By Duane Wells and Stayce Holte
Hey sister soul sister, go sister, soul sister
Hey sister soul sister, go sister, soul sister
–LaBelle / Lady Marmalade
In the moments before the landmark Wear Something Silver concert at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1974, I can still remember standing backstage listening to my grandma Chubby fussing at my pregnant aunt Patsy about descending from the ceiling and jumping around wildly on the stage as she normally did during her shows. Chubby feared that all that activity might make the baby come early and she was having none of it. All I kept thinking was, ‘Why is Patsy dressed like Big Bird? And why are Sarah and Nona dressed like characters from outer space?’ Little did I know that, as I sat there in the front row of that grand venue, amid all those flamboyant gay characters swathed in silver from head to toe, I was watching history being made. I was LaBelle’s biggest fan under the age of ten. To me they were the favorite aunties I had grown up watching rehearse in the living room, but to the world they were revolutionaries…the original soul sisters.
As the incendiary soul-rock trio that was LaBelle, Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash defined girl power long before the Spice Girls ever warbled their very first notes.
Transforming themselves from a talented, if standard-issue, tiara-wearing sixties girl group, into a sexy, genre-bending, rock supernova, LaBelle defied convention and categorization in the free lovin’ seventies and in the process forever reshaped the role of women in music. While their contemporaries sang light-hearted disco and sweet songs about love, LaBelle evolved a unique sound that democratically blended glam rock, funk, soul and gospel with an eclectic repertoire of songs that spoke frankly about sex, racism, revolution and prostitution. Whereas a then solo Diana Ross became the queen of mainstream pop with songs like “Love Hangover” and “Do You Know Where You’re Going To?”, the ladies of LaBelle became the darlings of the underground, alternative music universe with experimental tracks like “Going Down Makes Me Shiver” and their remake of “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”
Dressed in shimmering, psychedelic sci-fi couture paired with sky-high platforms, LaBelle played to both towel-clad audiences at gay bathhouses alongside Bette Midler and to the cultural elite. They opened for legendary acts like The Who and The Rolling Stones and became the first rock group ever to shake the rafters atManhattan’s Metropolitan Opera House with their historic Wear Something Silver concert in 1974. They even supported music great Laura Nyro on her classic Gonna Take A Miracle album and found themselves supported during their British reinvention by a then unknown Elton John, who played piano for them in their backup band under his birth name, Reginald Dwight.
However unwittingly, the three independent thinking black women behind the socially conscious LaBelle, who got their start doo-wopping on the Chitlin’ Circuit with seminal hits like “I Sold My Heart To The Junkman,” united their talents in an extraordinary way for a space in time and together broke new ground with provocative lyrics, gut-wrenching, revival-like performances and a sense of theatricality that brought together the rich and the poor, the gay and the straight and the saint and the sinner. It is a feat that had never before been accomplished by a female band, black or white, and one that has never been achieved since.
In 1976 LaBelle disbanded, with lead singer Patti LaBelle going on to become one of pop and R&B’s grande dames amassing a number of solo hits and prestigious accolades of her own along the way. Similarly Nona Hendryx has found solo success both as a chart-topping recording artist and in-demand songwriter, while Sarah Dash has enjoyed a diverse post-LaBelle career in which she has notched dance hits, performed on Broadway and recorded with some of the biggest names in the music business.
Now, thirty years later as self-described “grown ass women”, the members of LaBelle are back together in a Philadelphia recording studio working on a new album and planning a new tour. Though their careers have taken them in wildly divergent directions over the years, they have found that little has changed about their dynamic over the last three decades.
“It’s like a family re-union where you haven’t seen your family members for a long time,” Hendryx says of being back together with Patti and Sarah in the studio. “Like anything the creative process is a birthing period. There’s joy and pain attached to it…[but]…the joyful moments override everything.’
“When it comes to our personalities what we’re looking at is that for the first time we’re women and we’re allowing each other to be who we are without finding it offensive to our purpose and that is our music,” says Sarah.
“We compromise and guess what else we do? We fight!” Patti chimes in.
“Our personalities are all f*!#d up! The problems that we had when we left each other 35 years ago are still the same but in having these talks we bring out the bad points of each other ok?” Patti says bluntly.
“We’ll tell each other what we don’t like. That way, when we go into the studio tonight because we’re recording our first songs with Kenny Gamble, we’ll know what pisses each other off and then come together like sisters and sing the crap out of it. I mean, I’m gonna’ always fight. I’m a Gemini and I’m never the same. I’m going through menopause and have diabetes and I’m an evil bitch! But we’re blending well. Nona’s still a great writer. As far as I’m concerned she’s one of the better writers in the universe. We work through the music. Sometimes Nona comes into the studio with the music and lyrics and then we go into the studio…and give birth to a beautiful baby,” Miss Patti concludes.
Making beautiful musical offspring is at least in part what inspired the ladies of Labelle to reunite.
“I think what we have to offer is that kind of healing balm that we were to people thirty years ago. The world needs all the healing that it can get,” Nona offered thoughtfully when asked why Labelle decided to get back together.. “Songs like ‘What Can I Do For You?’ and ‘Are You Lonely?’ – to be able to bring that to people again, I think that’s why we’re back together. I don’t know whether we know that, but a lot of times forces outside of us are working.”
Patti’s reason for reuniting with LaBelle is more personal however. She cites the “need for each other” as a big part of her decision. “Usually when groups do reunions, they use the original lead singer and two anybodies. If we were going to do it, we wanted to do it with the real girls…the originals. A lot of LaBelle fans are missing this music. They’ve been waiting for it.”
Picking up on that point, Sarah adds, “We are music messengers. There are kids whose parents heard our music and now they want to see what the heck their parents were so excited about. They look back and they say, ‘Oh wow, I’d like to see them coming out on a space ship.’”
What has not spurred the return of LaBelle, however, is the recent attention their music has gotten from contemporary acts like Common, Sugababes and Christina Aguilera, all of whom have sampled or covered some of the group’s best known hits in the not so distant past..
“It was such a compliment to have people sampling our music. Knowing that we still mean something to the younger generation of artists means so much. But with that said, it didn’t inspire us to go back into the studio together,” Patti says.
“Evidently we made a mark when we did what we did but that didn’t give us the incentive to come back together…it was way before those trolls did our music” Labelle says laughing. “That’s just my word I use in love, they’re not really trolls!” She goes on to explain.
For their new album, the legendary ladies of LaBelle plan to continue pushing boundaries and making history. So far they’ve teamed up to record three tracks produced by popular rocker Lenny Kravitz, with whom they expect to make more music. They are also laying down tracks with legendary Philly soul producer Kenny Gamble. But, though their new music promises to challenge the conscience, don’t expect Labelle’s latest offering to be quite as racy or titillating as their earlier work or for their stage performances to involve Patti descending from the ceiling with twenty foot wide silver wings. After all, they’re no longer wide-eyed young girls.
“It’s kinda difficult to say we’d like to be just as revolutionary now because we’re really at a different time in our lives. But we’d still love to give a real show to people. We’ll see how that’s going to come about. We’re going to have to work with people and see how we can present ourselves so that we don’t look like we’re trying to be Destiny’s Child when we’re actually Destiny’s grandmothers,” Nona says choking back a laugh.
“We have to make sure that we’re doing things that are age-appropriate, that show the feminine side of us…the women that we are…[and]… the messages that we want to bring. Pat does that anyway in what she does today and I think Sarah and I do that but you know Pat, because she is who she is, has continued her shows and has brought that kind of performance to an audience. We’ll see what happens as we go along. We’ll see what we’ll create,” Hendryx continued.
Whatever Patti, Nona and Sarah create next it will undoubtedly get tremendous support from the gay and lesbian community who embraced Labelle’s original artistry when mainstream audiences didn’t. A favor none of the group’s members have forgotten.
“I mean, truly, without the gay community LaBelle would not have been,” Nona says flatly.
“We’ve had a gay audience who supported us when all of our product wasn’t what John Q. Public wanted to hear but they’ve still supported us down through the years anyway,” says Sarah.
“Some things they voiced that they didn’t really like but they were still there. It’s like having a family that loves you in spite of and still tells you the truth. Yet when we were on the stage, they’d take us to where we were going because the wilder we got, the bigger our gay following became and they loved Nona’s writing and Patti’s voice and they meant a lot to us because that community set the pace for what was going on in America,” Dash continued.
“I think also, the transformation from the Bluebelles to LaBelle, there was a huge gay community within the arts and they were our friends and they helped shape LaBelle,” adds Nona.
“Larry LeGaspi and Richard Erker were the designers of our look. We didn’t ask them to make us look like the way we did, it just evolved out of our relationship with them. There were twelve of them in their group that came to all our shows. Even when we were playing tiny little spots in the Village going through our transformation, they were there all the time. There are many people in the gay community who have booked us in concert, have worked as our roadies, it’s just a part of the community of the arts,” she continues.
Thinking back on the impact their gay fans have had on their careers, clearly made the women of LaBelle more contemplative when they reflected about the imprint that they hoped their music and their performances would leave on the world of entertainment.
“I would hope people would think of us as three positive women doing things before most women thought of it. That we were taking chances, making people look at us by the way dressed crazy. Then after they looked, they were finally held captive and they had to listen. We took the chance. We took the chance to ask if we could play the Metropolitan Opera House. When no would think of three black women performing there, we did that. When we went out it was like an event. It wasn’t just a show it was monumental,” says Patti.
Clarifying LaBelle’s point Sarah Dash added, “What we want to leave with the industry is that you can be different women…you can be creative…and you can take risks. Every day in the workforce you hear women who often times want to leave their mark on the corporate world. I guess without thinking we did leave a mark on the world. We want to say to people that you can take a risk. You can stay away from each other, come back and still make music. Also you can see that who you are never leaves you. You just become more mature. Let that be a legacy.”
Sixty-plus and still going strong, Patti, Nona and Sarah stand poised to spark yet another revolution in music. While their contemporaries rest on their laurels, LaBelle continues to test new waters while simultaneously inspiring a new generation of artists. They may no longer descend onto the stage wearing silver metallic costumes or croon lyrics too sexy for radio, but they are coming back nonetheless. They are still the original soul sisters and there can be no gitchy, gitchy yaya dada about that.