Call her what you will—Miss Patti, LaBelle, Lady Marmalade—Patti LaBelle is chiefly known as a legendary R&B vocalist with a career spanning over 50 years. At times controversial (audiences have accused her of showboating and trying to outsing other artists), LaBelle still possesses a powerful voice that encompasses gospel, blues, soul, and just a touch of rock. Her flamboyant stage persona, which she used to great effect during her years with LaBelle and her run of 1980s hits, at times overshadows her ability to wring emotion out of lyrics. The track that best illustrates her considerable ability is "If Only You Knew," a beautiful ballad that allows LaBelle to vocally dramatize the song's subject: unrequited love.
After her tenure with LaBelle, the soulful diva launched her solo career by signing with the legendary Philadelphia International in 1981. According to Ed Hogan at AllMusic, "If Only You Knew" emerged from an instrumental track that Philadelphia International songwriter/producer Dexter Wensel had composed. Wensel gave the song to songwriter Cynthia Biggs, who devised the lyrics. When presented to label co-president Kenny Gamble, they clashed over a lyric. After suggesting revisions, Gamble earned a co-writer credit along with Biggs and Wensel. At this time, LaBelle was recording her first album for the label, I'm in Love Again, and Gamble brought the song to her for consideration. As Hogan states, LaBelle instantly loved the tune due to its subject matter: "its theme was highly relatable; there were a lot of lonely people who didn't know how to express their love for another person."
As it turned out, "If Only You Knew" became one of her first major solo hits; after the album's release in 1983, the track reached number one on the Billboard R&B charts and number 46 on the Billboard Hot 100. The gentle keyboards and lush production, typical of Gamble and Huff, perfectly complement LaBelle's initially intimate vocals. One can imagine a woman sitting in her room, working up the courage to approach the object of her love: "I must have rehearsed my lines a thousand times/Until I had them memorized/But when I get up the nerve to tell you/the words just never seem to come out right." Her voice quietly expresses the longing present in the refrain: "If only you knew how much I do, do love you." As the song progresses, LaBelle gradually increases the volume, ending the tune with her typical forceful delivery. While she may be accused of oversinging, here her style accentuates the desperation and frustration of unrequited love: "No, you don't even suspect, could probably care less/About the changes I've been going through," she sings. Her soaring vocals and ending ad-libs capture the anguish in these lyrics.
Almost 30 years later, "If Only You Knew" still stands as one of LaBelle's finest vocal performances. Its timeless subject, lovely chord changes, and her passionate delivery all work together to form a true soul classic.