In the history of female groups, none has ever achieved the longevity, or experienced the kind of creative evolution, that Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash have. Since their original formation at the dawn of the girl-group era as The Bluebelles (with then-fourth member Cindy Birdsong) in 1961, through their incarnation as R&B powerhouse (Patti LaBelle & The Bluebelles), and on to their pioneering years as the unprecedented rock-soul-funk trio Labelle, Hendryx, LaBelle and Dash have remained peerless.
These three women spent fifteen years together with a consistent commitment to bringing energy, excitement and soul power to live performances, and cutting-edge innovation to a series of classic albums until 1976, when they separated without fanfare to pursue individual goals and aspirations. Thirty-two years later, with the release of a brand new Verve Records album (featuring such top notch producers as Lenny Kravitz, Gamble & Huff, and Wyclef Jean), the aptly titled Back to Now, Labelle is back on center stage.
Formed out of the merging of two Philadelphia/New Jersey-based groups in 1960, Patti LaBelle & The Bluebelles were imaginative and innovative from the start, choosing to interpret standards and classics such as “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” “Danny Boy” and their ultimate showstopper “Over The Rainbow” with soaring vocals and unique harmonies. Following their ’61 hit, “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman,” the original quartet toured extensively, bringing audiences to their feet at such venues as The Apollo in New York, The Uptown in Philadelphia and The Regal in Chicago.
Signed to Atlantic Records by legendary executive Jerry Wexler, the group cut two albums (the first of which included their version of “Groovy Kind Of Love”) without major chart success. With the departure of Birdsong to join The Supremes, the remaining three were in need of a radical change to survive changing musical times as the ‘70s dawned. Recalls Sarah Dash, “I wrote to Vicki Wickham [the producer of the British television show, Ready Steady Go! on which the group had appeared in 1965] and told her we needed management. She came to a show we did at The Apollo. We knocked the audience down to the ground that night! She said, ‘I have some ideas…’
Wickham brought Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp (the management team for The Who) of London-based Track Records and the group signed with the label, moving to the U.K. for a period of nearly six moths, trying different musical concepts and approaches at Wickham’s suggestion. Notes Patti, “What we were doing was kinda corny. We knew we needed to make a big move. I was afraid of change…but when it happened, it was a welcome change.” For Nona, “It was time to get out of the old and into the new. I’m always looking for change so I was excited and interested in discovering something new.”
When the newly-named trio Labelle returned to the U.S., the bouffant wigs were replaced with Afros, sequined gowns with jeans. Their 1971 debut set for Warner Brothers included material such as The Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses” and Carole King’s “You’ve Got A Friend” as well as tunes by Laura Nyro and new compositions by all three group members. The same year, Labelle teamed with Nyro for her groundbreaking album It’s Gonna Take A Miracle, produced by Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff, which featured much-loved songs of the ‘50s and ‘60s.
A national tour opening for The Who was followed by a second Warners album (Moonshadow) and by the time Labelle signed with RCA in 1973 (for the one-off Pressure Cookin’ album), the trio had traded in jeans for silver space suits and feathers. Working with New York designer Larry LeGaspi, Labelle visually bridged the chasm between R&B and glam rock. Labelle’s stage show was revamped: audiences were treated to Patti and Nona flying down from the ceiling and Sarah rising from the floor, bringing a combination of drama, power and high octane soulful vocalizing to the most diverse of crowds, culminating in a SRO show at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House in 1974.
That year, Labelle signed with Epic Records. Working with famed producer Allen Toussaint in New Orleans, the group created a breakthrough album with Nightbirds, spurred on by the across-the-board international success of the hit single “Lady Marmalade” (covered in 2001 by Christina Aguilera, Mya, Lil’ Kim and Pink). Whether on Rock Concert or Soul Train, in Rolling Stone or Jet,” Labelle’s futuristic blend of soul and rock found favor with audiences coast-to-coast. Featuring a number of tailor-made, distinctive compositions by Hendryx (such as “Going Down Makes Me Shiver” and “Messin’ With My Mind”), two strong albums in the form of 1975’s Phoenix and 1976’s Chameleon followed.
As all three agree, “Everyone had different directions they saw for themselves…”. Patti, Nona and Sarah forged individual pathways. Always remaining friends and staying in touch, the trio came back together in 1995 to record the No. 1 dance music hit “Turn It Out” for the movie, To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, and came together in 1999 (with Cindy Birdsong) to receive a prestigious R&B Foundation Pioneer Award.
After Nona found a song that was a tribute to civil rights leader Rosa Parks, “I asked Pat about us doing it as a group. Pat’s been talking about us getting back together for thirty years! I said, ‘we should either stop announcing it…or do it!’” For Patti, the idea of coming back together to record and tour was all about timing: “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, ‘I don’t want to half-step…I 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.”
The result of what Nona likes to call the trio’s “re-ignition” is a bold new album which embodies everything Labelle has ever been. With the group’s ever-distinct harmonies and high octane vocals, LaBelle, Hendryx and Dash bring something new and fresh to their latest work. Producers Lenny Kravitz, Gamble & Huff and Wyclef bring out the best in the trio. “I had just seen Kenny and Leon receiving their induction into The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame and Pat performed “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” recalls Sarah. “I called Kenny and asked if he would meet with us.” Nona brought Kravitz to the table: “We're friends and admirers of each other's work. We talked to him about the idea of us getting together and invited him to a session. He showed up that day at 5:00 and we haven't stopped working since."
“Working with Lenny was a blast!” says Patti. “He played every instrument, even sang all the leads on the tracks. That’s how good he is. Kenny and Leon are like brothers to me. I trust them and they let me take credit for being myself.” Notes Nona, “Working with both Lenny and Kenny & Leon was meant to be. I really think the music led us to the people who would understand the new Labelle credo 'back to now'. The past and the present, existing in the now!” Adds Sarah, “Lenny reminds me of the newness of today. I learned a lot from him. I really saw his vision for us, and Kenny and Leon took the old and brought us right up to today.”
The songs are a perfect fit: “Without You,” began as an original idea from Nona: “The initial impetus for writing the song was as an ode to Labelle. You could hear it as a traditional love song or as the sentiment behind our re-ignition as a group.” Kenny Gamble “had an idea for another section for the song,” says Nona, while Patti added her input to the song (“from the first time I heard it, I loved it”). The final result: a dramatic, intense ballad in the best tradition of Labelle, building and building with soaring vocals.
“Our audiences came to expect all three of us to sing lead on different songs,” says Sarah. “That made us unlike any other female group. That’s what we do on ‘System’.” It is, Nona says, “an old song, something we performed thirty years ago that was intended for our next Labelle record in 1977. It means more today than it did even then. I love the rugged track Lenny created for it, reflecting the aggression that the ‘system’ represents.” Patti: “It’s about what’s happening now. It’s about the lies that have been told. It’s about not doing what the system tells you but about following your heart…”
Other album highlights include “Candelight,” a Hendryx original (“That’s old-styled Labelle!” says Sarah), “Super Lover,” a Hendry/Celli collaboration, and two G&H productions: : a rocking version of Mother’s Finest’s “Truth Will Set You Free” and a dance classic cover of Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel Mighty Real.” Nona remembers, “I worked with Joyce Kennedy (of Mother’s Finest) with the ‘Daughters Of Soul’ tours I did in Europe and Asia. “Truth Will Set You Free” was a great song from a great band and I felt it was something we could do.” For the dance floor, what better choice than reviving a song made famous by a dear friend: Sarah smiles, “What can I say? Sylvester was an icon. I loved doing this. I got use all aspects of my vocal range on this track.” As Patti says, “It ain’t nothin’ but a jam. It’s gonna make you dance like a fool.”
Labelle, known for delivering a potent message-in-song have been given the perfect vehicle, courtesy Gamble & Huff with “Tears For The World,” a new 2008 classic, sweeping, driving, thought-provoking. Patti recalls, “I was in Kenny’s office. It wasn’t raining that day but it felt dark. Sarah had just shown me her diary in which she had written ‘Let’s pray.” Nona, “After he heard Pat talking, Leon (Huff) went away and came back with the song. It talks about all the things we want to change.”
Concludes Nona, “Our new album is like going home and eating your Mom’s cooking, if your Mom was a good cook, that is!” Labelle sings of change, of love, of sex. A genre-shattering female trio who had social, musical and political statements to make in the ‘70s, re-emerge with the same kind of triple-threat power, bringing it all back to now.