"They must be 'deaf' at Def Jam if they can't hear me!"
Such was the gist of legendary singer and class-act Patti LaBelle's defiant stance against her former record label, Island Def Jam Records, and its president, L.A. Reid, this weekend.
The occasion, an all-star birthday celebration for LaBelle's 60th, was staged in the main theater at the lavish Atlantis Hotel and Casino in Nassau. UPN taped the show for airing in November.
The glorious night of music reunites LaBelle with former groupmates Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash for their immortal hit "Lady Marmalade"; it also features rapper Nelly with Kelly Rowland of Destiny's Child (they do a version of Patti's hit "Love, Need and Want You"), Ashanti, Gerald Levert, Yolanda Adams and Michael McDonald.
Don't miss this show when it airs next month. Besides the great musical numbers, you've got to see Jimmy Fallon's hilarious imitation of McDonald in its entirety. It's so good that Michael told me after the show, "He does me better than me."
Fallon came to the weekend with his new "good friend," the delightful Nancy Juvonen (producing partner of Drew Barrymore). It's hard to say which is the better catch.
In the audience: legends like Sam Moore, Billy Preston, Ashford & Simpson, Chaka Khan, Sheila E., Evander Holyfield, Butch Lewis, plus Denise Rich, Bebe Buell, the ubiquitous (and svelte) Star Jones with husband Al Reynolds and a partying Ivana Trump.
And not only was it Patti's birthday, but a joint 70th celebration for Sol Kerzner, who owns Atlantis, and Moore, the great Atlantic Records/Stax Records warbler of "Soul Man," "Hold On I'm Coming" and "I Thank You."
The show was such a hit that Patti, Nona and Sarah have decided to reform their old group Labelle, and have committed to doing a new album and concert tour.
I have no inside info, but I would guess that Clive Davis would be all over this idea within seconds. What could be better?
The birthday/TV show, however, was almost sunk by the sudden regrets sent by Usher, Beyonce and Outkast. All of them had committed to the project eons ago but backed out at the last minute.
Was it a coincidence that all of them are closely connected to Reid, the record executive who unceremoniously dumped LaBelle from the Def Jam side of the company two months ago? Probably not.
Reid earned the ire of many recording artists during his short stint at Arista Records. In fact, he was partially to blame for Arista being folded into the RCA Music Group when he led that label to its worst standings in a quarter century.
RCA is still reeling from the $100 million deal he gave to Whitney Houston and her subsequent dud of an album. Still not seen on the scene are artists who Reid was then touting: Adema, Lennon, Dream, Toya and Koffee Brown.
Note: Def Jam is currently represented on the Billboard Top 50 Album chart by only one CD: Kanye West's "Late Registration."
The Island Records side, however, (run by Steve Bartels) has had several hits, including The Killers, Mariah Carey, Bon Jovi, Melissa Etheridge and newcomer Marc Broussard.)
But Reid's successes were notably with artists he'd cultivated pre-Arista, with his own LaFace Records. Those were Usher and Outkast.
At Def Jam, Reid is also working closely with rapper Jay Z, now the unlikely president of said label.
The absence of all these people — as well as Island Def Jam's Carey and former Reid associate Kenny "Babyface" Edmonds — raised a lot of suspicion that arms had been twisted or not so subtle suggestions had been delivered.
It sure didn't take long for the show's organizers, planners, producers and musical team to figure out what happened.
"We have signed letters from [the missing artists]," said a member of the production team. "Usher even went over his songs with musical director Greg Phillinganes."
(To be fair, Ashanti and Nelly are still signed to Universal Music Group, Def Jam's parent, although they are not under Reid's purview.)
The roots of the LaBelle/Reid feud are easy to identify. LaBelle was signed to Def Jam before Reid arrived as part of what was supposed to be Def Soul Classics. But Reid apparently wasn't interested in artists who could actually sing or compose music.
Hence, no albums from James Brown or Earth, Wind & Fire, two of the other acts that were supposedly signed to Def Soul Classics.
LaBelle released two albums on the label. The first one, "Timeless Journey," was released in May 2004 to rave reviews. But Def Soul Classics was caught in the changeover from Lyor Cohen to Reid, and the album disappeared.
A year later, in June 2005, LaBelle delivered "Classic Moments," an eclectic collection of cover songs written by people like Elton John, Michael Jackson, Bonnie Raitt and the Pretenders.
From the latter came "I'll Stand By You," which LaBelle saw as a new anthem and signature song. The Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde — who wrote the song — was thrilled. And LaBelle was right about the anthem: "I'll Stand by You" should have returned her to the contemporary hits charts and to radio.
But Reid, LaBelle's friends say, could have cared less.
"He did nothing to promote the album," several of them told me over the weekend. LaBelle booked herself onto the "Good Morning America" outdoor concert series for the morning of July 1, two weeks after "Classic Moments" was shipped.
That kind of national exposure was a surefire way to sell albums. According to friends, no one from Def Jam showed up before the show began.
"We had them open the Bryant Park Grill so we could take Patti inside and calm her down," says someone who was there. "When L.A. Reid showed up, he promised her there would be more promotion for the album and more attention. But nothing happened."
All summer, LaBelle did her own publicity and promotion, waiting for the various Def Jam departments to kick in.
Meanwhile, planning had begun for the 60th birthday extravaganza in the Bahamas. The company was asked by the producers to put some money in, or provide some kind of involvement. The producers were met with stone silence.
On Aug. 31, LaBelle performed at the World Music Awards in California. She sang "I'll Stand By You" and got a huge standing ovation.
"People were going crazy," says a source. "LA Reid came backstage and said to Patti, 'What a great song! Why haven't you recorded it?'"
LaBelle apparently told him, "It's on the album you've refused to do anything for."
At that point, the die was cast. Rumors began circulating that Def Jam would drop Labelle, one of the half-dozen or so reigning divas of soul including Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Dionne Warwick, Natalie Cole and Tina Turner.
This column called Def Jam in mid-September to ask if the company was doing anything special for the 60th birthday, like recording it for DVD or CD release, or sponsoring it financially.
"It's Patti's project," said a spokesperson. "We have nothing to do with it. I think we were asked to underwrite a casino night, but that's not for us."
By the beginning of October, it was unclear whether some artists could make the TV taping. But Usher and Outkast were confirmed, and plans went ahead for their participation.
Usher was even offered a midnight birthday party of his own, all expenses paid. He'd gladly accepted.
But by midweek, he and his manager/mother weren't returning phone calls. Neither was Outkast. Beyonce suddenly begged off as well, although she sent flowers.
LaBelle took the stage Friday night at the magnificent Atlantis full of fury and fire.
"I've been in this business for 45 years," she told the assembled crowd after a series of terrific performances by her guest stars including Nelly, who doesn't sing but sweetly appeared on stage with a towel to pat Patti off and brought her water when she needed it.
"I've done everything myself. The record labels don't care about you. I'm not here because of them. I don't care who knows it," she said, referring to the Def Jam calamity. She used some four-letter words she said later she hoped her two elderly aunts in the audience would permit.
"I told Ivana Trump what happened, and she said 'F' em if they don't appreciate you.'"
Her comments were met with an explosion of thunderous applause.
It was a bravura moment, full of real emotion. It showed just how awful the record business has become. You may recall that I wrote in this column four years ago that when Reid took over at Arista, he was seen not auditioning acts but shopping in Gucci.
Now here was a respected, talented veteran of the business explaining what the rewards were for hard work (although I have no doubt LaBelle has done her fair share of shopping — her wardrobe and accessories are stellar).
Performing over this spectacular music weekend — which I will tell you more about tomorrow — were many talented acts who are not signed to record labels or who've been abandoned by their labels in favor of younger, cheaper performers who can't sing, can't write and don't care.
In the meantime, LaBelle's terrific special is scheduled for airing on UPN between Nov. 14 and 18 (check local listings).
My guess is the audio portion — a collection of classic performances, including LaBelle and McDonald doing "On My Own" — will be made available for downloading on something like iTunes. The other option would be a CD for sale in places like Starbucks. Their label is called Hear Music, which would seem to be the opposite of Def Jam