Labelle is an American all female singing group who were a popular vocal group of the 1960s and 1970s. The group was formed after the disbanding of two rival girl groups in thePhiladelphia/Trenton areas, the Ordettes and the Del-Capris, forming as a new version of the former group, later changing their name to The Blue Belles (later Bluebelles). The founding members were Patti LaBelle (formerly Patricia Holt), Sundray Tucker, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash. Tucker left before the group cut their first record and was replaced by Cindy Birdsong.
As The Bluebelles, and later Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles, the group found success with ballads in the doo-wop genre, most notably, "Down the Aisle (The Wedding Song)", "You'll Never Walk Alone" and "Over the Rainbow". After Birdsong departed from the group to join The Supremes in 1967, under the advice of Vicki Wickham, the group changed its look, musical direction and style and reformed as Labelle, in 1971. Their funk rock recordings of that period were cult favorites and they were raved for their brash interpretation of rock and roll and for dealing with subject matter that was not touched by black groups. Finally after adapting glam rock and wearing outlandish space-age and glam rock-adorned costumes, the group found success with the proto-disco smash, "Lady Marmalade", in 1974, leading to their parent album, Nightbirds, becoming a platinum success. They are notable for being the first contemporary pop group and first black pop group to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House.
The group went on their own after the end of a tour in 1976 going on to have significant amount of solo success, especially Nona Hendryx, who followed an idiosyncratic muse into her own solo career, which often bordered on the avant-garde and Patti LaBelle, who's enjoyed a very successful Grammy-winning solo career.
The group returned with their first new album in 32 years with 2008's Back to Now.
History [edit | edit source]
Sweethearts of The Apollo [edit | edit source]
In 1958, Patricia "Patsy" Holt formed her first singing group, the Ordettes in her Philadelphia hometown, after being influenced by The Chantels and The Shirelles and solo female performers such as Mahalia Jackson, Clara Ward andDinah Washington. Around 1959, Holt and fellow Ordette member Sundray Tucker met and befriended a rival girl group from Trenton, New Jersey, not too far from Philadelphia, named the Del-Capris, which featured friends Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash. Shortly afterwards, both groups disbanded and the Ordettes' then-manager Bernard Montague insisted Holt and Tucker join forces with Hendryx and Dash. The girls, loving the camaraderie between them, reformed the Ordettes. In 1960, due to failing grades, Tucker was forced to drop out of the group. Needing a replacement, Holt contacted a longtime neighborhood friend, Cindy Birdsong, who had moved back to Philadelphia from Camden, New Jersey where she was attending college to study a life as a nurse. However, after Holt contacted her of the Ordettes needing a new member to replace Sundray Tucker, Birdsong immediately decided to drop out of college and join the group. At 20 years old, she was the eldest member of the group (Holt was 16, Hendryx was 15 and Dash was only 14).
After performing in several talent shows for a year, the group found a record label with the local Newtown Records. Before signing the group, the label's president, Harold Robinson, was unimpressed with the physical looks of Holt, telling staff he felt Holt was "too dark and too unattractive" to be the lead singer. When Holt sung during the group's audition, however, the president changed his mind, and soon signed the group. Shortly afterwards, Robinson advised the group to change its name to one of Newtown's subsidiaries, Blue Belle Records. As The Blue Belles, their first single was ironically a song that the group didn't participate in - "I Sold My Heart to the Junkman" was, as explained in Patti LaBelle's memoirs, Don't Block the Blessings, originally recorded by The Starlets, then riding high on their hit single, "Tell Him No" and were on the road when the song was released, unable to promote it. Robinson credited the song to the Blue Belles, who later were sent to promote the song, which peaked at the top twenty of the Billboard Hot 100, in 1962. Following a potential lawsuit from a president of another record label for using the name Blue Belles, Robinson gave Holt the stage name, Patti La Belle (La Belle means French for "the beautiful one"), and altered the group's name to Patti La Belle and Her Blue Belles. In 1963, the group recorded two albums for Newtown, a Christmas album titled Sleigh Bells, Jingle Bells and Blue Bells, and a faux-live album (compiled from their studio recordings with an added audience track), Sweethearts of the Apollo, taking from a title giving to them after the group successfully performed at the Apollo Theater, however the group failed to match their live success with any following records and left Newtown for more established Cameo-Parkway Records, releasing the top 40 hit, "Down the Aisle (The Wedding Song)".
The group performed constantly with Murray the K and also performed on the infamous chitlin' circuit. The group, which consisted of sweet, soulful harmonies, and gospel backgrounds, set themselves differently from more pop-oriented girl groups such as The Ronettes, The Marvelettes and The Supremes, gaining an audience. In 1964, the group had another top 40 hit with their version of "You'll Never Walk Alone", later reappearing on American Bandstand singing the song. After releasing their third album, another live performance at the Apollo, the group looked to find fame after Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegun offered the group a deal.
Move to Atlantic and Cindy Birdsong's departure [edit | edit source]
In 1965, Atlantic Records signed the Bluebelles to a contract, again altering their name to simply Patti LaBelle and The Bluebelles. Following a year in the studio, the band released their first studio album, Over the Rainbow, which was modestly successful and included the modest pop hit, "All or Nothing" and the soon-to-be R&B standard, "Over the Rainbow". The latter hit won them more fans as they began touring outside the United States, first opening for The Rolling Stones. Due to their UK exposure, the group toured constantly in the region, appearing on an episode of Ready Steady Go!, produced by their future manager Vicki Wickham, and also touring with Reginald Dwight's band, Bluesology, backing them up. Around this same time, the group began to work behind the scenes as session singers, filling in backgrounds for the likes of artists such as Wilson Pickett. They were famously featured singing background on Pickett's 1966 hit, "634-5789 (Soulsville, U.S.A.)".
The group seemed destined for stardom after the release of their second album, Dreamer, which featured the soulful title track, the hit "Take Me For a Little While" and their cover of The Impressions' "I'm Still Waiting", which each gave them moderate chart success. However, promotion of the album and its singles stopped abruptly when Cindy Birdsong, who had spent months as a stand-in for Supremes founder Florence Ballard, suddenly left the Bluebelles to become a full-fledged member of The Supremes. Following Birdsong's departure, Sundray Tucker briefly filled in Cindy's place while touring. The group fell out of sync as grittier soul artists such as Aretha Franklin and psychedelic rock artists such as Sly and the Family Stone and The Jimi Hendrix Experience emerged, making the girl group sound out of date with the public. The group struggled with recordings and were forced to take whatever performance offers they were given. In 1970, the Bluebelles were dropped from their Atlantic contract. Their longtime manager, Bernard Montague, would also leave them that year to focus his full-time on fellow Philly group, The Delfonics. After almost signing with Frankie Crocker and Herb Hamlett as their managers, the group settled on Vicki Wickham, after Dusty Springfield, who was also managed by Wickham and was a fan of the Bluebelles insisted Wickham worked with them.
Reinvention [edit | edit source]
Wickham advised the group to move to London and change their entire image and sound, something Patti LaBelle later admitted she felt real uncomfortable with, saying she was okay with the way things were going. LaBelle had fears when the group returned to America with their new laid-back image that they would be booed and heckled for betraying fans with a new sound and look. Wickham advised them to change their name to simply Labelle and adapt a rocksound while keeping the group's R&B roots intact. After a year in London, the group returned to the United States and signed with the Track Records imprint and a distribution deal with Atlantic's sister label Warner Bros. Records, later being sent out on the road as the opening act to The Who. The group's producer Kit Lambert signed on to produce Labelle's debut album on Warner Bros. Records, which came out in 1971. The album was notable for their inspired soulful covers of The Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses" and Laura Nyro's "Time and Love". It was also notable for the first known compositions by member Nona Hendryx, who co-wrote with LaBelle, the socially conscious "Shades of Difference". The album's first single, the sexually charged, "Morning Much Better" was co-written by future disco hit-maker Michael Zager.
In the same year Labelle was produced, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff hired the group to partake in backing up Laura Nyro on her acclaimed covers album, Gonna Take a Miracle. Nyro and LaBelle later became best friends and Nyro became a godmother of LaBelle's son Zuri in 1973. Nyro and the group later toured together continuing into 1974. That same year, they vocally contributed to Nikki Giovanni's Peace Be Still. During the Nyro recordings, Gamble & Huff had approached the group to record a song about a marriage breaking up after ten years titled "If You Don't Know Me By Now". It's unknown if Labelle themselves recorded it but due to conflicting recording and touring schedules, the song was never put on Labelle's follow-up Warner Bros. album, Moon Shadow and Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes recorded the song making it a hit. In 1972, the group's second album, Moon Shadow, came out, notably featuring more compositions from Nona Hendryx. Though Patti LaBelle and Sarah Dash had some parts in writing some songs for the group, Hendryx would emerge at the end of 1972 as the dominant songwriter of the three. Moon Shadow again featured Labelle doing gospel-influenced renditions of rock and roll numbers including the title track (originally by Cat Stevens) and The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" and another sexually intense Hendryx composition, "Touch Me All Over". The group debuted their then-Afrocentric look on the show, Soul, in 1972. The group received critical acclaim for these works but neither attracted commercial attention. Following the release of Moon Shadow and its relative failure, Warner Bros. dropped them from their contract. In 1973, the group accepted a one-off deal with RCA Records to produce their next record, the transitional Pressure Cookin' album, released shortly after LaBelle gave birth to her son.
It was during promotion of the album that Wickham once again advised the group to change their look. Inspired by the emerging glam rock sounds and styles of Marc Bolan and David Bowie, the group adapted a more flamboyant image. The album itself had glam rock influences and was notable for the group's impassioned, shocking take of "Something in the Air" which segued into Gil Scott Heron's acclaimed "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised". Despite their new image and Hendryx's growth as a songwriter (the song "Hollywood", or "(Can I Speak to You Before You Go To) Hollywood", allegedly dedicated to Cindy Birdsong, was a notable highlight in their career) and the presence of Stevie Wonder on the single, "Open Your Heart", Pressure Cookin' again failed to attract a commercial audience. Despite this, a cult following began to develop and following the group opening for The Rolling Stones on their U.S. tour, the group switched labels, going to CBS Records in 1974, signing with the subsidiary Epic.
Success [edit | edit source]
After Allen Toussaint offered to produce the group's next album, Labelle spent two weeks in New Orleans working on what became Nightbirds. More inspired by Elton John, who they would be reacquainted with since Elton's band Bluesology had originally backed the former Bluebelles, and Bowie, the group wore more wilder outfits with each member adapting their own flamboyant style to their distinctive looks. They debuted this new image while opening for The Stones. After Nightbirds was released in September 1974, the group went on a U.S. tour. That October, the group made history by performing at the Metropolitan Opera House in a concert later billed as "Wear Something Silver", as the members of Labelle were now wearing silver, metallic wear equipped with feathers and silver platform boots, which later inspired George Clinton to adapt a similar look for his band, Funkadelic, two years later, also adapting the space-age lyrical and musical matter, pioneered by Nona Hendryx and Labelle. The success of the concert gave them rave reviews and soon radio airplay increased with the album's leading single, "Lady Marmalade", released shortly after the performance at the Met.
Famed for its come-hither chorus ("Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?", French for "Do you wanna sleep with me, tonight?"), "Lady Marmalade" became an instant success and by March 1975 had become the number-one hit in the country and also was an international hit. The success sent Nightbirds to the top ten of the Billboard 200 album chart, eventually selling a million copies. "Lady Marmalade" was also a million-seller, the group's first-ever, making the group, after a sixteen-year tenure, overnight successes. They had modest chart success with the dance single, "What Can I Do For You". Both songs became important in the development of disco and also pushed funk to the mainstream. Following this success, Labelle made history again as they became the first predominantly black group to be featured on the cover of Rolling Stone. Labelle embarked on an international tour as headliners. After returning to the states, the group later reassembled in New Orleans to record their follow-up to Nightbirds. The follow-up, Phoenix, featured the singles "Messin' With My Mind" and "Far As We Felt Like Goin'". While it charted at a respectable number 44 on the pop chart and was again a critical success, it failed to repeat the success of Nightbirds and the group never again had a hit as huge as "Lady Marmalade". In 1976, the group worked with David Rubinson on their next album, Chameleon, which featured the hits "Get You Somebody New" and "Isn't It a Shame", the latter song Patti LaBelle mentions as the last song the group ever recorded together.
Decline and breakup [edit | edit source]
Though they had achieved stardom, the group members of Labelle were never satisfied with their music. This dissatisfaction slowly led to the group's implosion as they could no longer agree on a musical sound. For years, Patti LaBelle had longed to return to the ballads she had enjoyed singing while the group was the Bluebelles. Nona Hendryx, who was in favor of the glam rock image and style, wanted to record more music of that caliber but often found herself in conflict with the label and even her own band mates. Sarah Dash wanted the group to record more disco, a genre neither LaBelle nor Hendryx took favorably, despite the fact that "Lady Marmalade" helped to pioneer that particular genre.
The group was actually recording another album, Shaman, when the group finally came unglued during their U.S. tour. Despite trying to keep an image of unity and sisterhood that had often been the message of Labelle, tensions between the band mates grew. Finally during a show in Baltimore on December 13, 1976, according to Patti LaBelle in her memoirs, Don't Block The Blessings, Hendryx snapped. Before going into their famous number, "(Can I Speak To You Before You Go To) Hollywood", the singer suddenly left the stage. When LaBelle and Dash found Hendryx, she had suffered a nervous breakdown, tearing up her dressing room. Hendryx was later taken to a hospital for mental evaluation. Feeling the group had reached the end of its rope, LaBelle advised Hendryx and Dash to disband the group, ending it as long as their friendship remained intact. Eventually the group agreed to go their separate ways, announcing their split in early 1977, repairing their friendship. All three members, shortly afterwards, embarked on solo careers.
Solo careers and reunions [edit | edit source]
Of the three members to embark on solo careers, lead singer Patti LaBelle was the most successful, crossing over to pop in the 1980s with hits such as "New Attitude" and "On My Own". LaBelle would later win two Grammys and would receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Sarah Dash found more success as a side-woman collaborating with the likes of Keith Richards and released several dance recordings that found modest success. The experimental Nona Hendryx recorded hard rock, hip-hop, house and new age, finding her biggest chart success with the dance-pop single, "Why Should I Cry?"
All three members collaborated on each other's projects over the years following their 1977 split. LaBelle appeared in a couple of albums by Hendryx and Dash attributing background vocals and, in the case of Dash, a duet. In 1991, 15 years after their last recordings together, the group reunited on Patti LaBelle's Burnin', recording the funky "Release Yourself", another Hendryx composition. Hendryx and LaBelle co-wrote the latter's hit, "When You've Been Blessed (Feels Like Heaven)" on the same album. The group performed their reunion song at The Apollo Theater during a televised special there to help LaBelle promote Burnin'. The group reunited again in 1995 to record the dance hit, "Turn It Out", for the soundtrack to the film, To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything Julie Newmar. The song became their first charted hit in nineteen years peaking at number-one on the Billboard dance singles chart. Labelle would announce a full-fledged reunion in 2005 after the group recorded the Rosa Parks tribute song, "Dear Rosa", featured on LaBelle's TV show, Living It Up with Patti LaBelle, and after recording, with gospel artist Tye Tribbett, the gospel song, "Preaching to the Choir", from the movie of the same name, which LaBelle starred in. The group would sign a recording deal with Verve Records in 2007 and recorded their new album, Back to Now, throughout late 2007 and 2008, releasing the album that October.
That year, the trio went back on tour together which carried through the spring of 2009. In an interview with the Toronto Star, Patti LaBelle explained why she, Dash and Hendryx waited over 32 years to record a full length album: "You don't want to half-step something this important....it was about finding the right time and place. We were never ones to do anything on anyone else's time anyway; we were always unconventional. I still have my glitter boots to prove it."
The group performed a triumphant show at the Apollo Theatre in New York City on December 19, 2008.
Legacy and influence [edit | edit source]
Years after their departure in 1976, Labelle's influence has been reflected by groups such as En Vogue, Destiny's Child and The Pussycat Dolls, who recorded the Labelle hit, "Far As We Felt Like Goin'" from the Phoenix album. Their biggest hit, "Lady Marmalade" continues to be covered, with its successful covers being renditions by All Saints and the Grammy-winning number-one hit collaboration between singers Christina Aguilera, Pink and Mýa and rapper Lil' Kim in 2001 (recorded for the Moulin Rouge! soundtrack.) The song was also covered by Madchester-era indie group The Happy Mondays, who spliced it with "Kinky Afro". The group's 1960s hit, "You'll Never Walk Alone", was sampled by Kanye West in an early version of his song, "Homecoming" (which sampled the group's "walk on" intro) while their 1970s hit, "Isn't It a Shame" was sampled by Nelly on his song, "My Place". Their 1973 song, "Goin' On a Holiday", was also sampled in several hip-hop songs (sampling the group's vocal bridge, "goin', goin', goin', goin'...on...").
The group has been called pioneers of the disco movement for the proto-disco singles "Lady Marmalade" and "Messin' With My Mind". In turn, "Lady Marmalade" has been also called one of the first mainstream disco hits (Jones and Kantonen, 1999). In 2003, "Lady Marmalade" was inducted to the Grammy Hall of Fame.