NEW YORK - Before there was Labelle - the ‘70s glam/R&B trio of Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash, who have just reunited with “Back to Now,” their first album in 32 years - there was Patti & the Bluebelles.
From their feathered headdresses atop glittery spacesuits, the group Labelle - best known for “Lady Marmalade,” the 1974 hit that gave a risque French lesson to a generation of pop fans - has always been outrageously over-the-top.
By contrast Patti & the Bluebelles were a demure, traditional ‘60s girl group, albeit one with an octave-leaping singer who would go on to become Philadelphia’s most recognizable R&B star.
“We wore matching dresses and tiaras” in the Bluebelles, recalled LaBelle. “We were real prom queens.”
A few days before taking flight (and liberties) with “The Star-Spangled Banner” at game four of the World Series, LaBelle and her soul sisters, Hendryx and Dash, were in a green room at Sirius Satellite Radio in Manhattan.
They were there to talk up “Back to Now” (Verve, 3 stars), their solid and soulful if not so outlandish comeback album. It features production by Sound of Philadelphia auteurs Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, as well as contemporary genre-hopping artists Wyclef Jean and Lenny Kravitz, whose arrangements on Hendryx’s “Candlelight,” “Superlover” and “System” are standouts.
They took time to dish about Sarah Palin (“She’ll always be known as the lady who didn’t have the answers,” said LaBelle) and Elton John (“He was the chubby little boy named Reg Dwight who played piano when we first toured England,” said Dash. “We used to take his money in card games”), and to reminisce about a musical friendship stretching back to the early ‘60s.
In that era, Patti & the Bluebelles - Patricia Holt, and Hendryx and Dash, plus Cindy Birdsong, before she left in 1967 to join the Supremes - had their share of struggles and success.
The group toured with Otis Redding, James Brown and the Rolling Stones, but also encountered racism on chitlin circuit tours of the segregated South.
When touring with white acts on Dick Clark-organized package tours, “we would have to go to the colored water fountains and restaurants,” recalled LaBelle, who, like Hendryx, is 64. (Dash is 63.) “But you know what it did for us? It made us stronger women. It made us appreciate the good things when they finally came, when we weren’t making $9 a week.”
By the late ‘60s, Patti and the Bluebelles “weren’t growing,” Hendryx recalled.
Vicki Wickham, the Bluebelles’ British manager, decided a change was in order: “More of a band,” Hendryx recalls. “Less of a girl group.”
“And I said, ‘Hell, no!’” recalled LaBelle. “I resisted. Because I said if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. We were stagnant. But it wasn’t broke. And I was afraid of losing our fan base.”
LaBelle relented, however, and in 1970 the trio moved to London and began the metamorphosis into Labelle.
Working with Wickham as well as Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, who managed The Who and Jimi Hendrix, “we were all encouraged to sing out,” said Dash. “Not just little oohs and ahhs, but to really use our voices.”
“It was like we went into a cocoon,” Hendryx said. “And grew into something else.”
Labelle were indeed something else. Even in an extravagant ‘70s black pop scene, where it was almost de rigueur to arrive on stage as if dropping in from another planet, Labelle was out there, from their architecturally improbable hairstyles to their boundary-disrespecting music.
“Back to Now’s” last track is excavated from that era - a grandiose cover of Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets” from 1970, with Keith Moon of The Who on drums, that would have made Ella Fitzgerald blush.
In the 1970s, Labelle recorded a superb album, “Gonna Take a Miracle,” as backup vocalists for Laura Nyro, and hit their peak with 1974’s “Nightbirds,” with New Orleans piano man Allen Toussaint and funk-masters The Meters.
“Lady Marmalade,” the tale of a French Quarter prostitute - with the en Francais line, “Voulez-vous couchez avec moi, ce soir?” - was a monster hit that’s been covered many times, most prominently by Christina Aguilera, Mya, Pink and Lil’ Kim, for the 2001 film “Moulin Rouge.”
Just a few years after their biggest success, however, the women of Labelle split. “I wanted to be a Diana Ross,” LaBelle said, joking. “No, we all wanted to go our separate ways. Nona did, and Sarah did, and so did I.”
“We had to stop ourselves from becoming a caricature,” said Dash.
Hendryx released acclaimed solo albums in the 1980s, and sang with Talking Heads and Peter Gabriel. Dash did session work, and toured with Keith Richards in his band the Xpensive Winos in the early 1990s.
LaBelle has had the most successful career by far. At first, though, she felt uncertain. “I was afraid people were going to say, ‘She broke up the group,’ and throw eggs at me. But the thing I missed most was Nona and Sarah. Blaming them for bad notes. Now I had only me to blame: ‘Patti, did you sing a bad note?’ Yes, you did, ‘cause you’re by yourself.”
The group had one-off reunions in 1991 and 2001, and in 2006 they recorded “Dear Rosa,” Hendryx’s tribute to Rosa Parks. LaBelle’s manager, Damascene Pierre Paul, urged her to regroup the groundbreaking trio.
“I said, ‘Let’s leave the memories the way they were,” LaBelle recalled. “I was afraid (of) what was going to happen to our voices after 30 years. But then after we cut ‘Dear Rosa,’ I said to Sarah, ‘Did you listen to the playback?’... And I said, ‘Girl, we still got it. Let’s do the album.’”
They did, with Kravitz, Gamble and Huff, who recorded four tracks, including the old school message song “Tears for the World,” and with Jean, whose “Roll Out” is the album’s one slightly misguided nod to current trends.
“They all did us a favor,” said LaBelle. “Don’t get me wrong: We did pay them. But it wasn’t what they would normally charge. They gave us a brother break.”
“We had to find ourselves again,” Hendryx said of the group, which will play the Apollo Theater in New York on Dec. 19 and Atlantic City’s Trump Taj Mahal on Jan. 17.
The new Labelle are “women who sing about real stuff, and don’t have to show cleavage or walk around without a thing on,” LaBelle said.
“With no compromising,” added Dash. “We’re more mature now.”
“Actually, we’re old,” LaBelle interjected. “I’m 64. But my spirit is 30. Age ain’t on our page.”