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LaBelle digs deeply onstage and off

You expect Patti LaBelle to let it all go, to let loose with a wail that starts in the the tips of her flame pumps.

But right now, it's early morning in Baltimore and LaBelle is on a publicity tour, not a concert tour, talking about the distant hollers she has kept bottled up for more than 30 years.

Her wide brown eyes flash and her resplendent voice dips low as she tells how soul singer Jackie Wilson tried to rape her backstage at a Brooklyn theater.

"I believe he was tipsy the night they pulled me into this room," LaBelle says. "It was like my schoolteacher or somebody, someone you look up to, is trying to take advantage of you. I was saying, "I can't believe this is Jackie Wilson.' (He and his assistant) pulled my stuff up and I screamed. It scared people off. He had my dress off.

"Thank God" it didn't go any further than that, she says.

That is just one of the tough stories LaBelle revealed last year in Don't Block the Blessings: Revelations of a Lifetime. It's a rough, painful ride that began with a struggling girl group of the 1960s, the Blue-Belles (later Patti LaBelle and the Blue Belles), and soared to the trio's reincarnation as the outrageous '70s group LaBelle, with Patti finally reaching long-awaited solo fame in the '80s and '90s. Behind the scenes the whole time was another Patti LaBelle, Patti Holte Edwards: a wife, a mother, a daughter; a woman who saw her three sisters die before they were 44 and was sure she would never live to see 50.

The singer tells how her sister Jackie, suffering from brain cancer, called her from the hospital and asked her to fix the egg sandwich she loved. LaBelle didn't, and within days her sister died.

"That story about how selfish I was was the hardest thing for me to say to people," she says. "My sister was five minutes away. I never got a chance to say to her all the things I should have said. Talking to a sheet is the worst feeling you could ever imagine."

When she herself reached 50, LaBelle decided to write her story, assisted by Laura Randolph, a senior writer for Ebony Magazine.

"I was dusting off my soul," she says. "It was truly dusty, and webs were hanging in there. I never ever dug deep enough in there, nor did I want to. I didn't want to share that with anybody."

Onstage, there's no question: LaBelle still pushes it. When she sang for President Clinton's 48th birthday, she kicked off her shoes, rolled around and split her dress.

"When I get out there the light comes on within me. I give them everything they want. Sometimes too much. My husband is always saying, "Can you just leave them wanting a little?' "

This force takes its toll. She gets nosebleeds during concerts. She knows she should rest her voice. But she is optimistic: "Each year I can hold a note longer, and my voice is stronger. It is getting better with age."