Labelle: Birds of a Feather
Pete Lewis speaks in-depth to all three members of Labelle, as the groundbreaking soul/rock/funk female trio reunite after 33 years with their critically-acclaimed new LP ‘Back To Now’.
While in the Seventies their tripped-out, space-age rock costumes - replete with glitter, sliver feathers and platforms! - saw them paving the way for female R&B groups to loosen-up and get funky, fact is Labelle actually started out as a typical Sixties girl-group. When - known simply as ‘The Bluebelles’ - they scored their first US Top 40 hit back in 1961 with ‘I Sold My Heart To The Junkman’. With the group’s early incarnation comprising current members Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash alongside Cindy Birdsong (who left to join The Supremes in 1967), their soulful harmonies brought audiences to their feet night after night through the Sixties. The girls’ penchant for standard ballads like ‘Danny Boy’ and ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ also giving them a degree of chart success at the time.
Nevertheless, with ever-changing musical trends finding the threesome in serious need of a makeover by the end of the Sixties, 1970 found them hiring former UK TV producer Vicki Wickham (of ‘Ready Steady Go’ fame), to become their new manager and generally update their image and sound. Replacing the old bouffant wigs with fashionable new Afros and incorporating influences (both musically and sonically) from Britain’s then-growing glam rock scene, the trio instantly changed their name from ‘Patti LaBelle & The Bluebelles’ to simply ‘Labelle’, and signed a new record-deal with Warner Brothers.
With their recordings now taking in material from such diverse songwriters as The Rolling Stones, Carole King, Cat Stevens and The Who, Labelle’s first three albums of the Seventies (1971’s ‘Labelle’; 1972’s ‘Mooonshadow’; 1973’s ‘Pressure Cookin’’) found the trio moving in a highly experimental new direction. Which - combining covers of other artists’ material with original songwriting from group member Nona Hendryx - now found them appealing (groundbreakingly for the time) to a varied, fervent fan-base that took in black and white, rock and soul, plus gay and straight listeners.
Nevertheless, mainstream success did not come until, after signing to Epic Records, Labelle hooked-up with famed New Orleans producer Allen Toussaint to record their 1974-released, Gold-selling ‘Nightbirds’ album. Which, in early 1975, spawned their first US Number One, ‘Lady Marmalade’ - a brassy, disco-funk ode to a New Orleans prostitute, which remains to this day an undisputed all-time classic, and which has been covered successfully numerous times over the years (most notably by US vocalists Christina Aguilera, Lil’Kim, Mya and Pink for 2001’s international-chart-topping ‘Moulin Rouge’ soundtrack).
While the trio’s ensuing albums ‘Pheonix’ (1975) and ‘Chameleon’ (1976) found considerable critical acclaim, the commercial momentum attained with the global across-the-board success of ‘Lady Marmalade’ and Nightbirds’ was not repeated - and 1976 found the threesome quietly going their separate ways.
With all three Labelle members going on to attain differing degrees of solo success (Patti becoming one of America’s most celebrated and enduring soul divas; Nona releasing experimental albums that often bordered on the avant-garde; Sarah enjoying a few notable dance hits), the groundbreaking trio have now finally reunited via this month’s UK release of their first new album since 1976 - the aforementioned ‘Back To Now’. Which in turn prompts all three members to call Pete Lewis from their native Philadelphia, to discuss their new record plus their trailblazing, almost-four-decade career.
The reasons behind Labelle reuniting after 33 years
NONA: “Well, there were lots of ongoing times when we’d discussed doing it. And a lot of it was really down to the fact that the fans were DEMANDING that we did it! But, rather than just going back and doing what we’d done in the past, we did want to be able to make an album of new music before coming back out together. And it was really once we’d recorded the song ‘Dear Rosa’ together that Patti finally became convinced that yes, we should make a new record and then go out and tour behind it. So I’d say basically our reunion was down to two things - pressure from the fans; plus Patti hearing a sound again that she loved and hadn’t heard for many years.”
PATTI: “Yeah, though we’d been talking for YEARS about a reunion, my problem was always that I still have a lot of other things that I still do as Patti LaBelle. And I never really wanted to say ‘yes’ to Labelle until I knew I had enough time to GIVE the project. But then the time did finally come when I could, and did, say ‘yes’ - and we’ve now actually been back together for about two years, doing all these wonderful things like rehearsals and recordings and concerts.”
Titling their reunion album ‘Back To Now’
NONA: “That was my idea! I have to take credit for that! It basically stemmed from two of the songs on the album being songs I’d specifically written for what would have been the next Labelle album back in 1977. So the title ‘Back To Now’ is really signifying that this record represents us really getting back to where we were. It’s basically a continuation from where we stopped off.”
What Labelle wanted to achieve with ‘Back To Now’
NONA: “We really wanted to just capture what Labelle does that nobody else - in terms of girl-groups or female singers - has been ABLE to do. Which is to take that mixture of influences and then coalesce it into a sound with songs and ideas that speak from a political, social and sexual point of view. Really all we’ve EVER wanted to do is make music that reaches people and touches the different parts of their lives as human beings. And so what we tried to get across specifically on this record is how the SPIRIT of music is able to energise and move people in whatever way they CAN be moved.”
How superstar black rocker Lenny Kravitz became involved in the album’s production
NONA: “It came about when Patti, Sarah and I first started getting together to listen to music and think about songs to do for this album. I was also playing them some songs I was in the process of writing - and, when we started talking about who we’d like to work with as a producer, I immediately thought about Lenny because of his eclectic musical talent. You know, being a person of colour with a rock influence but also having an urban side, to me he seems very much like a male Labelle. So I called him on the off-chance, to see if he was in town... He was; I said we were getting together to record an album, and asked him if he could come by... He asked me ‘where’ and ‘when’; I told him... And he CAME!”
How former Fugee Wyclef Jean then came on board to produce the track ‘Rollout’
NONA: “The original producers that we’d chosen for ‘Back To Now’ were Lenny Kravitz and Prince. But Prince, because he was doing his tour, couldn’t do it. And though Lenny - after producing the first three tracks - wanted to do the entire album, the point came where he couldn’t continue because he had his OWN CD coming out. So, at that point, we started to think about OTHER people we could work with, who would also fit into that old-skool-but-nu-skool place. And, because Wyclef has always said he thinks of Patti as his ‘musical mom’, Patti called him and said ‘Son, we wanna do something with you! Let’s find a half-hour in your day and work something out!’... So he was like ‘Of COURSE! I’ll do ANYTHING for you!’… And we loved what he brought to the project. Because he’s not only a very talented modern-day producer, but also as a PERSON he fits in with the qualities we always look for in our collaborators. In that, in addition to being passionate about music, he also gets involved with social and political issues.”
How legendary Philly-soul producers Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff became involved to inject more of an old skool vibe
NONA: “When Sarah heard the song ‘Without You In My Life’, she instantly said she could hear Gamble & Huff working with us on it. So - with Patti and Kenny having grown up as teenagers together in Philadelphia - Patti got on the phone and said ‘Kenny, I know you and Leon aren’t doing that much any more. But you’ve gotta do this record with us!’!... And working with Kenny and Leon was wonderful, because they have such a history. I think they’ve produced something like 73 hit records, and so with them there’s a totally different approach to making music. Because they come with expertise, they come with knowledge… Plus they come with so many years of hits, and so many years of knowing what should and shouldn’t be tried. So for us it was like going home again, and being with family. I mean, we spent some time working in the old (fellow classic Philly-soul producer) Thom Bell room - that’s just like Thom left it - plus some of the actual musicians we used were actually the same string and horn players that had worked on the early (late Sixties/early Seventies) Gamble & Huff hits.”
Including on ‘Back To Now’ the funky, socio- political track ‘System’, a song the group had originally performed 33 years ago
NONA: “I originally wrote that song for that next 1977 Labelle album that we never made. And including it on this record came about because, as I mentioned earlier, it kinda created the signature and set the tone for this album. It enabled us to get to that ‘Back To Now’ place of continuation, as opposed to just trying to be a modern-music act. Basically that song in itself represented a direct line between where we stopped then and where we’re now picking up. And lyrically it’s talking about the control that’s exerted on individuals to conform and toe the line. You know, your innocence can be taken away by those who feel you don’t have a right to an individual VOICE. So, with the system being built to control you and keep you in line, ‘System’ talks about the ability for people to break out of that and become the exception to the rule. And to me it means even more today than it did when I first wrote it. Which is why I loved the rugged track Lenny created for it. Because to me it perfectly reflects the aggression that the ‘system’ represents.”
The significance of Labelle’s most famous hit, their 1975 US chart-topper ‘Lady Marmalade’ - which features on ‘Back To Now’ in a ‘Live Version’
NONA: “Our original recording of ‘Lady Marmalade’ to me is just ‘one of those records’ - the perfect song matched to the perfect vocal and the right producer (New Orleans’ Allen Toussaint). You know, it just has a convergence of all the right things making it work. Plus it’s infectious. Because, as soon as you hear that first groove on the intro, you just wanna bop your head and get up and dance! But then it also has social impact. Because lyrically it’s about what, at the time, was a no-no concept - prostitution, or sexual freedom. So it has a real power to it. It’s not just a piece of musical fluff. You know, although it does bring about a certain ‘up’ energy, it does have a statement in there as well.”
The group’s origins in Philadelphia in 1961, when Nona and Sarah - then of The Del Capris - joined Patti’s group The Ordettes
SARAH: “Both groups had the same manager - Mr. Montague was his name. And, when certain members of both groups decided they were no longer interested in music, he actually put the remaining members of both groups together into ONE group. Which is how together we became The Bluebelles! And recording-wise back in those times, we’d stand in an office that had been made into a studio and sing with two mics to an eight-track machine! And technically, if you made a mistake, you had to start all over again! The studio itself was actually in the basement of the man who owned the record company. His name was Holby Roberson, and he was also a car-dealer at the same time! Which - as you can gather - is very different from today, when record companies are big conglomerates, and everything is corporate and strategised to meet the demands of a vast international ‘public’, so to speak!”
The Bluebelles’ early days of performing, following their 1961 debut hit ‘I Sold My Heart To The Junkman’
NONA: “At first we were mainly performing in Philadelphia and around Pennsylvania, doing mostly auditoriums and school halls, and pretty much miming to the tracks. But then, because we were lucky enough to be able to sing, sometimes we’d actually sing along rather than just mime. So from there we then graduated to main theatres, like The Uptown Theatre in Philadelphia, The Apollo in New York, as well as also doing shows at The Fox Theatre in Brooklyn with a lot of the ‘British invasion’ artists like The Zombies, Tom Jones, The Yardbirds... Plus we opened up for The Rolling Stones on their first tour of America. I mean, this was a great sort of enthusiastic teenager time in America, when music was really beginning to take hold. It was the period going from your Bobby Darin’s or Frank Sinatra’s to a new teenage resurgence.”
SARAH: “And also, during that time , Philadelphia - our hometown - was the city that was producing most of the new singing stars. You know, Motown came along out of Detroit a little bit later.”
How the group’s name became changed along the way to ‘Patti Labelle & The Bluebelles’
SARAH: “We actually became ‘Patti Labelle & the Bluebelles’ very early on in our career. Because, when we first played at The Apollo Theatre, they told us there was already a group in the union that was named The Bluebelles. You know, we were there in New York; we couldn’t go back home; we were booked for The Apollo, and we had to do the show. So at that point our record-company owner changed our name to ‘Patti Labelle & The Bluebelles’. And so, when we signed to Atlantic Records in 1965, we signed as Patti Labelle & The Bluebelles! By that time we were playing theatres with artists like (early Sixties soul legends) Ben E. King and Chuck Jackson, and we’d actually stop the show doing those classic tunes like ‘Danny Boy’ and ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. So, once we signed with them, Atlantic decided to keep us within that vein and doing those type of songs.”
How Patti Labelle & The Bluebelles changed from a quartet to a trio in 1967, when long-time member Cindy Birdsong left to replace Florence Ballard in The Supremes
SARAH: “When Cindy left the group, we initially did try to find another member to keep it in a quartet mode. But then we decided, after numerous auditions, to just stay three and keep going that way. And at first we did lose money, because some promoters did want to take back one-fourth of payment for Cindy not being there. Plus what was also weird was that, though Cindy left to join The Supremes, at the time she left us The Supremes had not ‘officially’ split. So it was kind of strange at that time to watch (Supremes members) Diane and Mary and Florence sit on ‘The Tonight Show’ saying ‘We’re not breaking up’!... You know, while they were sitting there saying ‘We’re still together as a group’, our group had already been reduced to three and was losing money because of it!”
How, in 1970, a drastic image-change accompanied the trio’s name-change from ‘Patti Labelle & The Bluebelles’ to ‘Labelle’
PATTI: “Back when we started we were the sweethearts of The Apollo, doing ballads. Everybody in the group had the same dresses, the tiaras, the gloves... And for us it was ‘Thank God we have a job’! But then, after a while, it became boring being the same. Because, in the musical climate for girl-groups back then, every girl-group LOOKED the same, DRESSED the same… And so we decided to break OUT of it, and become ‘Labelle’! I mean, to be honest, I was always the one in the group who was a little afraid of change. But the others brought me into their world, convinced me that a change was needed... And I’m glad they DID!”
Bringing UK TV producer Vicki Wickham on board in 1970 as their manager, to help reinvent the group visually and musically
PATTI: “We approached her, she became our manger, and she basically had great thoughts about how we could totally change that girl-group dress-code and go into a different, outrageous new look. Because we felt that, if people SAW us looking crazy, then they might stop and LISTEN! So everything at that time was actually planned. Although we ourselves were not crazy, we just thought that if we DRESSED crazy we could get people’s ATTENTION! We felt we had a message, and we wanted you to LISTEN! And Vicki had - and still DOES have - great ideas about changing and doing different, almost shameless things. So, once she came up with the idea of changing our look and sound, we ourselves all came up with ideas on what exactly we wanted to wear, and got a great costume designer involved to make these beautiful, outrageous new clothes.”
How Labelle’s music and songs changed to embrace their new look and image
PATTI: “During all this time of change and first working with Vicki Wickham, we were actually based in London for about six months. And, while we were there, we were doing things with Elton John, The Rolling Stones... So we had a lot of influential people around us that had us listening to different musicians, and so we ended up putting songs like The Who’s ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ into our shows. So it became very interesting. Because now we were black women singing songs about sexual revolution and politics - you know, those things that black groups weren’t doing at that time, and still aren’t doing very much NOW. But, you know, we had the mindset to change the type of songs that we were doing, because it became almost a necessity. I mean, we couldn’t go out still singing those old, classic ballads with this crazy new look! And having a great songwriter like Nona Hendryx in the group made it easy for us to adapt to the visual change in terms of songs. Because I could give her a title or a thought - like ‘Can I Speak To You Before You Go To Hollywood’ - and the next day she’d come in with a finished song ABOUT that thought.”
Labelle’s role in paving the way for female groups to become more free-spirited
PATTI: “I think we were very much seen back then as ‘those women who took chances’. And, though a lotta people were at first shocked, I think we can say we were very lucky women. Because the music that we did on albums like ‘Nightbirds’ did impact on many people’s lives and help them. So yeah, we definitely were ahead-of our-time, and very much, I’d say, trend-setters.”
Why the group split without fanfare in 1976
PATTI: “It wasn’t the reason most people think. You know, most people think of the Diana Ross situation, when she left The Supremes to become a solo performer. I did not wanna BE a solo performer! In fact, it took me a full two years to go out onstage by myself! But what happened was, all three of us basically decided to leave at the same time. It wasn’t anything planned. It just happened that Nona wanted to do more of what she did; Sarah wanted to do more of what she did; and I wanted to do what I did. And so for us to stand onstage every night as Labelle, pretending we loved every moment, wouldn’t have been fair to us OR the audience. So we just walked away without telling anybody! But we certainly didn’t leave hating each other. I mean, we’ve stayed connected during our years apart. And, if we’d really left on bad terms, we wouldn’t have been doing the various concerts and recordings we’ve occasionally done together over the last 33 years!”
Labelle’s current and future plans in general
PATTI: “We just plan to keep on keeping on as Labelle and do whatever we’re gonna do together whenever it comes along. You know, it’s not ended, because there’s no reason FOR it to end. We’re currently on tour in The States and, when that finishes, our immediate hopes are to come over there to Europe and perform together too. You know, I love what I do as Patti LaBelle, and I also love what I do as a member of Labelle… So yeah, I genuinely feel very blessed right now to have the opportunity to do BOTH things!”
The album ‘Back To Now’ is out now through The Universal Music Record Label/Verve
Words PETE LEWIS