Helpless Dancer

The Endless Note

The Return Of LaBelle



This was Labelle in the mid-1970s. They were not just a pop group with one enormous hit, “Lady Marmalade,” but a phenomenon whose music helped change the very idea of what pop and the artists who made it — especially women singers previously confined to “girl groups” — could be.

“People were looking for three outrageous women who might sing and say anything, and who looked like someone you had never seen before,” said Patti LaBelle in a recent interview, reflecting on the emergence of the group she’d formed with Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash when they were teenagers, and which has reunited for a new album, “Back to Now,” to be released Oct. 21 on Vanguard Records.

“The idea was for artists to sing what they live and write the songs they live. And we really treated it like a band, not a girl group,” said Hendryx. “Three minds, but one mind at the same time. And that did allow for different things to be said.”

During the mid-1970s Labelle stood alongside David Bowie and George Clinton’s P-Funk as visionaries of spectacular, genre-blasting pop.

“Alice Cooper and David Bowie, they were doing their thing,” Clinton said by phone from a spot on his current tour to promote his new project, the doo-wop flavored George Clinton and his Gangsters of Love. “That whole period, everybody was going for theatrical rock. So we just said, ‘Let’s go all the way with it. Let’s do it all.’ That’s what we did, and that’s what they were doing too.”

After spending the 1960s as the vocal group Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles (who, among other accomplishments, toured with the Rolling Stones), the group guided by manager Vicki Wickham enacted one of pop’s most remarkable transformations. They traded in their wigs and satin gloves for futuristic costumes by rock designer Larry LeGaspi, began recording Hendryx’s politically forthright and erotically charged songs, and developed a stage show that was part gospel revival, part circus, part love-in.

They refashioned “Moonshadow” by Cat Stevens into a gospel stomp and opened for the Who — “Back to Now” includes one cut from the vaults, a cover of Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets” featuring Keith Moon on drums. They recorded an album with Laura Nyro and followed Bette Midler’s famous engagement at New York’s gay mecca the Continental Baths.

“It wasn’t really accepted that black girls could sing these songs,” said Wickham, who also managed Dusty Springfield, by phone from New York. “A lot of Nona’s songs had double entendres, it wasn’t like radio was going to jump on it. The time really wasn’t right, but I also think that we were so big on doing it live and having great audiences that nobody really said, ‘Hang on a second, you need to have something that goes on radio.’ ”

“Nightbirds,” Labelle’s masterpiece, was recorded in New Orleans by that city’s maestro, Allen Toussaint. “Lady Marmalade” is its signature tune, and remains a touchstone for young singers. The group’s practice of sharing lead vocals was taken up by later female groups such as En Vogue and Destiny’s Child, and solo artists including Fantasia and Christina Aguilera cite Patti LaBelle as a main influence.

But the legacy of Labelle, the band, might be coming to the fore only now, as category-defining artists such as Gnarls Barkley and Santogold revive the legacy of black rock. Lenny Kravitz, an early adapter of that sound, produced several tracks on “Back to Now,” including “System,” a funk-rock killer that the group regularly performed in the 1970s.

“In America more than other places, when you don’t put something in a nice, neat box and label it and put a ribbon on it, it’s hard for people to grasp,” Kravitz said by phone from Paris, where he lives part time. “All the years I was trying to get a record deal I kept hearing, ‘It’s not black enough’ or ‘It’s not white enough.’ That’s the same thing with Labelle . . . But obviously they’ve had major hits, and they’re part of the fabric of American culture.”

Labelle’s fans have maintained the group’s cult since its demise in 1976. Some were in the crowd that night at the Met, or at other legendary performances, including a show at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium where Elton John joined the ladies onstage.

“Their concerts were almost tribal in terms of the frenzy that was involved,” said performing artist and playwright Julius Hollingsworth, who earned his ticket to the Met show by wearing a silver space suit provided by Wickham and handing out fliers in front of Bloomingdale’s. “The audience was just with them. They were singing these sweet songs, but with a powerful voice behind them. And the political content infused the music with a kind of power that has not been matched since.”

Other fans are younger, particularly scholars who see the group as a key to reclaiming the lost history of black rock and stereotype-defying soul. University professors such as Mark Anthony Neal, Jason King, Sonnet Retman and Daphne Brooks are re-envisioning pop history with Labelle as a muse.

“Even though many of the major glam-rock artists of the 1970s were inspired by African American music, glam still tends to be memorialized as an exclusively white, male, and European genre,” wrote King in a recent e-mail. He is also a singer-songwriter and producer and has worked with Sarah Dash. “Labelle forces us to reconsider the racial and gendered boundaries of glam rock. They have just as much right to be considered part of the pantheon of glam as T-Rex or the New York Dolls.”

“Back to Now” reasserts Labelle’s claim to the glam crown while touching down in the other styles the trio has influenced, from quiet storm to funk. Hendryx co-wrote most of the songs, and a few, especially the slinky ballads “Candlelight” and “Superlover,” feel more radio-friendly than much of her earlier Labelle work.


Keith Moon frumming on “Miss Otis Regrets” is an interesting contest but the song belongs to Ella, in the dame way that “Won’t Get Fooled Again” belongs to The Who despite LaBelle’s groovy cover.

You can hear both below.

“Miss Otis Regrets” – Ella Fitzgerald [MP3]

“Won’t Get Fooled Again” – LaBelle

October 12, 2008 - Posted by | New News, Old Music | , ,

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