Patti LaBelle’s work with Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash (collectively, as Labelle) was primo ‘70s funk and R&B. They brought together rock and soul into a unique sonic approach, and did so while embracing a spacey glam style that often made them look like sexy angels from some other end of the cosmos.
For the bulk of the decade, they appeared unstoppable, before tensions within the group caused them to splinter. LaBelle’s distinctive voice - part gospel, part disco, part girl-group sweetness - made her a natural to pursue a successful solo career, and she did just that, racking up hits in the ‘80s and collaborating with such stellar musicians and Michael McDonald, Prince and Babyface. Her foundational work in the ‘70s, though, set the stage for all that was to follow. Let’s listen to some of the highlights...
Labelle, "Lady Marmalade": In 1974, there were any number of Americans whose knowledge of the French language consisted of “mayonnaise,” “Baton Rouge,” and “Voulez vous coucher avec moi ce soir?” - all thanks to this chart-topper.
Labelle, "What Can I Do for You?": Empowerment anthems in the ‘70s could be funky, with a capital F (think Sly and The Family Stone, Curtis Mayfield and the like). This one is no exception. Produced by the great Alan Toussaint, “What Can I Do for You?” belongs in the same conversation as the material by those others, a soundtrack to some turbulent times.
Labelle, "Messin' with My Mind": Some people are just a drag. It’s bad enough when those people are acquaintances, business associates, or random folks you just encounter in the course of your day. When it’s a lover bringing you down? Action must be taken. “If you keep it up,” the lady sings, “I’m gonna give you up.” And you had better believe she will.
Labelle, "Isn't It a Shame": Labelle’s 1976 album Chameleon was mixed hot - every note clear as a bell, everything just a little louder than it probably should’ve been. This mid-tempo show-stopper benefits from all that sound - the voices don’t just pop, they rattle the speaker cones, and the chorus doesn’t just move your heart; it might stop it for a beat or two.
“You Are My Friend”: When you get a chance to hear Patti LaBelle sing a beautiful, gospel-leaning ballad, take it - she’s one of the finest to ever do it. This one, from her first solo album in 1977, will knock you back if you’re open to it.