There’s Something in the Air: LaBelle

“Hey Sister, Go Sister, Soul Sister, Go Sister”

Most of us already know LaBelle even if we cannot name any other member besides Patti Labelle. However, Patti, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash, the last incarnation of one of the 70s most vivacious girl groups, deserve a place in everyone’s rock canon. Rock music doesn’t come to mind with Patti’s soaring gospel-inspired vocals, but the 70s incarnation of the group was very much entrenched in rock music and rock culture that survived the 1960s and colored the next decade.

Of course, the very heart of rock is rooted in gospel. Ray Charles. The Isley Brothers. James Brown. Little Richard. These men brought the church to the mainstream during the late 1950s and the 1960s. Yet they all benefited from the marriage of the sacred and the sacrilege with the likes of Sister Rosetta Tharpe who pioneered the electric guitar as early as the 1930s. LaBelle falls in line with this tradition.

In fact, the first incarnation of The Bluebelles, later Patti LaBelle and the Bluebells, included the previously mentioned trio and Cindy Birdsong and came from the girl groups of the 1950s complete with modest matching outfits. As a quartet, the group charted through the mid-60s and built a solid base of R&B fans while working the chitlin circuit. The group even scored a hit in 1965 with a cover of “Over the Rainbow” with their first album on the Atlantic label.

However, the group became a trio by 1968 with the departure of Birdsong, who went on to replace Florence Ballard in The Supremes. The personnel change was not the only difference in the group. British television producer Vicki Wickham had her eye on the group for some time and worked to convince them to change the trajectory of their musical direction. While taking a year off from performing, the group worked between New York and London on new songs. Not only did they eventually decide to shorten the name of the group to simply LaBelle, but they also traded their matching girl group outfits for clothing a bit more stylish and contemporary.

By 1971, the group was ready to re-emerge. With the release of a self-titled album, the women of LaBelle established themselves as part of rock canon with interpretations of songs by the Rolling Stones, Laura Nyro and Carole King. In fact, many fans will take the group’s version of “Wild Horses” over the Rolling Stones’ original. The opening notes of “Morning Much Better” is practically the polar opposite of the slow R&B ballads the group honed their skills on during the previous decade with a funky edge and rock attitude.

The trio also cowrote many tracks on the album as well. Sarah Dash made her contribution to “Baby’s Out of Sight” while Patti cowrote “Time” and collaborated with Nona on “Shades of Difference.” However, Nona proved herself a solo songwriter with “Too Many Days.” The album proved to be a mishmash of funk, pop and rock that the group made their own.

The cover of Nyro’s song on the album was not the last time they worked with the now-heralded Nyro. That same year, the group collaborated with her on her debut Gonna Take a Miracle. LaBelle’s gospel-infused vocals blend with Nyro’s on covers such as “The Bells,” “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” “Nowhere to Run,” and “Monkey Time/Dancing in the Street.” However, this collaboration harkens back to LaBelle’s girl group beginnings as they harmonized with Nyro’s lead vocals. Gonna Take a Miracle was more of an R&B outing, but an important one that cemented a lifelong friendship between Laura Nyro and Patti LaBelle.

The next year, the group released the album Moonshadow. While it contained covers of The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and Cat Steven’s “Moonshadow,” Nona wrote more than half of the album’s tracks. Sarah also wrote one track on the album. Perhaps this kept Moonshadow from being simply more of the same of the previous album and helped push the group in new directions. It could not be denied that LaBelle was doing something different from anything else on the scene.

The new direction of their music took them to their only album for RCA records, 1973’s Pressure Cookin’. The title track led off an album in a fast, furious and funky way. As with the previous album, Nona penned seven of the album’s nine tracks including “Sunshine Woke Me Up This Morning” and the sublime “(Can I Speak to You Before You Go To) Hollywood?” However, the standout on the album is an unlikely combination of Thunderclap Newman and Gil Scott-Heron, “Something in the Air/The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Yes, LaBelle got downright political with their interpretation of Scott-Heron’s most well-known track.

Furthermore, this new direction was noticeable in more than the music. The album cover shows the trio wearing the beginnings of the futuristic space heroine garb that would get them attention and color their live shows during the 70s. Yet, Pressure Cookin’ was still not a huge commercial success, but the group brought the look of glam rock (and what is now called afrofuturism) into R&B with their glittery, silvery space heroine getup.

The glam rock garb accompanied the group into 1974 when the trio traveled to New Orleans to work with Allen Toussaint on their first album for Epic Records. Toussaint was the man behind the Pointer Sisters’ debut in 1973. Vicki Wickham stayed on as the group’s executive producer, but LaBelle went in a much different direction with the 1974 album Nightbirds. The rock/soul infusion was still there, but soul and R&B overtook it with the New Orleans horns. Perhaps it’s fairer to say that Nightbirds is more eclectic rather than try to put it into a genre.

No matter what it’s called, Nona continued to find herself penning many of the group’s songs including the title track “Nightbird,” “Space Children,” “You Turn Me On,” “Somebody Somewhere” and the funky, piano-driven “Are You Lonely?” Of course, the album’s opening track, “Lady Marmalade,” remains the group’s most well-known song and finally elevated the group to star status. Between Patti’s vocal pyrotechnics and lyrics celebrating the sexual freedom of a lady of the night who completely turns out her johns, “Lady Marmalade” became an anthem and helped land the group as the first all-black group to be featured on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1975.

That same year, LaBelle followed the success of Nightbirds with one of the group’s most highly regarded albums Phoenix. Even though Patti’s lead vocals were most recognized with their smash hit, it was actually Nona who got most of the showcasing with this effort for which she wrote seven of the 10 tracks. Perhaps it was Nona’s songwriting as much as the vocals that makes Phoenix such a beautiful and hard to pin down album. Songs like “Phoenix (The Amazing Flight of a Lone Star)” have just as much of an opus quality as anything Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin were doing at the time. Sublime tracks like “Take the Night Off” continue to show that rock and gospel have been intwined since the beginning. It may be tempting to label some songs disco or funk, but this album encompassed so much more.

In 1976, LaBelle released what would be their final album, Chameleon. Chameleon is a rather eclectic mix of rock with tracks like “Who’s Watching the Watcher?” and gospel-infused tracks like “Isn’t It a Shame.” While Patti’s vocals once again take front and center in this outing, Nona wrote all but two of the album’s eight tracks including the rocker “Who’s Watching the Watcher.”

This last incarnation of LaBelle disbanded in 1977. Of course, Patti became the most visible of the three, but Nona and Sarah have also carved their own niches. Sarah continued to perform music, but she also became a successful actress as well. She has also performed with a variety of artists in a number of genres including Alice Cooper, The Rolling Stones and The Marshall Tucker Band. In fact, Keith Richards invited Sarah to tour with his band the X-Pensive Winos in 1988.

Nona also aligned herself with rock with her music as well. With her self-titled debut in 1977, Nona showed that she was just as much of a rock artist as she was a soul diva. The album has a much edgier rock influence than early LaBelle, which is almost an anomaly during the late 70s when many women were turning their attention to the ever growing popularity of disco. Nona shows herself to be just as much of a rock luminary of now recognized women like Pat Benatar and The Runaways. However, while Nona has continued as a rock artist, she has also dabbled in other styles while she collaborates with and influences a number of contemporary artists including Bounty Killer, Rahzel and Ded Prez’s M1.

Even though the group broke up in 1977, the women have found themselves gravitating back to each other. In 1995, the group first reunited to record a song for the soundtrack of cult film Too Wong Foo: Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. The song “Turn It Out” became a #1 dance hit. After a recording session with Lenny Kravitz in 2007, Patti, Nona and Sarah decided to reunite. Recording sessions and successful tours followed in 2008 and 2009.

Neither member of LaBelle shows any signs of slowing down. If that day ever comes, Nona, Patti and Sarah can all take comfort in knowing they have achieved an icon status that crosses genres, audience and even generations. LaBelle continues to have an influence in LGBTQ circles and those of us interested in the Afrofuturism movement sees its roots in pop culture through groups like LaBelle. Many black women also appreciate the sexual agency and freedom of which they sang in “Lady Marmalade,” bold move indeed given the sexual politics that continue to plague black women.

Many are also starting to recognize that LaBelle has a most important place in rock canon, continuing a legacy that began when the likes of Sister Rosetta Tharpe plugged in and rocked out, Ray Charles converted a traditional gospel song to R&B and The Isley Brothers brought the church tradition of shouting to the secular realm. Their influence can be found on black artists such as Santigold and Res who have mixed genres and styles in ways that make them completely original creations. At the very least, they do show us that black girls have been listening to and performing rock since the beginnings of its modern incarnations.

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