“Nights in New York, running down steps, into the echoes of the train station to sing”
—Laura Nyro, liner notes, Gonna Take a Miracle
“As I used to tell Laura all the time, she is a black woman in a white girl’s body . . .”
—Patti Labelle, Don’t Block the Blessings: Revelations of a Lifetime
At one point in Danzy Senna’s novel Caucasia, the primary character, 15-year-old Birdie Lee, is derisively described as “Queer”. Such a term would have likely been fitting to describe Laura Nyro. As a toddler, Nyro sat at the feet of her piano-tuning, trumpet-playing father and “composed” little melodies, effectively honing the song-writing and vocal skills that would mark her 1966 debut, More Than a New Discovery (Verve, later re-issued by Columbia as The First Songs in 1973). “Queer”, indeed, was this teen-aged white-girl, seen standing on the corner of The High School of the Performing Arts singing Doo-Wop, effectively challenging our romantic sensibilities that somehow these corners were solely the provinces of masculine and multi-ethnic fantasies.
Like Birdie Lee, who with her sister Cole created a mystical language called “Elemeno”, and developed an affinity for passing, Nyro found some comfort in crossing borders and challenging margins. The shifting, sliding textures of Nyro’s 1968 recording, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession are apt metaphors for those comforts. As the Bronx-born bohemian girl who helped define the female singer-songwriter a few years before Carole King’s Tapestry, Nyro could claim a long-line of progeny including Suzanne Vega, Tori Amos, Rickie Lee Jones, Teena Marie, Kate Bush and Patti Labelle. It was with Labelle and her “soul sisters” Nona Hendrix (“I Sweat ”) and Sarah Dash that Nyro recorded her groundbreaking 1971 recording Gonna Take a Miracle. Released over 30 years ago, the recording encapsulates the risk-taking, note-bending, genre bounding style that made Nyro one of the most fascinating and evocative pop vocalists of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Many critics have suggested that Nyro was initially little more than a “blue-eyed” soul singer, though it is an insult to Nyro’s art and legacy to ever align her with the kind of novelty genre (white folks singing like black folks) that has produced the likes of The Righteous Brothers, Michael Bolton, or Mitch Ryder. Ryder, at least, can claim that he was from “D-Troit” (holla back Kid Rock and Eminem). Nyro, along with vocalists Teena Marie, George Michael, and Brit Lewis Taylor (who in my mind may be the most important Soul vocalist to debut in the last decade), simply complicates but doesn’t repudiate claims that there is such a thing as “black” singing. Whereas “blue-eyed” Soul is at best discomforting parody and genuflection and at worst sinister appropriation (see Michael Bolton), Nyro evokes the metaphor of “white chocolate”, maintaining all the “flava” and texture that one would expect in the sweetest chunk of deep chocolate. Her affinity for bending blue notes not withstanding, rather, was quintessentially New York City; a collage of the cultural sounds and gestures that had come to define the Knickerbocker metropolis. In the lyrics to the title track of her second recording New York Tendaberry, Nyro said of the city of her birth, “You look like a city but you feel like a religion to me.” The Bronx bred Nyro was a product of the kind of multi-ethnic working class enclaves Italians, Jews, African-Americans, Afro-Caribs and Puerto Ricans that defined New York. These enclaves were, rather ironically, dislodged by public works projects like the Cross Bronx Expressway and the World Trade Center. The best indication of Nyro’s wide ranging influences, New York Gumbo if you will, is the number of distinct groups that would turn her compositions into classic 1960s pop.
Tracks like “Blood, Sweat, and Tears”, and “When I Die”(1969), Streisand’s “Stoney End”(1970), and The Fifth Dimension’s “Wedding Bell Blues” (1969) were all written and recorded by Nyro on her debut, More Than a New Discovery. Practically the house writer for the latter group, Nyro also penned (and recorded) their cross-over hits “Stoned Soul Picnic” (“Surray down to a stone soul picnic”) and “Save the Country”. Nyro never enjoyed the kind of commercial success that other artists did with her music, though her follow-up recordings, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (1968), New York Tendaberry (1969), and Christmas and the Beads of Sweat (1970) earned her legitimate critical acclaim and a solid following. After the release of Gonna Take a Miracle (1971), Nyro took a sabbatical, relocating to a Massachusetts fishing community and given birth to her only child. Nyro re-emerged five years later with Smile, a project inspired by the sudden death of her mother. Most critics suggest that Nyro’s output for the remainder of her life, including Nested (1978), Mother’s Spiritual (1984), and her last studio project Walk the Dog and Light the Light, more thoroughly reflected the so-called “radical” feminist and animal rights issues that were her passion. In contrast to this conventional thinking, I’d like to suggest that the germs of Nyro’s more radical political sensibilities were contained in the aforementioned Gonna Take a Miracle.
Released in November of 1971, Gonna Take a Miracle has been described by some critics as “a collection of covers of others’ songs”, and as her “tribute to the Sixties”. Others have suggested that the album was a product of Nyro’s “writer’s block”. At the time of her death in 1997, Stephen Holden, writing in the New York Times, was more on-point when he suggested that the recording was a tribute to “New York street music”. Generally speaking the recording, which marked the beginning of Nyro’s industry sabbatical, is one of the least regarded of her first series of recordings. Writing about Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, critic Don Butler perhaps captured these perceptions when he wrote “Nyro never quite scaled those heights again, though her next album, New York Tendaberry, came close . . . I lost track of Nyro after New York Tendaberry.” Butler’s comments legitimately speak to the displacement of Nyro’s style of coffee house music in the aftermath of Carole King’s more polished Tapestry and the work of James Taylor, but also, Nyro began to dig deeper into the style of music that was more organically connected to the political movements of the era. For example, her 1970 release Christmas and the Beads of Sweat was produced by classic Soul producer Arif Mardin and The Rascal’s Felix Cavalieri, and featured the Muscle Shoals sound that marked Aretha Franklin’s 1967 breakthrough, I Have Never Loved a Man.
But it was with Gonna Take a Miracle that Nyro more fully embraced the “black” styles that always bubbled under her music. The recording featured the legendary production team of Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, who only a year later would celebrate the emergence of their “new” label, The Sound of Philadelphia courtesy of number one hits by Billy Paul (“Mrs. Jones”) and Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes (“If You Don’t Know Me By Now”). But in the most dramatic move, Nyro collaborated with the emerging trio known as Labelle. Featuring the soulful histrionics of lead vocalist Labelle, with the release of “Lady Marmalade” in 1974, the trio would become the standard bearers of sexually assertive feminist sensibilities in pop music. According to Labelle in her autobiography Don’t Block the Blessings: Revelations of a Lifetime, Gonna Take a Miracle was the product of a chance meeting with Nyro. Labelle tagged along with manager Vicki Wickham (Ready, Steady, Go) who was interviewing Nyro for Melody Maker. After Nyro and Labelle sat at a piano singing some of the R&B hits that she grew up singing, Nyro asked Labelle to sing background vocals for the project. I contend that Nyro and Labelle’s Gonna Take a Miracle not only serves as a “tribute” to the burgeoning politics of the “Soul” era, but it also represents the organic rubric of Nyro’s later queer and feminist politics. Gonna Take a Miracle systematically challenged and undermined the racial and gender assumptions associated with New York styled “street-singing” the early incarnations of Doo-Wop and the Detroit based Soul music that Motown founder Berry Gordy would dub “the Sound of Young America”.
At the time of their collaboration the Labelle trio was in a state of transition. In its earliest form, the group was a quartet known as the Ordettes, which included Patsy Holte, Nona Hendrix, Sarah Dash and Sandra Tucker (Sandra was later replaced by Cindy Birdsong, who later replaced Florence Ballard in The Supremes). Upon signing with Harold Robinson’s Bluebelle label in 1962, the group was renamed The Blue-Belles and its lead singer, “little” Patsy Holte, became Patti Labelle. At the time of their signing “The Blue-Belles” actually already had a song that was a hit in their native Philadelphia, called “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman”, though it was not a song that featured Dash, Hendrix, Birdsong and Labelle. The “original” Blue-Belles were in fact the Chicago-based Starlets, who signed a “six-month” contract with Robinson a month before, despite the fact they were already signed to Carl Davis’s Pam Records. When The Starlets pulled out of their contract with Bluebelle, Robinson was “stuck” with a hit record and no group to promote it, hence The Ordettes were signed to become the “The Blue-Belles”.
The Blue-Belles went on to become solid Chitlin’ Circuit regulars until Wickham became their manager in 1970 and wanted to instill wholesale changes to the group, most notably changing the name of the group, then known as Patti Labelle and the Bluebelles. According to Labelle, Wickham saw the group, now a trio after Birdsong’s defection to The Supremes in 1967, as “three black women singing about racism, sexism and eroticism”. Their “debut”, Labelle, which included a cover of Nyro’s “Time and Love”, was one of two recordings done by the group that year, the other being Nyro’s Gonna Take a Miracle.
The project’s title track was originally recorded by The Royalettes in 1965. “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle” is one of five tracks, including three that were recorded by Martha and the Vandellas, that was originally identified with “girl-groups”. The opening track, “I Met Him On a Sunday”, is remake of the Shirelles’ “I Met Him On a Sunday (Ronde, Ronde),” which helped introduce the group to mass audiences in 1958. The Shirelles are arguably the most popular of the black “girl groups” that were not products of the Motown assembly line. Nyro’s choices here are important in that they acknowledge the influence of “girl groups” within a genre that has until recently been given short shrift by music critics and scholars and has contemporarily been at the core of the national romanticism for the 1950s and its so-called “simpler”, less complicated times. (For example, the recent PBS productions, Doo Wop 50 and 51 pass off the strident industry apartheid of the time as friendly competition). In this regard, Nyro’s renditions of the music of The Shirelles and The Royalettes songs that open and close the project are some of the most conventional choices on the album, as they simply pay tribute to one of the most popular and most obscure of the “girl groups”.
But even those conventional choices go beyond the “white girl” paying tribute to the “shimmying, sequined” brown girls. Nyro’s choices represented a legitimate attempt to canonize the influence of those women in a genre in which “girl groups” are generally seen as little more than ” harmonious eye-candy”, not to mention the disparities between the reception of mainstream “eye-candy” and their “chocolate” sisters the career arcs of Ronnie Spector and Darlene Love being instructive, here. In this regard, Nyro, as a figure who is regarded as being one of the most if not the most significant female singer/songwriter in pop music (Roberta Flack, Joni Mitchell and Carole King notwithstanding) elevates the genius and brilliance of those groups as vocalists.
“I Met Him on a Sunday” opens with Nyro trading lyrics and “coos” with the trio, against a backdrop of handclaps and snapping figures Labelle’s signature style, as heard on the lyric, “and he didn’t come Friday ” The song’s opening immediately connects the project to the “street sounds” that frame Nyro’s memories of the late 1950s and 1960s, but also recalls the ways that young black girls often cultivated unique and alternative spheres of expression in street games such as double-dutch and hand-clapping games. In her fascinating essay, “Translating Double-Dutch to Hip hop: the Musical Vernacular of Black Girls’ Play”, Kyra Gaunt argues that “. . . (W)omen are rarely represented as generators of black music culture and style in spite of their actual participation. They are more often perceived as subsidiary to the ‘real’ players of musical invention . . . However, if one considers double-dutch and hand-clapping games as musical activity, African-American girls’ and women’s musical authority is evident.” With the chorus, the quartet’s vocals are joined by Nyro’s signature piano as the soaring harmonies of Labelle (“This Sunday ronde, ronde, ronde ronde, ronde, papa do ron ”) take the song to an artistic complexity that the original did not achieve. The song then abruptly shifts gear in a way that is reminiscent of the kinds of “queer” shifts that marked Eli and the Thirteenth Confession. This particular moment on the album signals that Nyro is not simply parroting the “street music” of her youth, but attempting something more substantive.
Nyro’s intentions are clearer in her renditions of “Jimmy Mack”, “Nowhere to Run”, and “Dancing in the Streets”, which were originally recorded by Martha and the Vandellas. In comparison to the Supremes, the queens of Motown, Martha and the Vandellas, as Suzanne Smith notes, “. . . projected a grittier, less refined, more defiant image.” Thus Nyro’s choice to record the music of The Vandellas suggest that she wanted to more directly connect to the vitality of that sound and that model of black femininity as opposed to the crossover pop-candy of The Supremes. Whereas Nyro and Labelle play it straight on “Jimmy Mack” (a subtle reminder on Nyro’s part that the “white girl” can sang!), the political undercurrents of the project are made more explicit with Nyro’s renditions of “Dancing in the Street” and “Nowhere to Run”, which both clock in at around five minutes, making them the longest tracks on the recording. The length of the songs represent clear efforts to reconstitute the general perceptions of the songs.
Such interpretations of these songs are also buoyed by some of the perceptions of the recordings at the time they were originally recorded. As Marvin Gaye, who co-wrote “Dancing in the Street”, related in his autobiography Divided Soul, “Of all the acts back then, I thought Martha and the Vandellas came closest to really saying something. It wasn’t a conscious thing, but when they sang numbers like ‘Quicksand’ or ‘Wild One’ or ‘Nowhere to Run’ or ‘Dancing in the Street’, they captured a spirit that felt political to me.” Smith notes in Dancing in the Street, her fascinating social history of Detroit and the Motown Corporation, that “‘Dancing in the Street” was never just a party song. Music, particularly music created in Detroit’s black community during the 1960s, could rarely, if ever, transcend the politically and racially charged environment in which it was produced.
Nyro and Labelle’s version of “Dancing in the Street” is conflated with Major Lance’s “Monkey Time”. The Lance tune, which was written and produced by Curtis Mayfield, morphs into “Dancing in the Street” about a minute and a half into the five minute recording. The song’s lyrical themes are naturally married. As an example, “Monkey Time’s” lyrics, “There’s a dance way over town, I don’t know how it started/all I know is when the people dance so hard to get parted/and when the music begins to play automatically I’m on my way”, are closely related to lines in “Dancing in the Street” such as, “All we need is music, sweet, sweet music, There’ll be music everywhere/They’ll be swinging and swaying and records playing, dancing in the street”. Nyro sings the Monkey Time lyric, “way over town” a second time before segueing into “Dancing in the Street”. This is also congruent with the opening lines of “Dancing in the Street” which names Chicago, New Orleans and New York as cities “ready for a brand new beat”. Given the political era in which the songs were originally recorded, it is not difficult to understand Gaye’s assertion that a song like “Dancing in the Street” was political as the aforementioned cities including Detroit were likely incubators for the kind political rage that was unleashed in Watts during the summer of 1965.
More specifically, as Smith chronicles in Dancing in the Street, many commentators saw a link between the song and the riots that broke out in Detroit in July of 1967. One observer suggested in the Kerner Commission Report that youth were “dancing amidst the flames”. In this context, “Monkey Time” and “Dancing in the Street” link the insurgent politics of black youth in major urban centers. The 1967 Detroit insurrections, which came two years after the 1965 Watts rebellion, were among the many reasons why Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. relocated his Detroit-based company to Los Angeles in the early 1970s. Gordy’s move mirrored the general migration of whites and middle-class blacks out of the city. By the mid-1970s, Detroit was in the midst of a tragic economic downturn that was largely precipitated by the collapse of the city’s automobile industry.
In this regard, Nyro and Labelle’s decision to recast the original Vandellas’ lyric “Can’t forget the motor city”, as “Don’t forget the motor city”, seems a conscious reference to the insurrections and the social and cultural malaise that would haunt the city for some time. The lyric is performed in classic “drive” form as a refrain alternately shouted with the lyric “dancing in the street”, giving this moment in the song an even more explicit political meaning. Additionally, the explicit linking of “Monkey Time” to “Dancing in the Street”, given the latter’s “history” as more than a dance song, suggest that leisure activities like dancing and partying (or what the Last Poets call “party and bullshit”) and dance styles such as the “Monkey” or the “Sophisticated Cissy”, can be metaphorically linked to black political agency. It may also be worth noting that Nyro’s sanctioning of “Monkey Time” highlights the political narratives that undergird the music of the song’s composer, Curtis Mayfield, who at the time of the Nyro and Labelle recording, was making the transition to a “serious” singer/songwriter. His groundbreaking Superfly soundtrack would be released just months after Gonna Take a Miracle.
In contrast to “Dancing in the Street”, Nyro and Labelle’s performance of “Nowhere to Hide” is less connected to the racial politics of 1960s urban America and more connected to the performance of feminist sensibilities. The song, which is standard “tormented lover who can’t break away” fare, was written by the famed Motown production trio, Holland-Dozier-Holland. The song was also performed as a pre-MTV video for “Murray the K’s” (Murray Kaufman) television program It’s What’s Happening, Baby. The performance was staged on the Ford Mustang assembly line with Martha and the Vandellas sitting inside an unfinished Mustang. Smith notes in Dancing in the Street that while the performance served as a free commercial for the Ford company and buttressed Motown’s position as a legitimate corporate entity, the song also highlighted the “tedium of assembly-line work” and the fact that auto-workers had “nowhere to go if automation displaced them from their jobs.” As an alternative to Smith’s reading and in contrast to the traditional reading of the song, I would like to suggest that the song represents the struggle of women and feminist within highly structured patriarchal and masculine spaces. In other words, women who have “nowhere to hide” from the power and influence of patriarchy ultimately have to cultivate spaces within and in spite of that patriarchy, in order to articulate their feminist and womanist sensibilities.
Within these interpretative contexts, Nyro and Labelle read the song relatively straight throughout the first two minutes. Then, in classic Nyro style, the song abruptly shifts, with Nyro first repeating the lyric in a lilting falsetto “I’ve go nowhere to run to” four times, briefly followed with Labelle repeatedly shouting “no, no, ain’t got nowhere to run to/no, no ain’t got nowhere to hide”. The Labelle performance in this instance is emphatic and defiant, suggesting the very different terrains in which white women and black women have often embraced feminist expression: Nyro’s lyric is repressed and restrained in comparison to Labelle’s. Labelle’s distinction between having no where to “run” and no where to “hide” suggest the further complications of race for black women, as their brown skin will not allow them to “hide” within a racist society, even if they can “run” from patriarchy. After the Labelle refrain is repeated four times, the trio repeats its section, this time joined by Nyro. Nyro’s lyrical joining suggest the broader ways that black and white women were linked within the structures of patriarchy that dominate their lives. Musically, this moment of the song is notable because the backing musicians on the track drop out as Nyro and Labelle sing virtually a capella, accompanied with only the sounds of hands-clapping and a jangling tambourine.
Though the traditions of black gospel are undercurrents throughout the recording Labelle’s voice would have it no other way this moment of the song is explicitly gospel. In this regard, this section of “Nowhere to Run” recalls the improvised drive sections that often accompany live gospel performances. According to gospel historian Ray Allen, many gospel songs feature “extended segments of chanted and sung improvisation known as ‘drive’, ‘gospel’ or ‘working sections’. A drive section begins when the instrumentalists stall on one chord while the background singers repeat a single vocal line over and over. At this point the lead singer begins to ad-lib, switching from his or her regular singing voice into a tense, high-pitched, rhythmically repetitive chant or singing chant.”
Nyro’s use of her falsetto voice at the beginning of “Nowhere to Hide’s” drive section fits within these improvisational conventions. The exchange between Nyro and Labelle in this section also speak to the practice of switching leads within gospel drives. As Allen notes, “Improvised drive sections allow lead singers to express their own personal feelings”, and as their “final and most persuasive strategy for achieving social and spiritual union with their listeners.” Thus within this moment of “Spirit-induced joy” or “gospel frenzy”, Nyro and Labelle create a space for feminist catharsis, notably within the contexts of black feminists or womanist spiritual practices. At the end of the a capella section of the song, Nyro repeats her earlier refrain, though she noticeably embellishes the lyrics in ways that she didn’t during the earlier refrain. Nyro’s second “solo” refrain highlights the ways that white women can be impacted by the feminist realities of black women.
Gonna Take a Miracle allows a broad conversation between feminist perspectives as well as alternative concepts of public spaces, spaces where the New York/San Francisco coffee house aesthetic comes in contact with the all-praised “Chitlin’ Circuit”. Given the marginalization and even demonization of these spaces from the American mainstream of the late 1960s and 1970s, the kind of coming together of the Haight-Asbury crowd with Apollo theater faithful, fully realized with Aretha Franklin’s legendary live Fillmore recording, was not as far fetched as it might have seemed. This was a dynamic that the Black Panther Party realized very early in their development. And yet there were other examples, such as Ms. Ree bringing the soul to Carole King’s “Natural Woman” four years before King would take the stage herself and take the singer/songwriter concept to the next level with Tapestry. In the world of early 1970s pop, there was no greater validation of your skills than to claim that the “Queen of Soul” sang your tune made it a pop “standard” on the real. This fact was not lost on Franklin, who on her legendary Amazing Grace (1972), would make the bold assertion that in his song “You’ve Got a Friend”, the “father” of Gospel, Thomas Dorsey, Jr., was on par with Carole King in her brilliant reworking of Dorsey’s “Precious Lord”. Even the radical multi-racial chic of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, or the later work of Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinal with Weather Report (who was as Chiltin’ Circuit as they come as the Austrian born funk master behind Cannonball Adderley classics such as “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” and “Country Preacher”), spoke to the powerful ways artists were progressively altering the often segregated musical landscape.
I submit though, that the collaboration between Nyro and Labelle was the most significant of these pairings because it placed the issue of gender and sexuality in the mix alongside traditional critical musings about race. This was an era when several women singer/songwriters were coming to the forefront with progressive and even radical concepts of themselves as musicians, women, and social agents. For every Carole King there was a Roberta Flack, whose debut, First Take (1969) is one of the most exquisite debuts ever in black pop. For every Joni Mitchell there was a Valerie Simpson, who recorded two groundbreaking discs for Motown that threw the label for a promotional loop. And tragically, for every Janis Joplin there was an Esther Phillips, whose version of Gil Scott-Heron’s, “Home is Where the Hatred Is”, was as stone-cold as a recovering addict laying comatose on the cobblestones. Think of the musical possibilities that would have emerged if any of these women had been allowed to “speak” to each other in the way that Labelle and Nyro did with Gonna Take a Miracle.
Ultimately it was the trio of Labelle that realized so many of those possibilities. In the years between Gonna Take a Miracle and Nyro’s “comeback” disc, Smile (1976), Labelle would release four recordings including Moon Shadow ( 1972) and Nightbirds (1974), the latter which includes their classic pop-crossover, “Lady Marmalade”. Prior to taking on the job of managing the trio, Vicki Wickham was quoted as telling the trio that they couldn’t “. . . wear those nice little frilly frocks and wigs, we’ve got to rethink it. You’ve got to make a statement, you’re women, there’s a lot to be said.” Wickham’s comments were a firm reference to the tradition of girl groups like The Supremes and the like who donned the very pretty uniforms of pleasure and sophistication for audiences at places like the Copacabana. Everything that the trio did in that five year period ran counter to that tradition. In her remarkable “Poem for Aretha”, Nikki Giovanni speaks pointedly about the attempts of various black female vocalists such as Nancy Wilson, Dionne Warwick and Diana Ross, to fall visually in line with the Black Power aesthetics of the period (Diana Ross had to get an Afro wig).
The three aforementioned women are notable because they were, with varying degrees, prime examples of the cross-over sensibilities of some black artists at the time: they were more likely to be found performing in upscale supper clubs than on the Chitlin’ Circuit. While there were prominent examples of new artists who fit firmly into the new black aesthetic of the early 1970s, the aforementioned Roberta Flack and Valerie Simpson among them, Aretha Franklin and Labelle were among the few female artists who were legitimately able to remake themselves. Franklin, for example, made the transition to soul sista in Dashikied garb [see the cover art for Young, Gifted and Black, Amazing Grace, and Hey Now Hey (The Other Side of the Sky)] to sexy afroed mama portrayed on the covers of Let Me In Your Life and With Everything in Me.
Labelle pushed the envelope even further in this regard drawing from a blank template of black femininity in which the only constant was a belief that black women were best positioned to challenge the essentialist nature of blackness and womaness, on some level recalling Anna Julia Cooper’s classic ditty that “when and where I enter (the black woman) the black race enters with me.” Though Nona Hendrix wrote many of the group’s provocative tracks including the stirring “Sunday’s News” and “Touch Me All Over”, both from Moon Shadow, like the examples from Gonna Take a Miracle, the trio took on tunes decidedly outside of the canon of black pop. Thus songs like Pete Townsend’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, the Stones’ “Wild Horses”, and Cat Stevens’ “Moon Shadow”, the title track of Labelle’s second release is given the proverbial “new coat of paint”. But this paint is funky, churchified and decidedly feminist in its projection. Labelle even managed to take on the reigning soul-griot of the era with a god-fearing rendition of Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”. (Note: A “griot” is a traditional West African poet/historian. Black Arts poets such as Gil Scott-Heron and Sonia Sanchez are direct links to the tradition, as are hip hop artists of the era).
It is such risk taking, as witnessed on both Labelle covers and originals, that set the stage for the group’s biggest commercial success. After doing two discs for Warner and one for RCA, Nightbirds (1974) was their first release for the Epic label. Epic was responsible for the progressive legacy of Sly and the Family Stone, but it also managed to under-promote the late Minnie Riperton and drop Shuggie Otis the same year that Nightbirds was released, because Epic was clueless as to how to promote his recovered classic,Inspiration Information, which was re-issued last year on David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label.
If Gonna Take a Miracle was a tribute to the street corner domains of black and Latina/o youth, Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade” was a tribute to one of the only public spaces where woman were allowed some sense of autonomous expression. Produced by the Creole funk-master Allen Toussaint, who had laced The Pointer Sisters the year before with the infectious “Yes, We Can, Can”, and written by Kenny Noland and Bob Crewe, Lady Marmalade became the trio’s only million-seller. The classic chorus with the line, “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?” (“Do you want to sleep with me tonight?”) is one of the most memorable pop music lines from the 1970s. Rather than a narrative about the illicit and illegitimate culture(s) that supports prostitution in places like New Orleans and Hunts Point (pimps up, hoes down), in the hands of Labelle, the song became an anthem of sexual assertion and empowerment themes that had been present in Labelle’s music throughout the period. Thus a track like Marlena Shaw’s “Street Talkin’ Woman”, when it was released a year later, could be legitimately interpreted within a feminist context to the extent that feminist discourses have argued that women should control how their sexuality is portrayed and realized.
According to Labelle, when Nyro joined the trio on stage to perform “Lady Marmalade” in the Spring of 1975, it was a highpoint of the groups career. By 1977 the group had disbanded, with Hendrix moving on to more fully express the soul/rock hybrid that was always at the heart of her compositions, and Dash having some minor success singing Disco. But it was Labelle who emerged as the most significant voice of the trio, achieving mainstream success with her classic 1984 track “If Only You Knew” and “On My Own”, which she recorded with Michael McDonald on her MCA debut in 1985. Though many of Labelle’s current fans are likely oblivious to the legacy of the group, and even more so about the significance of Nyro to Labelle’s career, in her autobiography Don’t Block the Blessings, Labelle admits that she and Nyro developed a strong personal bond, even as their professional profiles went in opposite directions.
In the spring of 2001, the legacy of the group was invoked as Lil Kim, Missy Elliot, Christine Aguilera, Pink, and Maya came together to record “Lady Marmalade” for the soundtrack for the film, Moulin Rouge. Though the quintet is directly connected to the legacy of Nyro and Labelle, the kind of sexuality the trio Labelle flaunted in the early 1970s is little more than a marketing ploy for teenie-bopper pop. Yes, sex always sells, and that was part of the reason why Labelle struck such a chord with the original “Lady Marmalade”, but where the original held power because it challenged so many taboos surrounding black female sexuality, 25 years later the new version was just further evidence that the performance of sexuality remains just about the only place that women have any real influence within the music industry.
Meanwhile, a host of important women artists, Sarah McLachlan, Res, Tracy Chapman, Ursula Rucker to name a few, will never have the kind of access to audiences and consumers that the Pinks, Eves, and Gwen Stefanis regularly have on TRL or 106th and Park. And while smart tracks like the recent collaboration by Stefani and Eve, “Let Me Blow Ya Mind”, are promising, the real apartheid conditions within the music industry go against the kind of groundbreaking collaboration that Nyro and Labelle realized three decades ago with Gonna Take a Miracle. Somewhere, Nyro, Esther Phillips, and Joplin dream of the day that Shelby Lynne walks into a studio with Jill Scott.