Interview: Labelle – R&B’s Pioneering Female Trio

Posted: October 17, 2008 in interview, music
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Labelle (Sarah Dash, Nona Hendryx and Patti LaBelle)

Date of Interview: 10/17/2008

© 2008 Clayton Perry

Before Destiny’s Child called on men to “say [their] name” or TLC announced their distaste for “scrubs,” Labelle exemplified the true meaning of “independent women.”

Unquestionably, every contemporary female R&B trio has been influenced by their style—whether they know it or not—and a cursory listen to Labelle’s catalog reveals a smorgasbord of musical gems, which have served as inspiration for 702, SWV, Total and Brownstone.  As with all things, history reveals the mark of the present.

By current standards, Sarah Dash, Nona Hendryx and Patti LaBelle enjoyed a limited amount of commercial success.  Nonetheless, Labelle’s impact on the music industry is completely immeasurable.  Upon review of Back to Now, Labelle managed to squeeze some time out of their busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on Barack Obama, industry politics and “Lady Marmalade.”

Clayton Perry: As trailblazers and living legends, what do you consider to be Labelle’s most significant contribution to music history?

Patti LaBelle: When we first started 35 years ago, we sang social songs about the world, about politics, about sex, about prejudice. Now that we’re back –  not by accident, just because of what we are and who we are – we continue that same journey by singing the same kind of music, not knowing that it will be so well needed right now with the way the world is. I mean, the world is in a really bad place, and our songs talk about the current state of the world. We have songs that talk about every little thing. That’s why I think that we’re so cool. We’re spontaneous women and we end up on the right page sometimes.

Sarah Dash: On top of that, our songs bring healing to people. We say things that most people say in their daily speech, but we sing it. We create a thought process through our music and we lift people up. Over the years, many women have come to me and said, “I would never have thought to say a certain line this way or to be that bold in how I feel about my love life.” We truly were innovators. We started appearing in places that most black women – or black artists, period – could not play, one being the Metropolitan opera house.

Clayton Perry: A great deal of Labelle’s early work resonated with female empowerment—cultural, sexual and spiritual.  In a time when few female singers were singing about racism, sexism and eroticism, what compelled you to take such risks?

Patti LaBelle: It was going on in our minds. Nona, being the writer that she is, she was writing all of this wonderful, crazy stuff. People wanted to say it. We say what’s real and what’s honest and what people would like to say but they can’t say. It’s just like when I sang “On My Own” with Michael McDonald. There were so many women who wanted to leave their partner, or men who wanted to leave their partner, women who wanted to leave their woman and men who wanted to leave their man and they couldn’t. They wanted to stay together. But I sang about it and a lot of people got divorced after that song. On Back to Now, we have a song called “System,” which will be out in time for the 2008 presidential election. Hopefully, a lot of people are going to think right politically. “System” is about the undecided voter and Sarah is the undecided voter in the song. It’s more like a Broadway piece – you will have to see the performance to know what we’re doing. Nona is sort of like McCain and I’m sort of like Obama. I’m trying to get Sarah on my side and Nona’s trying to get her on her side. But Sarah’s not sure. It’s something that the undecided voter needs to hear. We don’t know which way we’re going to go in this world, but we know that Barack Obama is a great chance for us to make a change for the better and maybe get out of some of this mess that has been made for us.

Clayton Perry: Over the course of your career, did you ever find yourselves fighting to maintain your artistic integrity?

Nona Hendryx: I don’t think we had to fight very hard. We were really much more about how our fans saw us. We had really supportive fans who supported us even if we didn’t have records on the radio, and who’d come to see us because they loved us and our music. They loved what we brought to our performance. So I don’t think we had to fight in terms of what we wanted to make. The only people we had resistance from were record company executives, simply because we weren’t making music that fit the mold.

Clayton Perry: In 1970, the turning point of the group’s career, Vicki Wickham forced you to “push the envelope”—musically and artistically.  What is the best advice that she ever gave you?

Patti LaBelle: Vicki encouraged us to never be afraid to change. When we were Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles, I didn’t want to become Labelle because I was afraid that we’d lose our fan base. I didn’t think our act was broken or needed to be fixed. But we went to London for six months or so, and when we got back to the States to perform, we got lots of standing ovations.  Labelle’s new direction was a necessary change, but I was just one of those people who was afraid of change.  I’ve grown since then and learned that just because I’m thinking one way, doesn’t mean your idea is not better than mine.

Clayton Perry: Having spent three decades in various levels of the business, what’s your opinion of the current state of R&B and the music landscape in general?

Patti LaBelle: Well, I love Ne-Yo. He’s phenomenal. His writing, his melodies – he just knows what to do. He’s just a little gentleman, and he’s singing lyrics that will not embarrass anyone. John Legend, Andre, Big Boi – a lot of these people are singing things that are masterpieces in their own way. A lot of times, they don’t get the credit because people are putting all black people in an R&B category or ghetto category. It’s not that way at all. There are so many genius writers, singers and talents that are black, and sometimes they’re overlooked. Estelle and all these new people coming out have to get credit for it and not be put down all the time. I just pray for the ones who have the talent and who could make it through, you know? I was looking at Lalah Hathaway the other night and how phenomenal she is. But how much credit does she get? Not very much. Rachelle Ferrell never gets any credit, and people don’t even know about her. It pisses me off.

Clayton Perry: Although black artists tend to get pigeonholed into certain genres, Labelle broke the mold in a lot of different ways – especially within the R&B genre. It was retro, it was funk, a little bit of everything. What impact do you wish to make with your forthcoming album?

Nona Hendryx: It’s very rare for me to find a CD that I can listen to all the way through and feel as though I’ve had an experience from the beginning to the end. That’s really what our desire was, in a way, to take people to a place where they were really nourished by something that could make you dance, cry, laugh and think.  It was not our intent to put a lot of songs on the album.  Some people think more is more, but less is more. As artists, we only want to release quality music and we hope that people really have a connection with the music so that it means something to them.  All too often, artists put out a CD and people feel like its another piece of plastic with only two songs that they like.

Sarah Dash: We are giving our fans, our amazing friends, an opportunity to share in a moment of hope because we are in our senior years and we can have an audience come and visit with us who can say not only, “I remember back in the day,” but, “I’m experiencing a new time and a new moment with these women that I grew up with.” Most of the young gentlemen that I’ve been speaking to say to me, “My mother played your music every morning. My mother loved your group and now I can bring my mother to your concert.” That means a lot to me.

Clayton Perry: My introduction to Labelle followed a similar route.  One of my favorite tracks is “Morning Much Better,” which was one of the featured singles off of your signature debut: Labelle.  Thirty-seven years later, the song still thumps with mind-blowing energy!  What song on Back to Now do you think could give that song a run for its money?

Patti LaBelle: “Candlelight.”

Clayton Perry: Another one of my favorites came off of your second album, Moon Shadow.  “If I Can’t Have You” had a heavy gospel influence and really showcased the full range of your voices.  I know in 2006, that Ms. LaBelle released The Gospel According To Patti LaBelle, but at any point in your careers, have the three of you contemplated recording a gospel album together?

Sarah Dash: We haven’t, but I really feel we could.  I’m currently working on a solo Gospel project with traditional songs.

Patti LaBelle: Although our lyrics are not Gospel lyrics, every time I hear us sing together, it makes me think of a choir.

Nona Hendryx: Like Patti said, what we do vocally is very much that. I don’t know if it’s necessary.

Patti LaBelle: I don’t think it’s necessary because I feel we’re singing Gospel.

Nona Hendryx: The Gospel according to Labelle [laughing].

Clayton Perry: Yes! [laughing] But back in the day, you were forbidden to perform one particular gospel on the air: “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”  Pressure Cookin’ really caused quite a bit of brouhaha.

Patti LaBelle: Yeah, we were forbidden to sing the truth. Just like what’s happening now in our world, that’s what was happening then. A lot of people were afraid. Certain shows asked us not to sing certain songs. They asked us not to perform “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” because it was about what was happening in the world, the revolution. All of the heartache and stuff with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and everything else. It was too political. It was kind of hard for them to see three black women singing about the truth. Some people are afraid of the truth.  It might set them free but they’re afraid of it.

Clayton Perry: You’re right about that!  [laughing] Labelle’s fourth album, Nightbirds was ranked on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.  The album features “Lady Marmalade,” which is widely regarded as the group’s signature hit.  In the age of iTunes, what other classic Labelle songs would you like a new generation of fans to discover?

Patti LaBelle: I have so many: “Phoenix” – rising from the ashes, “Chameleon” – we’re changing all the time. I’m truly a chameleon. “Nightbird” – I’m flying all night. There are just so many songs I can’t say one. I can’t say three. I got to say at least ten.

Nona Hendryx: “I Believe That I’ve Finally Made It Home.” But “(Can I Speak Before You Go To) Hollywood” if I had to say one.

Sarah Dash: “Sunday’s News” and “If I Can’t Have You”.

Clayton Perry: In 2001, “Lady Marmalade” was covered by Christina Aguilera, Pink, Mya and Lil’ Kim for the Moulin Rouge soundtrack.  What were your initial impressions of the remake?

Sarah Dash: Great, great, great!

Patti LaBelle: Fabulous! Those girls sang their butts off and their video was phenomenal. Missy Elliott and Rockwilder did a great job producing it and what could we say but, “Thank you, girls.”

Nona Hendryx: All we can say is we wish we’d written it [laughing].

Patti LaBelle: Yes, that’s a good thing to say, but we didn’t [laughing].

Clayton Perry: As Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles, you recorded a cover of “Over the Rainbow” in 1965, and for the past four decades, Ms. LaBelle, the song has become a staple in your solo stage performance. What personal attachment does this song have for you?

Patti LaBelle: It’s like “When You Wish Upon a Star.” When you dream big dreams and believe that they can come true, when you see birds fly high over the rainbow, then you always wonder: “Why can’t I?” When I see the rainbow, I wonder why can’t I get to the top of the charts like Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler and Madonna? So when I’m flying, I’m trying to get higher.  When I sing that song, I’m really wondering: “Why, oh why can’t I?”

For more information on Labelle, visit their official website: http://www.labelleisback.com/

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