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45 at 33: Patti LaBelle’s big-haired Bond theme If You Asked Me To

Sometimes you just have to roll with the randomness of the jukebox, and today it picked a James Bond theme. But this ain’t no ordinary Bond theme, this is one of the secondary songs that plays out over the film’s end credits when almost everyone other than the most hardened aficionados are heading to the exit.

Joining the likes of The Pretenders, k.d. lang and Éric Serra (er, who?), Patti LaBelle’s If You Asked Me To closed out 1989’s Licence To Kill, with its title referring to dialogue from earlier in the 007 movie.

Coincidentally, Patti celebrated her 78th birthday recently, sharing her May 24 entry into the cosmos with Bob Dylan, Priscilla Presley, my former West Hampstead neighbour Jim Broadbent, and, even closer to home, my late aunt Julia. 

If you ask me, this wasn’t exactly the ideal way to say goodbye to Bond before the fall of the Berlin Wall, a new decade and a long hiatus, though a gifted vocalist soul and R&B diva Patti LaBelle certainly is. Despite being a Top 10 hit on the American Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs charts, the single failed to crossover to the pop charts, peaking at number 79 on the US Billboard Hot 100.

Across the pond in Britain it failed to chart.

A smooth, synthy, mid-tempo number, the lyrics are from the point of view of a woman who pleads to her significant other: “If you asked me to, I just might change my mind, and let you in my life forever”. It screams big haired Eighties power ballad, and I don’t mean that as a compliment: you can actually hear the hairspray. 

Talking of screaming, Patti gives a trademark soaring vocal that only goes into dangerous histrionics in the last minute, anticipating a plethora of tedious over-singers that commandeered the ‘90s. Either way, that the song was written by Diane Warren — the career schlock-meister behind Toni Braxton’s Unbreak My Heart and Celine Dion’s Because You Loved Me (we’ll gloss over the Pet Shop Boys’ Numb, with good reason) — seems like a characteristic act of pop inversion. 

As if by magic, three years later Céline Dion herself covered the song. Inexplicably, the Gallic warbler managed to take the song to No.4 in the States and the top spot in her native Canada, making it almost as popular as poutine but a lot less tasty.

Regarding the cover, LaBelle explained in the liner notes of her 1999 Greatest Hits album what she believed to be the reason: 

“I knew the song was a hit when I recorded it, and I was happy that Celine did it and did so well with it. But the arrangements are so close and we both have pretty powerful voices…so who knows why my version didn’t take off. Maybe it was timing…”

Two weeks after the single’s release, the track opened up Patti’s ninth solo album Be Yourself. Myself? That just happened to be my 20th birthday, though much more interesting is the record contained two exclusive tracks written and produced by the purple batdancer himself, Prince — one of which, Love 89, was a collaboration with Sheena Easton, still the only Bond girl to be seen singing her theme for 007 over the opening credits. Some Scots have all the luck.

Incidentally, if you think the original promotional video features some surprising emotional imagery, it was filmed the day after the funeral of Patti’s younger sister Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ Padgett who died of cancer at age 43. As such, the context of the song changed dramatically, as a mourning LaBelle, dressed in black, sings the song in a church with candles and mourning lilies, intercut with shots of her in tears. Aw.

Many belated happy returns Lady Marmalade.

Steve Pafford

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