Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Labelle: The Return Of Silver Soul

Labelle Labelle - Remember... Labelle - Re-formed and re-feathered Labelle - Back To Now

Some musical reunions work, some don’t. It’s all a matter of chemistry and often the manner in which the parties involved split up in the first place.

All three members of Labelle – Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash – uniformly agree that in spite of not recording and performing together as a group for three decades, they’ve stayed in touch and indeed maintained a friendship even though all three have been involved in vastly different activities since 1976 when Epic Records released the 'Chameleon' album. The idea for getting back together had been discussed at various times but as Nona Hendryx notes, “Pat’s been talking about us getting back together for thirty years! I said, ‘we should either stop announcing it…or do it!’” Patti herself explains, “Every time it came up, I was working. I knew it was long overdue but each time, I was not ready to do it and I had so many things on my plate. Then I said, ‘ will make time to do this’.” Adds Sarah, “We’d been talking about it and we had a meeting in 2007 to see what we could put in motion… We never did a farewell tour. We just stopped. This is a way of bringing completion for the fans who were with us from the beginning all…”

The result? A U.S. tour that kicked off December 19 at The Apollo Theater in New York and includes dates in San Francisco, Washington DC and other cities along with a brand new album on Verve, appropriately entitled 'Back To Now,' featuring primary production by Gamble & Huff (who worked with Labelle back in 1971 when the trio recorded the groundbreaking “Gonna Take A Miracle” with legendary late singer/songwriter Laura Nyro) and Lenny Kravitz, with one track ('Roll Out') produced by Wyclef Jean. Nona calls the reunion “a re-ignition” and says working with the respective producers reflected the Labelle credo, ‘back to now'…the past and the present, existing in the now!” For Patti, any doubts about whether the trio could continue the distinctive sound that catapulted them from cult favourites to mainstream hitmakers (in 1974 with the classic 'Lady Marmalade') were put to rest once the three began recording: “I didn’t know if we still had it but we have a sound no one else has. It feels so good that I said ‘yes’ to doing this album. If people listen, they’ll hear we have the same sound we had forty years ago.”

Patti is referring to the earliest incarnation of the group as Patti LaBelle & The Bluebelles - which started out as a quartet (with Cindy Birdsong) back in ’61 – whose soulful harmonies brought audiences to their feet night after night throughout the ‘60s. With everchanging musical tastes and styles, a transformation was required to keep the trio (with Birdsong’s departure to join The Supremes in ’67) in the game. It was the vision of former UK TV ('Ready Steady Go!') producer Vicki Wickham that led to Labelle’s reinvention from bouffant wigs to Afros, as silver-space-suited feather-laden darlings of the rainbow and a fervent fan base of gay, straight, black, white, rock and soul folks. Vicki served as one of the executive producers for the new album which Sarah describes as “a sound piece of music that represents us now. Both the tour and the record are good ways to show the maturity we’ve developed individually and [now in this reunion] as a group.”

'Back To Now' boasts some strong Nona Hendryx originals such as 'System,' a song that was originally intended for what would have been the follow-up to ‘76’s 'Chameleon': “It’s something we performed thirty years ago onstage,” recalls Nona. “It means more today than it did even then and I love the rugged track Lenny created for it...” The Gamble & Huff-produced 'Tears For The World' is, Sarah notes, “so timely, much in the vein of 'Wake Up Everybody,' a phenomenal song with a spiritual message.” For good measure, there’s a bonus cut that comes from the very genesis of Labelle as a trio: recorded in London in 1970 with a full orchestra when the group was working with Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp of Track Records, the torch song 'Miss Otis Regrets' is, Patti states, “a whole ‘nother flavor! It’s pure drama!” Amazingly, the track fits right in with the brand new material on 'Back To Now,' indicative that while decades have gone by, Labelle’s unique blend of soulful harmonies remain as intact and strong as ever. It’s as if they never went away.

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