For two and a half hours on Sunday night, the latest Verzuz episode — the DJ battle where two hip-hop or R&B legends compare their catalogs in (usually) friendly competition — was more like a cross between a mutual-admiration society, a church service and a good talking-to from your mother.
The Sept. 13 session matched up longtime friends and multi-generational soul legends Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight, live from the stage of The Fillmore in LaBelle’s hometown of Philadelphia, reliving old times, singing their hits and talking good sense, while Michelle Obama, Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez, Kerry Washington, Oprah Winfrey, Missy Elliot, Jill Scott, Octavia Spencer, Questlove, Lena Waithe, Alicia Keys, Whoopi Goldberg and last week’s #Verzuz co-star Brandy chimed in, along with nearly 600,000 Instagram livestream viewers (no word yet as to how many people tuned in on Apple Music).
In fact, this Verzuz may have been the series’ chattiest to date, with the two doing more talking than singing. Certainly, LaBelle did more shoe changes than vocalizing, although both were amazing to behold.
Sitting on two cushioned white chairs and framed by The Fillmore’s row of chandeliers, Knight (resplendent in a pink champagne colored lame outfit) and Labelle (subdued in black, but, with an array of shoes beside her, as well as a mirror she used often) turned their Verzuz into a fireside chat immediately.
“We’re OGs for real, about 150 [combined] years of it,” Labelle said with a chuckle at the session’s opening. “We’re Geminis — it’s a twin wonderful moment between me and my sister.”
The two spoke for a good 15 minutes before they began singing, about everything from the blessings between them, Knight’s nickname for Patti (“Lil Belle”), to a lengthy discussion of pandemic cooking that included banana pudding and short ribs (“Don’t lose weight during Covid,” LaBelle advised).
Knight even managed to sneak in a dig against the current president: “What does ‘Make America Great Again’ mean? Slavery?”
The pair got so into their talk that one viewer chimed in via Instagram Live comments: “I think you forgot we were watching.”
By the time they got to the first tracks — LaBelle’s “All Right Now” and Knight and the Pips’ “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” — they were chair-dancing and kicking up their feet while singing their hearts out.
“I only made four videos in my life, and that was one of them, said LaBelle of her ‘90s-era track, while Knight went for something more stately, raw and soulful with “Best Thing.” Throughout the evening, Knight went for the funkier songs, where her big voice is at its nuanced peak, while Labelle initially went for songs requiring a higher range and more sleek, electronic-age material before bringing out her Philly International smashes. However, the night also saw the return of the technical difficulties that plagued the early Verzuz, so much that Verzuz co-founder Swizz Beatz commented on the glitchy sound.
When they got to the second round – LaBelle’s “If You Asked Me To” and Knight and her Pips’ “Make Yours a Happy Home” – Patti went for the powerhouse belt for her ballad, while Gladys went for the subdued simmer.
The pair then spoke about how they were there for each other after members of their families passed away, and then dug in for Round Three, which paired LaBelle’s “Stir It Up” with Knight and the Pips’ peaceful “Every Beat of My Heart.” The two sang together in lovely harmony, with Patti’s highs and Gladys’ lows inspiring Kerry Washington to post, “They got me singing in my kitchen making dinner.”
Afterward, LaBelle said, “Sometimes, I think that I over-sing.”
Knight replied, “You’re just here to wake people up — it’s a gift from God.”
For round four matched LaBelle’s grand ballad “When You’ve Been Blessed (Feels Like Heaven)” and Knight and the Pips’ deeply grooving “On and On.” LaBelle seemed surprised by the track, but quickly caught up, while Knight’s performance was all guts and grit — “As long as He keeps giving us the breath, the love, the spirit, and the talent,” said Knight after the track.
LaBelle’s “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” and Knight’s nearly-forgotten James Bond theme “License to Kill” was round five. Along with the twosome harmonizing over LaBelle’s biggest churchy ballad, Knight found her own brand of sexy grandeur with that 007 track. Round five also saw LaBelle playfully calling Jennifer Hudson a “heifer” — “That heifer sung me under a table,” a term she’s used in the past for younger singers — and saying she’s still learning from generations such as Hudson’s.
LaBelle’s ‘My Love, Sweet Love” from the “Waiting to Exhale” soundtrack and Knight and the Pips’ classic “Midnight Train to Georgia” made up round six. LaBelle’s rousing ballad was powerful, but of course it was no contest: Few songs can top “Midnight Train,” let alone having Michelle Obama text in the song’s requisite “woo-woo!”s at the end. Even though the Instagram feed cut off momentarily, fans caught the drama of the moment.
LaBelle, who spent portions of the evening signaling to producers and sound-people to fix the mix, exclaimed “That’s not my right song… Put my right song on the teleprompter,” for round seven’s “Love, Need and Want You” (LaBelle) and “Someone to Watch Over Me” (Knight). Here, Knight jumped in on backing vocals for LaBelle’s tender ballad while tackling her take on a Gershwin standard with jazzy, breezy grace, and some harmony from Ms. Patti.
After discussing how each of their children encouraged them onto Verzuz — “Cuz I didn’t know what the hell this was,” said Knight —round eight matched LaBelle’s “Right Kind of Lover” and Knight and the Pips’ “Friendship Train.” Another ‘90s hit for LaBelle sounded impressively dynamic (despite noted problems with her teleprompter), while Knight’s prescient “Friendship Train” was glorious and funky.
“We have to learn to live with each other, love and understanding, get aboard this friendship train,” said Knight at cut’s end.
Round nine (LaBelle’s “Over the Rainbow” and Knight and the Pips’ “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)”) included a shout-out to Michelle Obama (“She’s married to the very best man,” noted Knight), and Round 10 (LaBelle’s “Somebody Loves You Baby (You Know Who It Is)” and Knight and the Pips’ “You’re Number One (In My Book)”) found the soul giants a complimentary mode. LaBelle called Knight “boo boo,” Knight called LaBelle “pumpkin,” and LaBelle concluded, “We’re not working together — we’re being together.”
Round 11 went smoothly, but 12 found the tech going haywire, turning out two LaBelle smashes in a row (the jittery “New Attitude” and a simmering “On My Own”) up against an odd, low-volume redux of “Midnight Train to Georgia.” However, the pair handled it with aplomb.
But it was round 14 that found Instagram suddenly filled with the words “pant suits” — because the pair were joined by a fellow soul OG, Dionne Warwick, resplendent in white, to join them on Knight’s’ “That’s What Friends Are For” as well as LaBelle’s classics “You Are My Friend” and “If Only You Knew.” Missy Elliott jumped in the comments with a request for pant suit merch.
“Let my momma know where to order,” she wrote. “She live for a pantsuit.”
The threesome talked more than they sang but executed lovely harmonies throughout each other’s verses, and found LaBelle dedicating her Philly International ballads to Knight before the three of them gave their ages (Knight, 77, LaBelle, 76, Warwick 80) and closed out the evening with a brief but appropriate cover of Karyn White’s “Superwoman.”
It may not have topped the 1.2 million Verzuz viewers that logged on for Brandy vs. Monica, and the technical difficulties were unfortunate, but no matter — this was one for the record books.