Where my background singers?!

The enduring power of Patti LaBelle’s background singers

· Updated on October 30, 2023

I’ll never forget where I was the first time I heard legendary recording artist Patti LaBelle utter the prophetic words: “Oh my God, this Christmas.”

The words, of course, come from the queen diva’s now-Internet-legendary performance of the song “This Christmas” at the 1996 National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony. 

During the performance–immortalized against all odds by someone’s well-preserved VHS recording of the C-SPAN2 coverage of the event–the Grammy winner and music icon first appears awkwardly behind the ambassador, introducing her before ducking back out of the camera’s view. When she returns, it isn’t long after she launches into her cover of the Donny Hathaway holiday standard that the drama unfolds.

The beginning of the end: the missing background singers

Photo credit: Ryan Bloomquist on YouTube

We watch LaBelle’s eyes dart to the side to glance at something (or, it turns out, a lack of something) off-camera. Then, three lines into the song, it is: “Where my background singers?! Woo!” Next: “Oh, baby, baby, I–and that’s the wrong words on the cue cards, I don’t know the song! … This Christmas!”

LaBelle proceeds with the performance, “Ad-lib[bing] all” she can. At the same time, the camera gets a close shot of a perplexed young boy wearing a Chicago Bulls beanie. Eventually, the background singers take the stage, the cue card situation is sorted out, and the performance is salvaged. All before then-President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton are introduced. Suddenly, we’re jolted back into the very different reality of what America was like 20-odd years ago.

The annual Christmas resurfacing

The internet of 1996 was, of course, much different than it is today. Had this happened today, Gay and Black Twitter would have chewed up and spit out this televised faux-pax. Still, two decades have passed since the incident has not dulled its reach. Every holiday season, the clip resurfaces, and racks up millions of views across YouTube, Facebook, and other social platforms.

But how exactly this happened, from the original production mishap itself to its recent resurfacing, remains something of a festive mystery. And it’s one this obsessed queer was determined to solve.

Ever since I first saw the clip, the question of what happened that fateful December day in D.C. has never strayed far from my mind. So, let’s start there.

So…what happened?

Image credit: Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen on YouTube

The performance began its social media spread thanks to blasianFMA2’s clip upload to YouTube and other platforms in October 2016. Actor Ryan Bloomquist followed with a more extended version of the clip two days later. 

Google trend data indicates that the clip’s popularity grew more in December 2017. The original uploads and various copies of them were re-shared by the moment’s devoted fans. Andy Cohen asked the diva about the moment during an interview with Watch What Happens Live! on Bravo.

During that interview, LaBelle downplayed the incident, claiming she didn’t remember it and “never saw that.” 

Of course, it’s not surprising that someone with as lengthy of a career in music as LaBelle might not recall the incident. Most reasonable people wouldn’t think of the moment again. I am not one of those people.

Was weather to blame?

My incessant internet sleuthing has revealed more clues: Washington Post article covering LaBelle’s rehearsal for the performance noted that the singer “couldn’t see” the cue cards because of the cold weather. So, the trouble began even before the background singers entered late. 

Footage from an interview with Jay Leno that occurred shortly after The Incident provides even more context. In response to Leno’s question about singing for the Clintons, LaBelle explains the “disaster” that was:

“I went out there to sing my song. I don’t know the lyrics to any of my songs so they always have to have cue cards. They dropped all the cue cards and put them back in the order that she wanted to put them in, so I was singing the wrong song and it was live. …. The audience, they were so nice, they started flagging candles for me, making me feel like they were still with me. It was just awful, it was one of those nights.”

LaBelle shares that Bill Clinton told her, “Patti, you’re so funny.” She said, “I didn’t come here to be a comedian. I came here to sing.”

And with that, my trail ran dry. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how this piece of social media magic happened. What is not a mystery is why the clip has resonated as much as it has.

The legendary Patti LaBelle

Video credit: Andranik Azizbekyan on YouTube

Simply put, LaBelle is a living American institution. Depending on your family’s vibe, she is either the aunt you love or the aunt you wish you had, as indicated by the seemingly endless collection of LaBelle memes that regularly crop up on social media. Videos of her singing the alphabet on Sesame Street to her wigs and, of course, her sweet potato pie. She is beloved, respected, and appreciated across generations and backgrounds in a way that is very rare today.

As for the clip itself, LaBelle’s performance encapsulates everything overwhelming about the holiday season. Especially to the marginalized communities that already idolize the music icon. The shopping, cooking, card-writing, family interactions, and other social and professional commitments of the holidays make the icon’s eye-rolling “Oh my God” sentiment feel genuinely universal. The holidays are when it feels like everything that can go wrong will go wrong. That’s precisely what happened here.

So relatable, in 2018 and beyond

More importantly, the clip speaks directly to life in 2018. The violence and dread, indictments, and lies we are constantly bombarded with in this powder keg of a news cycle can sometimes feel like someone has pushed us out on stage to mixed-up cue cards. And yet, we push on because there’s no other choice. It’s just what we do as queers, as femmes, as gender-nonconforming folk, as people went to the fringes at every turn.

Patti LaBelle, our ghost of Christmas past, present, and future. If only we could carry such grace, caroling through the night in the face of a shit-storm. Now, that is the spirit of the season.

Don’t miss the newest LGBTQ+ holiday tales, including the legendary Patti LaBelle incident, delivered straight to your inbox by subscribing to the IntoMore newsletter!

Don't forget to share:
Read More in Culture
The Latest on INTO