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 discs 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 Im good. Im about to sing Gloria Estefans song Coming Out of the Dark and I feel like Im in the dark, honey. This voice got messed up last night.
Are you justifiably proud of your new album?
Oh, I love it. Its been 30 years apart but it seems as though we never left each other. And we really didnt, 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 didnt quit the group, so dont 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 youve 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. Youre giving them who you are. Were 64 years young now and were still doing what we do. And I must say myself, were doing it quite well. Thats why I wanna save this voice so when I sing on Friday, Ill 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 thats the version youre 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 didnt say, Were 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 its been almost exclusively dominated by young people whove grown up with hip-hop. How did you take that into account?
We didnt 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 werent 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 doesnt make sense. We just dont wanna get on anybodys train. We stayed on the Labelle train and are hoping that people will catch on -- or jump on.
On Rollout, your voice is fed through an Auto-Tune program, not to put you on pitch, but to give you a contemporary sound. How do you feel about the use of Auto-Tune to help singers who just dont sing very well?
I think its fine. If it gets you through the record, get on it. I had it on the record because Wyclef was playing around with it. I said, Leave that in. I always wanted to sing through a vocoder and hear what my voice sounded like. I like some of the stuff that young people are doing with the vocoder. So keep on doing it, kids, and the ol girl will do it every now and then.
Id heard that you were one of the original choices to be a judge on American Idol. Is that true?
Yes, when they started, before, I guess, they chose Paula. But I wouldnt want to do that. Its hard for me to say no to people.
But you have the chops to give people some actual singing help. Do you have any regrets about not having done that?
No. No regrets. No regrets in life. Whenever its something that somebody else did and it becomes to be a big thing or whatever, I never say, I wish I wouldve. Because evidently it wasnt for me.
Labelle achieved its greatest success when the group picked up on two stylistic threads connected to gay culture: You had the glam-rock look influenced by people like David Bowie and Elton John, and you had the early disco sound of the gay clubs before people were calling it disco. Was there a conscious decision to pursue a gay audience?
No, there was never a conscious effort to pursue anyone. Our conscious effort was to pursue a great sound and a great look. And it just so happened that gay people followed, and thank God they did. Theyve been in our lives, in my life, forever. Since Ive been singing. It was something that caught on. The only plan we did consciously make was to look outrageous so that people would come to our shows [and say,] Oh, look at those crazy ladies. But once theyre there, theyll see we have something to say.
Was it a surprise when you first started attracting a gay audience?
No, it was a relief. It was a wonderful thing. I just wonder why theyre still there. Thats the only thing. Why? But theyve been there forever. Thank God.
Labelle mustve been a magnet for gay people who wanted to work with you. Was that uncomfortable when it started?
How could it be uncomfortable? I mean, I love people. And it doesnt matter what you are, who you are, what you do, what you dont do, how much you have and how much you dont have. If you have a pure heart, you can come into my life as a frog, I dont care, as long as youre for real.
Well, people whove grown up with the church are sometimes uncomfortable with gays.
Thats their problem. You know what I do every day? I pray for the church. Because I dont think God will want it this way, all of this ugly stuff. Just like the whole thing with gay marriage. Denying people to just do what they wanna do. Everybody has to be free to be themselves. So the church has a problem. And I feel bad about that.
Out here in San Francisco where I live, its been a time of mixed emotions. On one hand, Obamas victory is such a major step. You know that more than I do. But at the same time, the majority of Californian voters decided in favor of taking rights away from a specific group of people -- us.
At the same time were having this historic moment happening. Its crazy. Its really sad.
And a sad thing thats come out in the polls is that many of the same African-Americans who voted for Obama and voted for change have voted against gay marriage.
Your music speaks to people on both sides of that divide. How do you open peoples minds?
You open their minds by being persistent, and staying strong and steady. Like Obama did through the name-calling and all the other things they did to him. He still remained steadfast. He still remained strong. And he got in the door. Gay people have to remain who they are. You cant give in to people who dont believe in [Pauses] Oh God, equality. Thats really what it is. You cant let them prevent you or stop you for fighting for it. I mean, Obama fought for the White House. He got it. So thats what I have to say.
Thats very well put.
Youre welcome. And Im fighting with you.
What is Labelle planning for the future in terms of TV appearances and touring?
Well, we dont know if were going to get the offers, but were planning a tour.
What would you like to do ideally?
Just make sense of what we just did. We just did a CD. We want people to listen and buy it and request our presence. Thats all.
Thank you very much, Patti.
Tell all my gay friends dont let anything stop em.
Okay, honey. Bye-bye.