Before there was Labelle — the '70s glam/R&B trio of Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash, who have just reunited with "Back...
NEW YORK — Before there was Labelle — the ’70s glam/R&B trio of Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash, who have just reunited with “Back to Now,” their first album in 32 years — there was Patti & the Bluebelles.
From their feathered headdresses atop glittery spacesuits, the group Labelle — best known for “Lady Marmalade,” the 1974 hit that gave a risqué French lesson to a generation of pop fans — has always been outrageously over-the-top.
By contrast Patti & the Bluebelles were a demure, traditional ’60s girl group, albeit one with an octave-leaping singer who would go on to become Philadelphia’s most recognizable R&B star.
LaBelle and her soul sisters, Hendryx and Dash, talk about “Back to Now” (Verve), their solid and soulful if not so outlandish comeback album.
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Released last month it features production by Sound of Philadelphia auteurs Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, as well as contemporary genre-hopping artists Wyclef Jean and Lenny Kravitz, whose arrangements on Hendryx’s “Candlelight,” “Superlover” and “System” are standouts.
In that era, Patti & the Bluebelles — Patricia Holt, and Hendryx and Dash, plus Cindy Birdsong, before she left in 1967 to join the Supremes — had their share of struggles and success.
The group toured with Otis Redding, James Brown and the Rolling Stones, but also encountered racism on chitlin-circuit tours of the segregated South.
By the late ’60s, Patti and the Bluebelles “weren’t growing,” Hendryx recalled.
Vicki Wickham, the Bluebelles’ British manager, decided a change was in order: “More of a band,” Hendryx recalls. “Less of a girl group.”
In 1970 the trio moved to London and began the metamorphosis into Labelle.
Working with Wickham as well as Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, who managed The Who and Jimi Hendrix, “we were all encouraged to sing out,” said Dash. “Not just little oohs and ahhs, but to really use our voices.”
In the 1970s, Labelle recorded a superb album, “Gonna Take a Miracle,” as backup vocalists for Laura Nyro, and hit their peak with 1974’s “Nightbirds.”
“Lady Marmalade,” the tale of a French Quarter prostitute — with the en Francais line, “Voulez-vous couchez avec moi, ce soir?” — was a monster hit that’s been covered many times, most prominently by Christina Aguilera, Mya, Pink and Lil’ Kim, for the 2001 film “Moulin Rouge.”
Just a few years after their biggest success, however, the women of Labelle split. “I wanted to be a Diana Ross,” LaBelle said, joking. “No, we all wanted to go our separate ways. Nona did, and Sarah did, and so did I.”
“We had to stop ourselves from becoming a caricature,” said Dash.
The group had on-off reunions in 1991 and 2001, and in 2006 they recorded “Dear Rosa,” Hendryx’s tribute to Rosa Parks. LaBelle’s manager, Damascene Pierre Paul, urged her to regroup the groundbreaking trio.
“I said, ‘Let’s leave the memories the way they were,’ ” LaBelle recalled. “I was afraid (of) what was going to happen to our voices after 30 years. But then after we cut ‘Dear Rosa,’ I said to Sarah, ‘Did you listen to the playback?’ And I said, ‘Girl, we still got it. Let’s do the album.’ “