Nona Hendryx, Sarah Dash, and of course, Miss Patti LaBelle, are the ladies of the funk ’n soul group Labelle. After 30 years, the gals who made the lines “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?” and “mocca chocolata ya ya” famous have reunited for the highly anticipated album “Back to Now.”
“Back to Now” revives the signature fusion of soul, rock and funk that made Labelle an international smash in the ’70s. The 10-track album includes production from Wyclef Jean, rock divo Lenny Kravitz and, of course, Nona Hendryx, who produced numerous songs for Labelle in its heyday.
The group’s influence has lived on in the vocals, style and sound of countless artists over the years. Their ode to Creole hookers, “Lady Marmalade,” has been redone more than small-town Americans gulp a shot for every time Gov. Sarah Palin calls Sen. John McCain “a maverick.”
In a one-on-one, the vibrant Labelle chats about the new album, gay fans and how they were once mistaken for ladies of the night!
Tell me about the moment when you realized it was time for a Labelle reunion.
Patti: About 25 years ago (laughs)! We broke up about 30 years ago, we stayed in contact and we knew about five years ago that we had to do a reunion. I wasn’t able to change my schedule around and do Labelle properly. If I was going to do Labelle, I wanted to do it right. I’ve been lying to the audiences for four years — every time I’d do a show, I’d say, “We’re getting back together!” Nona and Sarah started calling me saying, “Did you tell somebody we’re getting back together?” I said, “Yeah, eventually we will.” I didn’t know it would take this many years, but we did it.
What was it like the first time all three of you were in the studio together?
Nona: It was a great feeling. There were a lot of life conversations that needed to be had. That’s where a lot of our music comes from, the inspiration, and how we sing comes out in how we’re feeling. I felt inspired, enthusiastic and also curious at the same time.
What do you think has changed the most about Labelle as a group?
Sarah: The only thing I feel that has changed about us is our age (laughs)! We’re mature, we’ve come together, we’re looking at each other, having individual solo careers defining us — as Nona does rock, Patti does R&B and I do jazz, blues, rock. Bringing all that together, nothing has really changed. It’s just we’re bringing back our maturity and we are more defined in our direction as to what we can do musically. We still feel there is nothing we can’t do. Our ages have changed and with that came a lot of wisdom.
Nona, what was your approach to producing for Labelle 30 years later?
Nona: It was very natural. I’ve been producing the last 15 years with other artists and co-producing my own records. It’s very much in a way what I enjoy most, which is writing and producing as opposed to being the artist on stage. It’s a little more challenging working with my cohorts (laughs)! That’s the most challenging, specifically producing a Patti LaBelle vocal — I don’t know how you produce that (laughs)! But, once we were in the studio, the music starts and we have where we’re headed, it creates itself.
What can Labelle’s gay fans expect from this album?
Sarah: Us coming from the ’70s and being in the year 2008, I think they can expect the maturity from where they are coming from now with our music. Their expectations [should be] hearing us sing together and singing the kind of music the’re accustomed to hearing us sing.
Labelle did a remake of Sylvester’s disco classic “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).” Patti, I know you were close with Sylvester, could you give us some reflections on your friendship with him?
Patti: He was a good, good friend. I went to his house about a month before he died, sat on the bed, fed him and he gave me this beautiful gold purse. We did the song, but we didn’t do it justice. It sounded just like him so if you’re going to do someone’s song, try and do it differently. So, we’re having a guy do some remixes of the song and it will be available on iTunes.
Is there anything challenging about having such an aggressive gay following?
Patti: Heck no! That’s how we’ve been all of our lives. We’ve had the biggest gay following and people would always ask me why. I still can’t tell you why. It would be a heartbreak if they stopped! Labelle with no gay following? That wouldn’t be cute! Patti LaBelle with no gay following? That would not be nice! The gay following has been there forever.
Is it true that one time Labelle was mistaken for hookers in an elevator?
Patti: Yes, we were doing a show with Anne Murray and this man thought we were hookers. We took him to the room and had him take off his clothes. We put him in a hall, locked the door and had his clothes. We made him beg for his clothes back and said, “Every black woman you see, don’t assume she’s a hooker!” We had on our costumes, which weren’t hooker costumes. I forgot about that, he learned a lesson that night! Sarah said she was going to be his lady for the evening (laughs)!
Labelle as a group were so ahead of their time. Can you point to any artist or group where you see that Labelle influence?
Sarah: I can look at many groups and see that. It started back after we did the space age clothes; there were so many groups that started following that pattern of dress. Also, we opened up a new way of female groups performing. When we go back into the old way, most of the girls had the same wigs and the same gown. We came out and said you can dress differently according to your body shape. When I look at female groups or other groups today, especially black artists, the uniformed look is not as important anymore. I know we influenced them that way. The overall image of performing, we affected The Rolling Stones, Elton John — so many people with what we did.
Any last shout to your gay fans?
Patti: Thank you for 47 years that you’ve been in my life and Labelle’s life. You’ve been consistent; you never changed. To me that’s wonderful because they never turned their back. We appreciate all of the gay following!
— “Back to Now” (Verve) is out now.