CLASH OF THE CHOIRS. 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, Dec. 20, Chan. 10.

THE EAGLES may disappoint, the Phillies break our hearts, but when it comes to next week's "Clash of the Choirs" on NBC, Patti LaBelle figures her hometown has a definite edge.

"Philadelphia has some of the best singers," LaBelle said in a recent phone interview. Plus, "I think they're really afraid of me. If they don't win, I'm going to beat everybody . . . That makes them very, very special - their fear of me."

Hard to imagine Michael Bolton having that kind of leverage.

For those who've so far managed to avoid NBC's ubiquitous promos, LaBelle, Bolton, Nick Lachey, Kelly Rowland and Blake Shelton are the "celebrity choir masters" for a four-day live competition in which the singers helped cast and train choirs from their hometowns that then compete for both bragging rights and for donations to charity.

(If Philadelphia wins, donations - in amounts NBC won't specify other than to say they're "significant" - will be made to the Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania and to With Our Voices, which works to improve African-Americans' access to cancer screening.)

While LaBelle came home to Philadelphia to organize her choir, Bolton returned to New Haven, Conn., Lachey to Cincinnati, Rowland to Houston and Shelton to Oklahoma City.

Not that you need to be thinking about them, because LaBelle, who describes herself as "very competitive," already knows which city's going to win.

"It's the first time I've had to do something like this, and I'm going all out," she said. As for her fellow celebs, "We're friends, but I haven't seen them" yet.

So how is this singing competition different from all other TV singing competitions?

"You're seeing so many different shows," LaBelle acknowledged. "This is by a celebrity having to find 20 great singers . . . There's nothing like it on television. It's unique."

BET's gospel competition "Sunday Best"?

"That's finding one singer," said LaBelle.

By contrast, she auditioned "a lot of people, and then I had to break it down to 20 people, 20 great voices," who could be taught to sing together.

"They're phenomenal," said LaBelle, who by late November already had rehearsed with the group a few times and was also leaving them in the capable hands of John Stanley, her musical director of 10 years.

Not all of LaBelle's singers - who'll be performing a mix of music ranging from country and R&B to gospel - have choir experience.

"No, no, and they're not all black, either. I have a rainbow choir," she said, laughing. "It's just that I choose great voices."

One contestant couldn't finish a whole song, "but I chose him because of his power," she said.

"I cried when I had to let some of them go, it was very hard for me," LaBelle said, adding that she told auditioners who weren't chosen not to get discouraged, and reminded them she had all their numbers.

LaBelle, who got her own start as a singer in the choir of Philadelphia's Beulah Baptist Church, said choir-singing teaches singers "how to be loud and how to be strong and how to be aggressive."

"You have to be very aggressive in a choir," especially if you want to be a lead singer, she said. "You can't be stingy with your notes."

That said, "I joined the choir, but I never wanted to sing lead," LaBelle said, blaming her choir director for, well, her entire career.

"I was so loud, and she came close and she listened [and said], 'Oh, no, you're not going to be in the background, missy,' " recalled LaBelle.

"And that's how I became a lead singer." *

Send e-mail to