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  Labelle
 

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Click below for a Labelle sample:

What Can I Do For You?

 

 

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The epitome of soul sisters, Labelle endured a career that was commercially frustrating but enormously influential on a creative level. In the process, they anticipated the democratic ideals of disco while cementing their reputation as fierce funkstresses, capable of transforming the most mundane material into a tour de force of vocal power.

Labelle's creative peak was from 1971-1976, during which members Patti Labelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash earned a reputation as perhaps the most talented vocal trio of the early 70s. That the group was able to ascend to such heights is a testament to manager Vicki Wickham, who transformed the group from a standard pop-soul group to futuristic messengers in 1970.

Prior to that, Labelle was known as Patti Labelle and the Bluebelles (with future Supreme Cindy Birdsong as the fourth member), your average girl group who scored the occasional hit such as "You'll Never Walk Alone" and "I Sold My Heart to the Junkman" in the early 60s. Wickham, a producer on the British show Ready Steady Go, envisioned a future in which Labelle would embrace the changes of the 70s, adopting an otherworldly, feminine take on rock and soul.

It was not an easy change for Labelle to accept. Patti Labelle, the most   recognizable and most traditional of the three singers, fought against the change, preferring more mainstream material. But the emerging songwriting brilliance of Hendryx provided the group with an expansive range of material which could not be denied.

Starting in 1971, the new Labelle debuted on their self-titled Warner Brothers debut. Marginally successful, they attempted a duet LP with Laura Nyro that paid tribute to classic soul. A second LP for Warner Brothers yielded wild versions of Van Morrison's "Moonshadow" and the Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" which should have placed them in the vanguard of rock music. But going against the standard definition of a "girl group," Labelle suffered alienation from both the rock and soul markets.

The upside to such marginalization was the support of a rabidly loyal fan base that had a high percentage of free thinkers and gays, who flocked to Labelle shows en masse, often vying with the singers for the audience's attention with outrageous antics and otherworldly outfits. Their interest was based in equal parts on Labelle's image, which can best be described as campy glitter-glamour, and Hendryx's lyrics, which dealt with personal freedom.

After a failed one-shot LP for RCA that flopped despite collaborations from Stevie Wonder and an amazing cover of Gil Scott Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," Labelle finally reached a mass audience with "Lady Marmalade," a number one single in 1975. A heavyweight by any standard, the song was written by Bob Crewe, produced by Allen Touissant and featured playing by the Meters. Considering their tenure as an underground act, it was only fitting that "Marmalade"'s message about prostitution would be their biggest hit.

Hoping to keep the hot streak alive, Labelle continued with Touissant for Phoenix, but the spark was not to be rekindled, as the single "Messin' With My Mind" barely cracked the top 20. Labelle's response was to enlist David Rubinson, a popular producer known for funk fusion. Despite what the group called their most virtoustic singing display, 1976's Chameleon failed, although such numbers as "Isn't Is A Shame" and "Get You Somebody New" remained crowd favorites.

At this point, the group splintered in several different directions: Labelle pursuing a highly successful career as a pop-soul artist, Dash venturing into jazz and Hendryx exploring edgy rock and soul while maintaining a profitable career as a session singer and songwriter. The diverse nature of their respective solo careers stands as a testament to the unique character each member brought to Labelle, and serves as a reminder that there will never be another group quite like them.  

Labelle's Deepest Grooves

Labelle (Warner Brothers, 1971)
Reborn under Wickham's guidance, they test their boundaries with an attention-grabbing version of the Rolling Stones' "Wild Horses" and a medley of "Runnin' Out of Fools/If You Gotta Make A Fool of Somebody."  

Gonna Take a Miracle - Laura Nyro with Labelle (Sony, 1971)
Just as they began flexing their creative muscle, they recorded this odd album of 60s soul covers with singer-songwriter Laura Nyro.  Good for fans of the style, but certainly tamer than anything they'd record for the next five years.

Moonshadow (Warner Brothers, 1972)
A splendid expansion of the concept first aired on Labelle.   The title cut, unrecognizable from the Cat Stevens original, was an early club favorite, even at nine minutes in length.  Hendryx's songwriting growth is apparent on "People Say They're Changing" and "I Believe I've Finally Made It Home."  Sarah Dash contributes "Peace With Yourself." 

Pressure Cookin' (RCA, 1973)
A lost classic.  With a crack band of Andre Lewis (Mandre), Hank Redd, Emry Thomas and Daniel Ben Zebulin, Labelle tears through some of Hendryx's best material to date: "Last Dance," "Can I Speak To You Before You Go To Hollywood?" and "Let Me See You In The Light."  Stevie Wonder appears on "Open Up Your Heart" and Nikki Giovanni provides the liner notes.  With such star power, it was getting harder to ignore Labelle; within a year, they would be a household name.

Nightbirds (Epic, 1974)
As essential as "Lady Marmalade" is, this could be the most overrated LP of their Epic tenure.  The Meters provide superb backing throughout the disc, and Hendryx's lyrical reflections on "Are You Lonely" and "Nightbird" are up to her usual high standard, but much of the rest doesn't maintain consistency.  The big exception is "What Can I Do For You," an awesome groove track about love and society that maintains its power to this day.

Phoenix (Epic, 1975)
Has yet to be reissued, but a slight improvement over Nightbirds. Touissant may not have been the ideal producer for the group, but for the most part he stands back and lets them do what they do best - gospel-tinged harmonizing over driving tracks. Titles such as "Action Time," "Slow Burn," "Cosmic Dancer," and "Phoenix (The Amazing Flight of a Lone Star)" establish the tone of the LP from the opening grooves.

Chameleon (Epic, 1976)
Similar to Pressure Cookin', there were high expectations for this project, and its failure ultimately led to their breakup. Producer David Rubinson, famous for his work with Herbie Hancock and Santana, proves to be surprisingly sympathetic to their talents, giving them a variety of settings for those lovely voices.   "Get You Somebody New" and "A Man In A Trenchcoat" are among their funkiest numbers, while "Isn't It A Shame" deserved to be a radio staple.   "Gypsy Moths" adds Latin flourishes to their sonic stew.   "Who's Watching The Watcher" continues Labelle's trend of socially relevant statements.

Golden Classics (Collectables, 1993)
Exhaustive 27-track reminder of the early days that includes an alternate version of "I Sold My Heart to the Junkman."

Patti Labelle and the Bluebelles: The Early Years (Ace, 1995)

Lady Marmalade: The Best of Patti and Labelle (Sony, 1995)
Half-assed attempt to document Labelle's legacy by adding some of their best Epic jams onto a Patti Labelle compilation.

Something Silver (Warner Brothers, 1997)
Great collection that captures the group immediately after their liberation from girl-group conventions.  Nearly everything has been out of print for decades, so this is the easy way to hear masterpieces such as "If I Can't Have You" and "Sunshine Woke Me Up This Morning."  Gets points taken off for editing "Moonshadow" to around half of its original running time.

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