Labelle: Tomorrow's Brightest Stars
By David Nathan
October 1974, In person interview conducted by British music journalist (and future SoulMusic.com founder) David Nathan in the kitchen of [manager] Vicki Wickham's apartment in midtown Manhattan. When David caught up with the trio, their Epic Records’ debut album "Nightbirds" was already causing a stir...
ONCE UPON a time, just about fourteen years ago, four foxy young ladies met up and decided to embark on the path that proverbially leads over the rainbow.
The four young ladies had the determination and everyone who heard them said they had the talent but the path to success is full of crazy paving and no one makes it easy. Having sold their hearts to the junkman in song, the girls were told that the way to the top would come with the help of such folk as dear 'Danny Boy' and maybe against their own better judgment, the four young ladies decided to offer a curious mixture of bland standards and funky fever, fiery ballads and false eyelashes. Along the road, they found many others trying the same thing and only the distinctive gospel-based lead vocals of Lady Patti set against strong harmonies from the remaining trio helped the four young ladies keep their name known. But the going was tough and "Sweethearts of the Apollo" they may have been, but the chitlin and cabaret circuit can only be done so many times. Then, one of our four young ladies decided to leave for something possibly more supreme (or was it really?) and our legendary quartet became a trio.
And still the problems. Hit records are hard to come by, And on the road that leads over the rainbow, times can get tough. And sometimes the signposts are wrong and where do you go from there? Across the Atlantic to discover a kindly godmother who decides that the junkman, the rainbow and even 'Danny' are a thing of the past. They must be replaced by some of the realities of life. After all, this was a new decade – the seventies. The seventies meant sex, revolution, space children, Hollywood and a brand new era. So, after some struggle and fight – because a decade of 'Danny' and the rainbow ain't that easy to forget – Patti, Nona and Sarah emerged as bright new silver-suited soul sisters ready to tell it. But the world wasn't quite ready and nor were the record companies.
Their fine albums laid down the groundwork but the going was tough. Our three young heroines had to fight every step of the way and although they were telling of a brand new day in a brand new way, hardly anyone was hearing about it. Because the executives in their offices couldn't begin to understand what to do with explosive talent and boundless energy, combined with vocal feeling and intensity that cut you dead in your tracks. Labelle were ready but the world still wasn't. Stevie Wonder was and he contributed to one album: his 'Open Up Your Heart' was specially written for the group and appeared on their only RCA album, Pressure Cookin', And Laura Nyro was. She had the group join her for an album of pure delight entitled Gonna Take A Miracle. But miracles do happen and bit by bit, piece by piece, the work got around.
And our three foxy young ladies began to find that the golden path to success didn't lie over the rainbow and wasn't golden anyway – it was silver. And silver may well the way their records will begin to go now. Because, simply, LaBelle has arrived. And they're staying, So forget about the junkman, 'Danny Boy' and that rainbow and get ready for tomorrow's children: Labelle.
Patti, Nona and Sarah have made what some would call the impossible transformation: from the almost standard black female line-up, with the wigs, sequined gowns – the whole bit – to a tough, no-messing trio whose appearance is, to say the least, avant–garde and whose musical message relates to today and what's happening right now. But then, there was always something special about Patti LaBelle and The Bluebelles. Those strident gospel tones hitting notes that seemed almost drawn out of nowhere, piercing the air with all the power and strength they can muster and although they may now be wailing 'Wild Horses' instead of 'You'll Never Walk Alone', their vocal mastery if anything is greater. Hearing Labelle now, you hear three voices. No longer do these ladies abide by the rules of the past where one lead singer did it all – each utilizes her own special vocal ability to its utmost these days. And all the changes, which Patti herself says she resisted for a long time, have prevented Labelle from taking that "oldies but goodies" route. But it didn't all come about overnight.
To explain further, The departure in 1967 of Cindy Birdsong to join The Supremes marked the beginning of a down period for what was then Patti LaBelle & The Bluebells. They had previously enjoyed a measure of record success initially with Cameo Parkway on such songs as 'I Sold My Heart To The Junkman' (which Patti confessed recently was about a pusher – and she'd sung it time after time without knowing!) and 'Danny Boy' before a spell at Atlantic where the group found themselves successful with 'All Or Nothing', a soulful gospel-styled classic and 'Over The Rainbow'. Chart success eluded the group in the States for some time, but their onstage vocal dynamics ensured that the girls were constantly in work. Cindy's departure made the group re-think somewhat – they were suffering management problems, problems with their record company about their lack of chart prowess and in general the group just may have slipped into that all-too-familiar cabaret/chitlin' club scene and subsequently been 'lost' for eternity.
But fate, in the form of Ms. Vicki Wickham (erstwhile producer of Ready, Steady, Go – perhaps the only decent music programme British television ever produced) stepped in and decreed that the girls take a six month hiatus from the whole scene. And almost start again, Well, maybe not quite: just make some very radical changes in their whole set up. A new name, Labelle and a new image. The aim, some said, was to produce a black female Rolling Stones but Labelle have made it clear that there is simply no comparison, by virtue of who and what they are and do. A new repertoire meant that worn-out standards like 'Its Impossible' made way for 'Morning Much Better' and material by Cat Stevens, Carole King and The Who.
"I really fought the changes because I just didn't think we'd be accepted by anyone – especially our own fans – because we were going so far away from what we'd been doing before. It took a long time for me to agree to try it out and I really found it hard to come to terms with singing songs like 'Morning Much Better' and 'Moonshadow', But I did - and although I still don't regret what we were doing before, I know that we're doing the right thing now," says Patti, And the others concur. "Yes, we're dealing with today's problems and we're making people aware that it's no good living a dream world of roses. You have to face the realities of today – it's no use hiding," Nona will tell you. She is the group's main composer and lyricist and that alone makes her unique – since no other female group can claim to have a talented and aware writer within its midst.
Those big changes began back in 1971 and although they may have approached it all with trepidation, their debut performance at the Apollo on their return from their six month stay in London did not harm them in the least. They'd shed the lavish gowns for jeans just to make the visual transformation complete but everyone knew that the vocal talent and artistry of Patti, Nona and Sarah hadn't changed one bit. But their total change brought confusion to record companies who like to pigeon-hole their artists into neat little compartments. Labelle were no glamour-smitten go-go girls and their music, like their appearance, did not fit the conventional image of a black girl group. So their first two albums as Labelle – for Warner Brothers – met strong critical acclaim and little sales impression. "And today, we're mad as hell about it!" the girls will tell you. Justifiably so, because those two albums contain some fine material and demonstrated that Labelle were capable of making those changes, as well as marking Nona Hendrix' debut as a writer for the group. "I guess Warners and R.C.A. will capitalize on our current situation and it upsets me because they didn't know what to do with us when they had us – they didn't know where we were really coming from and where we wanted to go. And some of the stuff we did on those albums was really good. We can't even re-record it for a few years, you know!"
When Warmers couldn't do right by Labelle, they moved on to R.C.A. for Pressure Cookin' but not before they'd worked with renowned rock singer/writer Laura Nyro on an album for Columbia of 'oldies but goodies' named after the previous mid-Sixties hit of The Royalettes, 'Gonna Take A Miracle'. Therein, Labelle and Laura put down some of the finest versions of such songs as 'The Bells' and 'You Really Gotta Hold On Me' on the Philadelphia-recorded set and there can be little doubt that Labelle's appearance on the album brought their name to the attention of many rock fans in the States.
Pressure Cookin' should in many ways have been the one to do it for Labelle. But lack of promotion and exposure meant that one of the finest albums of 1973 just got lost. All that in spite of the fact that none other than Stevie Wonder had assisted with production of two of the tracks – 'Open Up Your Heart', (which he wrote specially for Labelle) and the underrated potential hit sound of 'Goin' On A Holiday'. But, even more important, the album contains the medley of 'Something In The Air' and Gil Scott-Heron's 'The Revolution Will Not Be Televised', a biting, drily-humorous significant item which tells you just where Labelle is at. Also there, Nona's 'Can I Speak To You Before You Go To Hollywood?' which is aimed at all those people to whom outward appearances are the thing and those who make it and promptly forget where they came from – a trap into which Labelle are never likely to fall. Because if success is about to be theirs (and there's every good reason for thinking that mass acceptance on an international scale is only time away), then it must have much to do with their down-to-earth, human qualities. All three are warm and wonderful people.
And success is certainly about to be theirs if the reaction to their first Epic album is any measure. There brief spell with R.C.A. over, Labelle moved on to work with a company "that understands what we're all about". For their fourth Labelle album, the girls decided to utilize the services of ace producer Allen Toussaint with his renowned Meters in support and so they made the trek down to New Orleans. "We got quite agitated to start off with because everyone works at such a slow pace down there," Patti Says, "but once we realized that Allen was just taking time to work everything out – the man is just so clever – we knew it would be alright. And we all agree that this is our best album – it should have been the first one!" And the group's confidence in this brilliant album is totally justified. With Nona and Allen Toussaint making their own writing contributions to the set and Bob Crewe and co. providing material like 'Lady Marmalade' (currently ready to become the group's first big single in the States) the whole production cooks from start to finish and although it finds Labelle in a funkier, more commercial bag than their previous outings may have indicated, the messages are still in there like Nona's 'Are You Lonely' – a song based on the coldness of living in a city like New York – or London, anywhere which reduces people to virtual statistics by nature of its size.
Nightbirds and the group's pacting with Epic seem to have brought about that much needed turn in events for Labelle but not before time and not without a great deal of hard work. And as an indication of just how far ahead Labelle are, they created history in October 1974 by becoming the first black group to appear at the staid Metropolitan Opera House in New York. The show was one of the most successful appearances ever staged by anyone in New York and by all accounts, was a total and resounding clarion call that Labelle have arrived once and for all. There can be little doubt that their amazing visual appearance (in costumes specially designed for them by Larry LaGaspi and Richard Erker of Moonstone) has contributed much to their prestige and acceptance but when you get right down to it, Labelle's secret lies simply in their dynamic showmanship and high powered energy. European audiences have yet to see what all the excitement is all about, but if word of mouth is anything to go by, Patti, Nona and Sarah put their all into every performance, And they have undoubtedly become the most successful group to integrate a gospel-based sound into rock whilst retaining their feeling for what they're doing.
A major tour of the States in the autumn of last year did much to consolidate their reputation and further extensive work during 1975 should make sure that by year's end, Labelle will be receiving the kind of accolades which are more than due. A brief promotional jaunt to Europe in late December made sure that the girls will be welcomed back to these shores during the early part of '75 since their warmth won over all who were fortunate to meet them.
Innovators, Futuristic, avant-garde, Space Children, Call them what you will, Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendrix and Sarah Dash alongside Vicki Wickham (whose faith and belief in LaBelle and whose careful guidance has helped bring the group to the verge of total recognition) are ready. Dues paid, Labelle is set to conquer the world. So world, get ready – and don't forget we told you so!