How Patti LaBelle Once Made Prince ‘Flip': 365 Prince Songs in a Year
To celebrate the incredibly prolific, influential and diverse body of work left behind by Prince, we will be exploring a different song of his each day for an entire year with the series 365 Prince Songs in a Year.
A few years after resurrecting Chaka Khan's career with "I Feel For You," Prince set his sights on collaborating with another R&B legend. He wrote and produced "Yo Mister," a song about a wayward young woman and her father's reaction to her decline, for Patti LaBelle. She promptly took it to No. 6 on the R&B chart in 1989.
But unlike Khan, LaBelle was already in the midst of her career resurrection. The Philadelphia native had been placing records in the charts since the early '60s, when her powerful gospel-based vocals and remarkable range helped Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles hit the Top 40 with "I Sold My Heart to the Junkman," "Down the Aisle (The Wedding Song)" and "You'll Never Walk Alone."
The group – minus original Bluebelle Cindy Birdsong, who joined the Supremes in 1967 – rebranded themselves as LaBelle in 1971. A few years later, they topped the charts with the Allen Toussaint-produced "Lady Marmalade" from Nights, which in turn reached No. 7 and went platinum. But by 1976, creative differences between Patti, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash broke up the band.
As was the case with many established soul singers, Patti LaBelle had difficulty adjusting in the disco era, and her solo career got off to a bit of a rocky start. Her singles routinely placed in the middle of Billboard's R&B chart, with only a few barely denting the Top 40 and none reaching the pop chart. That changed with the 1983 ballad "If You Only Knew," which topped the R&B chart and gave Labelle her first placing on the Hot 100 since 1975.
A year later, the appearance of both "New Attitude" and "Stir It Up" in the soundtrack for Beverly Hills Cop kept up the commercial momentum. LaBelle then scored a second pop No. 1 in 1986 with "On My Own," a duet with five-time Grammy winner Michael McDonald.
Then Prince came calling.
Watch Patti LaBelle Sing 'Yo Mister'
He'd had the basic tracks for "Yo Mister" for a year and a half before LaBelle put down vocals at Paisley Park in May 1988, according to PrinceVault. During a 1991 appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show (embedded below), LaBelle said the whole thing was set up by Sheila E., who called her to say that Prince wanted to work with LaBelle on her next album, and that he would be calling in an hour to discuss it. A few days after that brief conversation, Prince sent over a few songs for LaBelle to hear, and she and her musical director then flew to Minneapolis to record her parts on "Yo Mister" and "Love 89," one of several tracks Prince wrote with Sheena Easton.
"When I first met him," LaBelle said, "I was really nervous because I didn't know what to expect." She entered the control booth, where he greeted her with a big hug. "He just said, 'I love you and I'm so happy you're here,' and he just started talking and talking and talking – and I looked around, because I just didn't expect him to chit-chat that much."
The conversation then turned to business, and LaBelle went to work. Liking what he heard, Prince called in George Clinton, who was at Paisley Park recording what she called "a dog song" – most likely "Why Should I Dog U Out?" from 1989's The Cinderella Theory – into the room, where Prince told Clinton, "'Listen at the note she just made,' and then they just flipped. I mean, he flips in the studio. He gets excited. He does. He's fierce!"
After the session, Prince treated LaBelle like royalty, taking her to a local disco and showing her around. The next day, Prince also threw a party in her honor at Paisley Park, where he asked LaBella to dance. "We got up and did the Funky Chicken, Prince and I. We were getting down; I'm not lying," LaBelle remembered. "I wore him out on the dance floor. He went back and changed his clothes and stuff because ... he had sweated so."
Watch Patti LaBelle on 'The Arsenio Hall Show'
Unfortunately, there was one thing about Patti LaBelle which didn't appeal to Prince: Her cooking. That might come as a surprise, considering how famous she is as a cook. (LaBelle later parlayed her kitchen talents into several cookbooks, her own line of sweet potato pies – they actually spawned a viral video from an admirer – and a show on the Cooking Channel.) Prince had given up red meat in the late '80s, however, and he wasn't interested in anything she put in front of him.
"I went to his house and cooked for him," LaBelle told Xpose. "Cooked everything, and you know what he ate? Rolls, just bread. He would not eat real food."