hit), Patti purred like a kitten rather than roaring like the lioness we've come to know and fear.

Patti LaBelle & The Blue BellesHence, Christmas Classics is recommended only for LaBelle freaks or devotees of the girl group genre. Patti LaBelle's timid vocal performance will be scarcely recognizable to most listeners, as she approximates the coquettish delivery that was standard issue amongst girl groups. Every single song is a predictable standard - either traditional ("O Come All Ye Faithful") or modern ("Blue Christmas") - saddled with an off-the-rack, by-the-book arrangement. Amusingly, the most interesting moment comes during a curiously unsyncopated (that is, white sounding) "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" - when Patti gets the words wrong!

Much later, Ms. LaBelle cut another Christmas record more typical of her histrionic, gospel-based style familiar to modern listeners. But, let's be blunt: I am no fan of modern rhythm and blues. My love affair with soul music ended about the time Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol and Michael Jackson started feeling up little boys. So, it should come as no surprise that I cannot recommend This Christmas (MCA, 1990). With the exception of LaBelle's uncharacteristically restrained vocal performance, there doesn't seem to be anything with a pulse in the studio - it's all blips and bleeps, drum machines and synthesizers. Admirably, This Christmas contains a high quotient of original songs, most notably "Country Christmas" (which LaBelle cowrote). These new compositions fall so flat, however, that the standards (such as Donny Hathaway's title track) come as something of a relief. Even then, LaBelle's impassioned readings of hymns like "O Holy Night" get buried under banks of artificial noise.

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Patti LaBelleLike Sleigh Bells, Jingle Bells, and Blue Belles, Patti's solo record has also gone through a somewhat tortuous chain of issue. After its initial 1990 release (pictured above), This Christmas was reissued with a new, less corny cover and an additional track ("Angel Man") in 1996, before finally being repackaged as 20th Century Masters: The Christmas Collection in 2003. No matter how you cut it, though, This Christmas doesn't.

In 2007, LaBelle released a second solo holiday album, Miss Patti's Christmas - the title reflecting her widely acknowledged status as soul diva. Still, compared to This Christmas, the newer album sounds practically austere. Patti works up a pretty good head of steam on a few songs ("Christmas Jam," "Nativity") and chooses some wise covers (especially the Emotions' "What Do The Lonely Do At Christmas"). But, nothing really impresses, and most of the record wallows in de rigeur rhythm & blues ballad mush. Besides, I, for one, past the point the point of caring about 10 years ago.... All the same, Miss Patti's devoted minions will be thrilled. [top of page]

Albums Albums

SongsSongs

  • Born In A Manger (1990)
  • Country Christmas (1990)
  • Santa Claus Is Coming To Town (1963)
  • White Christmas (1963)
  • Winter Wonderland (1963)

Further ListeningFurther Listening

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