Songs That Soundtracked the AIDS Epidemic: Patti LaBelle’s “You Are My Friend”
every year, just as pride season is about to kick off, the interwebs argue, fight and debate about who is and who isn’t a queer icon. thankfully, many of these exhausting debates center non-black celebrities who have generally mastered performative allyship, for the sake of rainbow capitalism.
frequenting gay clubs as a teen in the 90s, i could tell the impact of an artist and their music, by how it contributed to and elevated the black queer experience in the club. many of those artists were cultural influencers and healers that mainstream america ignored or maligned. artists like martha wash, gwen guthrie, phylis hyman and the legendary patti labelle provided the soundtrack in these spaces, during times of great joy and immense pain. and if you have ever witnessed a drag queen perform patti labelle’s “you are my friend” in a packed club, during the height of the AIDS epidemic, then you know.
released as the second single from patti’s 1977 self-titled debut solo album, “you are my friend” was inspired by her son, zuri, who as a toddler, repeated “it’s okay daddy, you are my friend” to his father. his father had been laying on the couch, sick after a night of partying. co-written by patti, james “budd” ellison and her then-husband armstead edwards. the song was not initially a hit upon its release, it only peaked at #61 on the r&b chart, in january 1978. the song connected with her LGBTQ fanbase and this was beautifully evident when queer music pioneer and literal disco queen sylvester covered the song for his 1979 live album “living proof.” his version reached #30 on the r&b chart in the spring of 1980. both versions would later become musical forms of solace during the onset and height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.
in the decades since its release, “you are my friend” has become one of patti’s signature songs. it is the song that she often closes with in her shows. it receives standing ovations, just as she did when she first performed the song in 1978. you can still witness, a black drag queen – – bringing their ministry into a nightclub – – as they emotionally move a crowd while performing this song.
patti and sylvester were one of the first artists to support and perform at AIDS fundraisers in the early 1980s. patti was one of the the first recording artists to participate in a visual HIV prevention campaign in the mid-1980s. in the 1990s, after performing to sold out crowds, she would personally deliver food and flowers to people living with HIV.
“I just want all of my gay fans to know that I will always be here for them the way I am: honest, to the point, and loving my gay fans even more and more each day. I mean, when I think about it, the gay fans are some of the reason – one big reason – I’m still standing, ’cause they loved me when other people tried not to. Everybody always says, ‘What makes gay men like you?’ ‘I have no clue,’ I say. I still don’t. But I know that their love has lifted me up for many, many years.” – patti labelle, 2017.