Back to Labelle
By Barry Walters
The three members of Labelle -- Nona Hendryx, Sarah Dash, and Patti LaBelle herself -- grew up together with the gay community. Arriving in the early '60s with a classic girl-group sound that transitioned into an R&B/rock hybrid, these tough-voiced, spectacularly dressed divas felt the support of gay audiences even before they hit the big time in the mid-'70s with their enduring bilingual anthem of soul sexiness, 'Lady Marmalade.' A breakup soon followed and each member followed a divergent path to solo success; Hendryx even came out as bisexual.
Yet Labelle fans of every persuasion have never stopped hoping for a reunion. After several false starts, the trio finally joined forces to record its first album in 32 years, Back to Now. On the eve of their appearance at the Out 100 bash, we spoke with Miss Patti to get her dependably outspoken thoughts on the new disc's true-to-form grooves, gay marriage, the church, and our future president.
Out: How are you doing, Patti?
Patti LaBelle: My voice is not good but I'm good. I'm about to sing Gloria Estefan's song 'Coming Out of the Dark' and I feel like I'm in the dark, honey. This voice got messed up last night.
Are you justifiably proud of your new album?
Oh, I love it. It's been 30 years apart but it seems as though we never left each other. And we really didn't, because we stayed in touch every year for 30 years, and did shows and different things together. When we recorded, it seemed like it was not so long that we sang together, so the music feels as fresh as I would hope it would.
When the three of you went your separate ways in the '70s, there was never an official breakup. All three of you simply put out solo stuff. Had there been a falling out?
No no, and I didn't quit the group, so don't get it twisted. Not you, but I just want you to write that because people think I left the group. We left each other at the same time.
What have you set out to accomplish with this reunion?
First of all, a great album. And great shows whenever we perform. And that the public sees us as not washed-up and has-been. [Laughs]
Oh yeah, honey.
Because you've been apart for all these years, the expectations that come with a Labelle reunion are bound to be high. How do you remain true to who you are today?
You just do honest work. You do work you really believe is going to touch the hearts of people. It has to touch yours, and the sound has to be great. You're giving them who you are. We're 64 years young now and we're still doing what we do. And I must say myself, we're doing it quite well. That's why I wanna save this voice so when I sing on Friday, I'll have the voice of a fierce woman.
Labelle has overlapping but distinct audiences -- R&B fans, top 40 listeners, and gay people. How did those different fan bases shape the music you chose for this album?
The different people who follow Labelle did not shape this product. Like 'Miss Otis Regrets,' we did it 30, 40 years ago, and that's the version you're hearing now. Nona, being such a great writer, she wrote 'System' and 'Candlelight' a long time ago. And the others just fell into place, like with Wyclef, the songs that [Philly soul legends] Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff did, and the ones Lenny Kravitz produced. We didn't say, 'We're gonna do this for a gay crowd, this for the R&B crowd, this for the pop crowd.' We just did music hoping it would touch everybody.
For decades R&B radio had a tradition of playing musicians of different generations, but for the last few years it's been almost exclusively dominated by young people who've grown up with hip-hop. How did you take that into account?
We didn't think about those obstacles. Music these days is basically hip-hop. 'Rollout' [the first single] was played on a few hip-hop stations. We surely weren't trying to be hip-hop. [Laughs] Or anything that music is today. We were doing the music that we think people need to hear. And people need to start listening to songs that make sense. Not that hip-hop doesn't make sense. We just don't wanna get on anybody's train. We stayed on the Labelle train and are hoping that people will catch on -- or jump on.