Weird, wondeful Labelle

“I’m diabetic and menopausal,” Patti LaBelle declared early on during Labelle’s show last night at the Jackie Gleason Theater (aka the Fillmore Miami Beach). She was apologizing — well, explaining really; LaBelle ne regrette rien — for her sweat, and crankiness, and generally rather bizarre behavior. No worries: Being a diva means never having to say you’re sorry. And catching Labelle on their reunion tour means catching three divas in their creative primes. And yes, I know that LaBelle, Nona Hendryx, and Sarah Dash are all in their mid-’60s.

Combining the truly amazing and underappreciated voice of LaBelle with Dash’s and Hendryx’s also impressive vocals and Hendryx’s songwriting prowess, Labelle was perhaps the most important girl group of all time. They bridged the era of the ’60s manicured vocal groups with ’70s rock and funk, and were instrumental in the creation of disco. Songs like “Get You Somebody New” and “Lady Marmalade” are classic feminist anthems. I recently interviewed Dash, Hendryx, and their old manager Vicki Wickham for the Herald (I interviewed Patti several years ago): check out the article. (also pasted below).

The show was off the hook and off the wall. Allegedly when the Blue Belles became Labelle, backup singers Hendryx and Dash were empowered — but LaBelle definitely still rules the stage. A couple numbers in, she kicked off her shoes, sending them sailing across the stage, then soon replaced them with one of several pairs of pumps arrayed on the piano. She frequently checked herself in a hand-held mirror. When the singers came out for the second half, she went up to Dash, reached inside her band member’s dress and ripped out her shoulder pads (apparently, they were sticking out). At show’s end, Patti peeled off her false eyelashes and handed them to fans.

Weird, yes, but endearing too — and definitely not scripted. Besides, oh, can she sing (though the reverb was way too thick). They all had on the kind of funky outfits they’re famous for — the same ones on the cover of Back to Now, their reunion CD. Hendryx looked like a statuesque goddess in a tight catsuit. She bumped and ground some male fans who came on stage for “Lady Marmalade.” At show’s end, she climbed on top of the bass drum and played the high-hat and cymbals with her bare feet.

The show was wacky and uneven but full of energy. During the audience interaction part of the show, one fan recalled seeing them playing New York’s Continental Baths every other week in New York, back in the ’70s. Labelle’s never been accorded their proper place in history — those seeing them now can get a sense of what was. And if they’re like this at 64, imagine how they must have kicked it in their 20s.

Just like they never left — Labelle is back
BY EVELYN McDONNELL
In 1970, the three singers who comprised the group Patti LaBelle and the Blue Belles needed a change. In their nine years together, they’d had moderate success as a harmonizing vocal trio. But the girl group era was over, and Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash needed to either shake up their formula, or break up.

Enter Vicki Wickham, former producer of Ready Steady Go. She and Dash had stayed in touch since the Blue Belles performed on that influential English TV show. When Dash told Wickham the Blue Belles were in crisis, the Londoner flew to New York to see the group perform in its old stronghold, the Apollo Theatre. ”We blew the Apollo away,” Dash says now. “We actually had them laid out.”

Wickham took the singers back to swinging London and became their manager. Thus began a makeover that was almost a revolution, as girl group became rock band.

The group, newly renamed Labelle, evaporated aesthetic barriers with its atomic mix of soul, rock, dance and gospel, most famously on the proto-disco smash Lady Marmalade. Breaking out of the usual R&B circuit in space-oddity costumes and recording feminist anthems penned by Hendryx, they broke new ground for black and female artists.

”There was nothing or no one like Labelle,” Hendryx recalls thinking when, in preparation for the group’s current reunion, she went back to listen to those old albums. “No wonder our fans were so crazy about us, and why we attracted the multiracial, multisexual and multicultural crowd we did.”

Forty-eight years since the trio first joined, and 32 years after they separated over creative differences, Labelle is back. Last fall, the three founding members released the CD Back to Now, featuring producers Lenny Kravitz, Wyclef Jean, and Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff. A tour brings them to Miami Beach’s Fillmore at the Jackie Gleason Theater on Sunday.

”It feels really good,” says Dash. “There are moments during the show when it seems like we never left. The moment we walk on and hear the audience’s response to our being together lets me feel like something very important is happening.”

THE BLUE BELLES

The Blue Belles formed out of two girl groups, the Ordettes and the Del Capris. All the singers were from New Jersey, except for LaBelle, who was from Philadelphia. (Founding member Cindy Birdsong left in 1967 to join the Supremes.) They had such minor hits as I Sold My Heart to the Junkman. By the end of the ’60s, the group was suffering from bad management and a dropped deal with Atlantic. But mostly, history was on the verge of passing them by.

”Times had changed,” says Hendryx. “The world had changed. We’d gone from the cocktail hour, picket fence, suburban dream to free love and the British invasion. Feminism was coming into being. We’d gone through civil rights. So much had happened, and we were still the same pretty much.

Gradually — organically, Hendryx says — Labelle began to reinvent itself. Out went the old-fashioned bouffants and matching dresses; in came futuristic, funky outfits by Larry LeGaspi and Richard Erker. ”Vicki said there was no reason we have to all wear the same gowns and hairdos,” Dash recalls. “She looked at it as presenting females in a different way.”

Wickham similarly transformed the group’s sound from one of close harmonies to an interplay of three women belting to be heard in the stars. ”They were very stuck in a sort of conventional arrangement of lead with some backup,” Wickham says. “I felt groups should be a group. One person didn’t have to sing all the leads if others were capable. Three great voices could be brought much more to the front. The songs were not pretty songs, they were much more rock, and needed singing with a different attitude.”

Some of those songs were being written by Hendryx, encouraged by Wickham and the band’s new freedom. ”There was a connection to me for sharing ideas and feelings, which I thought I wanted to do by being an educator, which is what I intended to do with my life,” Hendryx says. “By writing and connecting that to music and voice, it became obvious what I was really meant to do.”

LaBelle was worried about alienating Blue Belles fans. ”Pat was totally resistant to change. She didn’t want to change the name, her costume — she didn’t want to do anything differently,” says Wickham. But the singer’s followers “still came because they were intrigued to see what Patti LaBelle was doing. Even before the costumes we were getting such a diverse crowd, from the gay crowd, obviously, who saw something in these women who were outspoken and singing songs about sex, about religion, the revolution will not be televised — things they’d never heard women sing before. A sort of intellectual crowd hooked onto them. And then with the costumes came an even bigger gay crowd.”

Gay men related to these extravagant divas in the process of reinvention. Women saw them as mold-breakers. And Labelle smashed through a racial barrier when they became the first black group to play the New York Metropolitan Opera House.

”The feminist thing, we didn’t realize we were as strong as we were. We did set a precedent. Look now: We were the innovators, we changed the whole look of black artists period,” Dash says.

TIME FOR A BREAK

But by 1976, the women were ready to go their own ways. ”They needed to break up,” Wickham says. “They’d been together so long, they needed their own lives.”

LaBelle went on to have her own extremely successful career as a chart-topping singer, as well as a cookbook author. Hendryx had found her idiosyncratic voice and recorded several acclaimed new wave and funk records; she’s now working on a performance art show with an ”audio tutu.” Dash played on the disco circuit, then recorded with Keith Richards and the Xpensive Winos. She worked often with club legend Sylvester, who died of complications from AIDS in 1988, and remembers her last performance with him, in Fort Lauderdale.

”I remember us sitting by the pool that day,” Dash says. ‘He had these beautiful sunglasses on and a wrap around his head. All these people were coming up to us, and he said, `Tonight will tell it all.’ Meaning there was so much love, tonight will tell us how much they really love us. It was one of the most fabulous shows I have ever done. And it was the last time I ever saw him.”

LaBelle, Hendryx and Dash got together for a few songs and performances over the years. They approached their reunion tentatively. LaBelle wanted to make sure they still had their sound. They did.

”Chemistry is what kept it going,” Wickham says. “It was still there, and the sound was still there.”

Back to Now features nine new tracks and one from the vaults. Hendryx said it was important that they record new songs, rather than just be another oldies act, regurgitating the past. Dash says that once again, Labelle is making history: “We have an opportunity now to show them that this can happen in the industry. We’re setting examples: One being that we are the original members and we have come back after 30 years. And then the ages that we are, not trying to blow that up to make it more important than music. But to be able to say to others, it’s never too late to enforce your creative dreams.”

© 2009 Miami Herald Media Company. All Rights Reserved.

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