Leah LaBelle Vladowski (September 8, 1986 – January 31, 2018) was an American singer. Born in Toronto, Canada, and raised in Seattle, Washington, LaBelle began to pursue music as a career in her teens. During her childhood, she performed in the Total Experience Gospel Choir and the musical Black Nativity. At age 16, she was a finalist on the third season of American Idol. After placing twelfth in the season finals, she attended the Berklee College of Music, where she collaborated with Andreao Heard on a demo. LaBelle then moved to Los Angeles, where she recorded covers of R&B and soul music through her YouTube channel. After seeing LaBelle's version of "Energy", Keri Hilson hired her as a backing vocalist. LaBelle then worked as a background singer for other artists on their tours.
LaBelle during a 2012 interview
|Birth name||Leah LaBelle Vladowski|
|Born||September 8, 1986|
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
|Origin||Seattle, Washington, U.S.|
|Died||January 31, 2018 (aged 31)|
Studio City, California, U.S.
In 2011, LaBelle signed a record deal with Epic in partnership with I Am Other and So So Def Recordings. The following year, her sampler album Pharrell Williams and Jermaine Dupri Present Leah LaBelle was distributed to record companies. It was supported by the single "Sexify" and the promotional single "What Do We Got To Lose?". LaBelle received the Soul Train Centric Award at the 2012 Soul Train Music Awards. She released the stand-alone single "Lolita" in 2013. On January 31, 2018, LaBelle and her boyfriend Rasual Butler died in a car crash in Studio City, Los Angeles. A posthumous extended play, Love to the Moon, was released on September 7, 2018.
Life and careerEdit
1986–2004: Early life and American IdolEdit
Leah LaBelle Vladowski[a] was born on September 8, 1986, in Toronto, Canada, and raised in Seattle, Washington. Her parents, Anastasia and Troshan Vladowski, were Bulgarian singers, and her uncle made rock music in Bulgaria. Anastasia had recorded pop music before forming Bulgaria's first rock band, the Silver Bracelets, with Troshan. After defecting from Bulgaria during a 1979 tour, LaBelle's parents emigrated to Canada and later the United States, becoming naturalized citizens in both countries. They initially moved to Pennsylvania, where Anastasia cleaned CVS Pharmacy parking lots, before going to Tacoma, Washington. While in the United States, they formed the music group Double Freedom and toured the country. During this time, LaBelle's parents divorced, and she was raised primarily by her mother in Seattle. LaBelle grew up listening to music with her mother, including jazz and the Beatles, but felt the most connected with R&B. She was discouraged from pursuing a career in the genre, but said she ignored stereotypes involving blue-eyed soul. Her early influences included Whitney Houston, Stevie Wonder, Sade, Brandy Norwood, and Kim Burrell.
LaBelle started performing publicly in 1990, including singing on stage during her parents' tours. At the age of 11, she joined the Total Experience Gospel Choir, after being inspired by Lauryn Hill's performance in Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit. LaBelle cited Hill as her biggest musical influence. While performing in the choir, she became interested in gospel and soul music. She also participated in beauty pageants, and, in 1997, she won the Washington State Pre-teen Miss America Pageant and was the first runner-up in the National Pageant. A year later, she performed in the musical Black Nativity and stayed in the production for five years under the mentorship of Pat Wright. In 2000, she joined the children's show Caught in the Middle and remained a part of the program for two years. LaBelle attended Garfield High School, where she sang in a jazz band led by Clarence Acox Jr. Winning the Grand Prize at KUBE 93.3 Summer Jam Idol in 2002, she performed as the opening act for the Summer Jam 20.
At the age of 16, LaBelle tried out for the third season of the television show American Idol. She appeared on the series while a senior in high school. For her audition, she performed a cover of Whitney Houston's "I Believe in You and Me". After becoming one of the 32 semi-finalists, LaBelle was eliminated in the top 30 round, but judge Paula Abdul chose her as a "wildcard selection" to advance as one of the twelve finalists. LaBelle placed twelfth during the season finals, after performing a cover of The Supremes' "You Keep Me Hangin' On". Looking back on American Idol in a 2016 interview, LaBelle felt she was "too young at that time and not developed enough as an artist". The compilation album American Idol Season 3: Greatest Soul Classics (2004) included her version of The Stylistics' "Betcha by Golly, Wow". While recording the song, LaBelle was briefly mentored by one of the producers, but he would later focus on his work with Rihanna instead. AllMusic's Heather Phares praised LaBelle as "surprisingly strong and mature", and wrote that "the studio brings out colors in her voice that she didn't display on-stage". On the other hand, Steve Hammer of NUVO criticized her as "crushing the life" from the original.
|Week #||Theme||Song choice||Original artist||Results|
|Audition||N/A||"I Believe in You and Me"||Whitney Houston||Advanced|
|Hollywood||N/A||"Young Hearts Run Free"||Candi Staton||Advanced|
|Top 30||Semi-final/Group 1||"I Have Nothing"||Whitney Houston||Eliminated|
|Wildcard||"Let's Stay Together"||Al Green||Paula Abdul's choice|
|Top 12||Motown||"You Keep Me Hangin' On"||The Supremes||Eliminated|
2004–2010: YouTube and backup singingEdit
In 2004, after returning from American Idol, LaBelle performed "The Star-Spangled Banner" at a National Football League game, and "Lift Every Voice and Sing" during a National Basketball Association game. The same year, she featured on Lisa Leuschner's cover of "Silent Night" for her album Sing Me Home, and recorded "Christmas Time" for the compilation album Christmas in the Northwest, Vol. 7. Graduating from Garfield High School in 2005, she attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. She said that she moved away from Seattle to "come into my own world, my own zone and really appreciate me and my music".
While attending Berklee College, LaBelle rejected two recording contracts, including one from Andreao Heard, based on her attorney's advice. Her mother explained that she found the offers "too binding". Heard became interested in LaBelle after watching a video of her performance in the Total Experience Gospel Choir. While working with Heard, she recorded a demo written by Makeba Riddick and sent it out to various record labels. LaBelle shifted her focus toward combining R&B with pop music, explaining: "I want to bring real music back but make it marketable and mainstream. To me real music isn’t everything being synthesized, computerized." In a 2018 Billboard article, Heard attributed the end of their working relationship to "the business side of the industry".
LaBelle stayed at Berklee College for one year, before moving to Los Angeles, California at the age of 21 to further pursue a career in music. She received attention for releasing cover versions of R&B and soul music on her YouTube channel. She created the account on December 1, 2007, following the advice of an industry contact. During a 2012 Seventeen interview, LaBelle said she had prioritized working in a recording studio over filming YouTube videos. In a 2018 Vibe article, Desire Thompson wrote "the early days of YouTube were a blessing to singers like LaBelle".
In 2008, Keri Hilson saw LaBelle's cover of her single "Energy", which received over 500,000 views as of October 16, 2012, and hired her as a backing vocalist. Looking to Hilson as a mentor, LaBelle said: "She's brought me along with her and allowed me to see into the industry a little bit deeper than I already have." She then worked as a background singer for Robin Thicke, Jordin Sparks, the Jonas Brothers, Britney Spears, and Eric Benét on their respective tours. In March 2008, she sang at Quincy Jones' 75th birthday party at the Northwest African American Museum. The same year, she was included on American Idol Rewind and featured on Kumasi's single "Angel" from his debut studio album The One in 2009.
2011–2018: Record contractEdit
In 2011, LaBelle signed a record contract with L.A. Reid's company Epic in a partnership with Pharrell Williams' label I Am Other and Jermaine Dupri's label So So Def Recordings. Dupri and Williams became interested in LaBelle due to her YouTube covers, and contacted her through Twitter. They also acted as mentors for her. Before receiving their messages, LaBelle had considered giving up on a music career. On May 1, 2012, she released the five-track sampler album Pharrell Williams and Jermaine Dupri Present Leah LaBelle, distributed to record companies. It was also uploaded on LaBelle's SoundCloud account. She said the sampler represented the sound for her then-upcoming studio album,[b] which she described as "feel-good texture music" with a "throwback-but-new feel". LaBelle began recording music for the album with Williams in Miami, Florida and Dupri in Atlanta, Georgia.
The sampler was promoted through the single "Sexify", which LaBelle and Williams based on Cosmopolitan headlines. It peaked at number 89 on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs Billboard chart, and was cited as LaBelle's breakthrough by a 2018 Billboard article. "What Do We Got To Lose?" was released as a promotional single in November 2012. At the 2012 Soul Train Music Awards, LaBelle received the Soul Train Centric Award and performed a tribute to Aretha Franklin and Teena Marie with Fantasia Barrino. She also sang as part of the 2012 Essence Music Festival in New Orleans, Louisiana and BET's Music Matters showcase, held over the weekend of the 55th Annual Grammy Awards. On May 7, 2013, LaBelle released the standalone-single "Lolita" and a digital extended play (EP) of 10 electro house remixes and instrumentals was made available on March 26, 2013. The song reached number seven on the Dance Club Songs Billboard chart and peaked at number 264 on the official Tophit airplay chart.
LaBelle featured on Brian Cross' single "Shot Gun" from his album Pop Star (2013) and did background vocals for Nelly's seventh studio album M.O. (2013). During the fall of 2013, she opened for JoJo's The Agápē Tour. The following year, LaBelle provided vocals for Williams' second studio album Girl. She reunited with Heard during the 59th Annual Grammy Awards; he said that she was going through a "dark period" due to her inability to release new music following her singles' poor commercial performance. He believed she had given up on a music career.
Death and aftermathEdit
On January 31, 2018, LaBelle and her boyfriend Rasual Butler died in a car crash in Studio City, California, after he lost control of his Range Rover on Ventura Boulevard. Before the crash, which occurred at 2:25 AM (PT), Butler was driving over two or three times the speed limit. They both died instantly from "multiple traumatic injuries". According to an autopsy report, Butler had alcohol, methamphetamine, oxycodone, and marijuana in his system and a blood alcohol level of 0.118. LaBelle had a blood alcohol level of .144 and methamphetamine and amphetamine in her system at the time of the incident. Her heart was donated after a coroner completed a laboratory analysis.
On February 3, 2018, Butler's daughter Raven held a joint memorial service at a Potter's House in Los Angeles; it was also streamed online. Even though Butler referred to LaBelle as his wife, the couple never married.[c] An individual service was held for LaBelle on February 24 at Garfield High School, and an obituary was published in the February 11 issue of The Seattle Times. Her mother provided a $10,000 scholarship under her daughter's name to a University of Southern California student with an art major.
Prior to her death, LaBelle was reportedly recording new music. In February 2018, Dupri and Bryan-Michael Cox released two tracks – "Scumbag" and "Stereo" – by LaBelle. In the same month, Heard expressed interest in making available unreleased material that he had recorded with her. A posthumous EP, Love to the Moon, was released on September 7, 2018. The five songs were donated by the producers, and JoJo included dedications to LaBelle on her social media for a week. On September 11, 2018, a trailer for the project was released on LaBelle's Vevo account. Proceeds from the EP were donated to yearly scholarships.
|Title||Album details||List of songs|
|Pharrell Williams and Jermaine Dupri Present Leah LaBelle||
|Title||EP details||List of songs|
|Love to the Moon||
Singles, as primary artistEdit
|Title||Year||Peak chart positions||Album|
|"Sexify"||2012||23||—||—||Pharrell Williams and Jermaine Dupri|
Present Leah LaBelle
|"—" denotes items which failed to chart or were not released in that country.|
|"What Do We Got To Lose?"||2012||Pharrell Williams and Jermaine Dupri Present Leah LaBelle|
|"Betcha by Golly, Wow"||2004||American Idol Season 3: Greatest Soul Classics|
|"Christmas Time"||Christmas in the Northwest, Vol. 7.|
(with Lisa Leuschner)
|Sing Me Home|
(with Brian Cross)
|2004||American Idol||Herself (finalist)||Season 3|
|2008||American Idol Rewind||Herself (finalist)|
- LaBelle adopted the stage name Leah LaBelle while participating on American Idol. She had initially auditioned under the name Leah Vladowski. She is referenced by her full name Leah LaBelle Vladowski in her obituary.
- LaBelle's debut studio album was expected for a 2012 release before being pushed back to 2013. It was never made available.
- LaBelle's mother and Butler's daughter disputed reports that LaBelle was married. LaBelle's obituary also references Butler as her boyfriend rather than her husband.
- Meizel (2011): p. 64
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