[25 February 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Forget for a moment that Labelle’s epitaph in the collective un-conscious of mass culture is a salacious proposition sung in French. For all its funkiness and scintillating histrionics, “Lady Marmalade” is but a tiny sliver of the story and, in the context of the three albums Labelle recorded on Epic in the mid-‘70s, the gateway to more than two-dozen songs that explored cosmic journeys, carnal desires, and progressive consciousness. “We must raise ourselves up much higher”, Labelle asserted. Did they mean space, sex, or a state of mind? It’s open to interpretation…
Like George Clinton with his suited and booted Parliaments morphing into Parliament-Funkadelic (Labelle’s brothers in space-age funk), Patti LaBelle, Sarah Dash, and Nona Hendryx toured the chitlin’ circuit as Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles in the 1960s, and reinvented themselves as Labelle at the dawn of the ‘70s. Before Clinton and his P-Funk tribe disembarked from the Mothership, though, Labelle was already flying a few stratospheres above the popular music landscape.
Pressure Cookin’ (1973), their sole release for RCA, marked a transition from their two albums on Warner Bros., Labelle (1971) and Moon Shadow (1972). A jazz-funk fusion cushioned both the socially charged title track and “Something in the Air/The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, a pair of songs that stirred the mind as well as the feet. The jeans and afro look on their debut album, itself a transition from the gowns and gloves of their girl-group days, yielded to a unique, science fiction-inspired look designed by Larry LeGaspi. Despite the undeniable musicality of Pressure Cookin’, RCA didn’t understand how to maximize the potential of Labelle in the marketplace. By the time Labelle signed a new deal with Epic, the metamorphosis was swiftly underway, if not complete. It just took the public a moment to catch on to what the group’s fervent New York fan base already knew. These sistahs were not the Three Degrees.
The Epic trilogy of albums—Nightbirds (1974), Phoenix (1975), and Chameleon (1976)—reflected Labelle’s intergalactic orientation. They soared through a vast musical galaxy, changing the status quo in their orbit. A trio of black women who appealed equally to Soul Train and Rock Concert audiences, Labelle was not merely just another “all girl band”, nor anything resembling a typical R&B act. While Gamble and Huff reigned on the charts with their Philadelphia International acts, Labelle created a soundtrack for the “space children, universal lovers” who danced with abandon and made love to “What Can I Do for You?” and “You Turn Me On” in steamy downtown clubs.
Three decades later, a record label finally revisits this fertile period. Surprisingly, it’s not Sony Music, which owns Labelle’s Epic catalog. Instead, the UK-based reissue label BGO Records has combined the three albums in a completely remastered set, improving the sound of the US CD versions of Nightbirds and Chameleon. 25 years after the introduction of the compact disc, Phoenix also finally joins the digital age. While the appearance of Phoenix is noteworthy enough, the real cause for celebration is how well this Labelle triptych holds up.
“I come like the pouring rain…”
From the moment that serpentine bassline introduces a little ditty about a New Orleans lady of the night, Nightbirds reminds listeners about how funk was rendered in the pre-Autotune, pre-synth, pre-sampling era. All a group needed was a producer like Allen Toussaint, an innovative manager like Vicki Wickham, and musicians who could churn out the grooves to complement the innate vocal prowess of Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx, and Sarah Dash. For all its overfamiliarity in the subsequent years, “Lady Marmalade” sounds damn good today. Just listen, really listen to how they intone the cry of Lady Marmalade’s john, “More, more, more”, or how Patti LaBelle ascends the scale on “creole Lady Marmalade” (see 2:42). The vocal pyrotechnics only begin there. These nightbirds don’t just sing wistfully to the moon, they pierce the darkness.
On “Somebody Somewhere”, Labelle demands emancipation from the lies that tear apart the fabric of society. “The writing on the wall says that he ain’t right at all, he’s a liar”, they chant. Taken in the context of the era, Tricky Dick Nixon makes a good target for the lyrics, penned with sharp exigency by Nona Hendryx, the lyricist for the group. “Are You Lonely”, another one of the five tracks Hendryx contributed to Nightbirds, also gives a snapshot of the times that, 35 years later, still resonates. Toussaint’s horn-driven arrangements amplify the clarion call of the words in both songs.
Even on the numbers not written by Hendryx (“Lady Marmalade”), Labelle mold the words to their distinct vocal personalities, especially on “What Can I Do for You?” and “It Took a Long Time”. Labelle’s sonorous harmonies sound like a whistle on the former, which chugs along like a coal-powered locomotive, while “It Took a Long Time” emphasizes how effortlessly and intuitively LaBelle, Hendryx, and Dash intertwine their voices. Hendryx and Dash thread an almost entirely different melody underneath LaBelle’s crie de coeur: “For the first time in my life / I see the sun and moon shining bright / And my life looks so much better than it ever did before”. The song itself is sweet and soulful, its durability and timelessness exemplified by director Lee Daniels’ recent use of “It Took a Long Time” in the film Precious.
Two of Patti LaBelle’s most stunning vocal moments appear on a pair of cuts by Hendryx from the album’s original side two. The celestial title track, inspired by Janis Joplin, furnishes a few hair-raising seconds when LaBelle resolves “She feeds the fire of our fla-a-a-me” as a multi-syllabic exclamation. Towards the end of “You Turn Me On”, you hear her summon some kind of guttural incantation below the vamp, “I come like the pouring rain / Each time you call my name”. It’s an appropriately transfixing moment inside a song that leaves you breathless with its slow release of sexual tension. These were the same vocalists who ten years earlier had “Danny Boy” and “Over the Rainbow” in their repertoire.
Though the new day had dawned long before, Nightbirds completed the transformation. Phoenix turned it out.
“See how she dances”
Produced by Allen Toussaint, with Vicki Wickham and Don Puluse handling the album’s mixing, Phoenix improved on the elements that made Nightbirds such a revelation. The funk is harder, the songs have a stronger personality, and the layering of the vocals is more dynamic.
Of the three Epic albums, Phoenix benefits the most from a whoosh and crackle-free experience, which makes its long overdue appearance on CD very welcome. The sparse piano and guitar introduction on the opening title track, in particular, has always been upstaged by the natural wear and tear of vinyl. Here, its beauty rings clear as Hendryx and Dash usher in the song’s prelude.
Penned by Hendryx, “Phoenix (The Amazing Flight of a Lone Star)”, sets the listener on a unique excursion, replete with dramatic pauses that stoke anticipation, then release a torrent of music fire. Labelle flourishes in a format that goes beyond the typical three-minute pop song. “We’ve all got to go like we’ve come /Before or after the sun”, they exclaim. It’s the quintessential Labelle harmony, built around a vocal and musical arrangement that grips the listener with each passing second. To hear Dash gently sing “rise phoenix” before unleashing a full-throttled “R-i-i-i-ISE!”, or to bear witness to Patti LaBelle wrapping her voice around the word “flight” in ways that defy explanation, is what makes “Phoenix” not only the most compelling song on the album (you’ll find yourself listening to it repeatedly to relish such isolated moments), but one of the highlights of Labelle’s career.
Sustaining the vocal acrobatics, “Slow Burn” and “Black Holes in the Sky” showcase the superiority of Labelle’s band. The latter features a dreamy string section and a brief flourish of flutes. Each closer listen reveals another morsel of music that may not be evident the first or second time. Even without the voices, which are no less than remarkable, this pair of cuts would retain a galvanizing power as instrumentals.
“Good Intentions” slows the proceedings down. Another Nona Hendryx composition, one of eight on the album, the song directs its aim towards a limp and lifeless lover (“Going down, getting it up / Sure ain’t easy”). Patti LaBelle basks in the direct and cutting spirit of the lyrics. Her attack on the words is sharp and unrestrained: “With no pretension / I’d like to mention / That your good intentions just ain’t good enough”. When Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash join in on the refrain—“Never, never, never / Never good enough”—the flaccid attempts of Mr. Wrong are all but extinguished.
“Messin’ with My Mind”, the cousin to “Good Intentions” in its frank dialogue between lovers, contains some of the most clever lyrics Hendryx ever wrote during the Labelle period: “I’m spent / You went / I’m going to give you up for Lent”. The words marinate in a flavorful musical arrangement. The band is at its most relentlessly funky and the interplay between the musicians and Labelle is potent, especially during the breakdown. Patti LaBelle’s cry grows more urgent and incessant as the song nears its kinetic conclusion. The staying power of “Messin’ with My Mind” some 35 years later is evident anytime a DJ slips it into a set: “Messin’ with My Mind” packs dance floors.
“Action Time” also delivers the funk as powerfully now as in 1975. Written by bandmates Bud Ellison and Rev Batts (the same team who penned “What Can I Do for You?” on Nightbirds), “Action Time” turns on a brassy axis, accented by Labelle’s holler, “give it up!” Like any good show-stopper, the listener only craves more once “Action Time” concludes Phoenix.
“Leave your body and your mind behind”
With a new producer in tow—David Rubinson—Chameleon arrived in 1976. Like its namesake, the album emphasized the group’s mutability in a range of styles—doo wop, funk, Latin, hard rock—further confounding those who wanted to label Labelle. In just the wingspan of eight songs, Chameleon covered even more territory than its predecessors.
Crafted for an extended workout in the club, “Get You Somebody New” captured Labelle at a feverish pitch. Sarah Dash punctures the wall of funk with a hair-raising take on “Heart’s desire”, while Labelle prolongs the kiss-off with streams of “I can’t stand it!” running through a rough sea of rock-soul.
“Come Into My Life” calms the current for a moment before “Isn’t It a Shame” takes center stage. A stirring eight-minute ballad written by Randy Edelman, with exquisite piano work by Bud Ellison, it’s perhaps Labelle’s finest recording from the Epic era that’s dedicated to the lovelorn. The vocals are pristinely recorded with a sheen rounding out the rough edges of each singer’s voice, yet retaining the rawness of emotion: “Isn’t it a shame that such a love must end, whoa”. Whoa, indeed.
Turning the compass 180 degrees, “Who’s Watching the Watcher” is a high-voltage dose of gospel-infused rock and roll. LaBelle and Hendryx trade lyrics that question authority and shake the listener from complacency. “Nobody seems to care when they’ve got their share of the pie / Nobody seems to care until the water’s rising high”, they holler as the band lays down a vigorous performance. The collective heat of the album’s original side A, which closed with “Who’s Watching the Watcher”, is enough to melt vinyl.
Until Labelle reunited for Back to Now in 2008, and aside from a few one-off appearances, the four cuts on side B of Chameleon comprised the group’s swan song. Penned by Nona Hendryx, “Chameleon”, “Gypsy Moths”, “A Man in a Trenchcoat (Voodoo)”, and “Going Down Makes Me Shiver” constitute the group’s greatest suite of songs.
The shimmering doo wop harmonies of the title track lead to a furious conclusion before segueing into “Gypsy Moths”, an intoxicating movement. A duet between guitar and bass climbs down the scale before creeping back up over freeform percussion. Just before it cannot seem to go any higher, it peaks and launches into a full-on explosion of Latin rhythms. Three different layers of vocals introduce the refrain, “Leave your body and your mind behind and free your soul so you can….” When the word “dance” is finally reached, LaBelle, Hendryx, and Dash hold the note for nine heaven-sent seconds. Through a kaleidoscopic soundscape, “Gypsy Moths” is a celebration of liberating the body from inhibitions.
Following the freaky funk and psychedelic patina of “A Man in a Trenchcoat (Voodoo)”, featuring a rare lead vocal by Hendryx, Labelle melds spiritual and sexual imagery on “Going Down Makes Me Shiver”. Sarah Dash’s operatic trills stop time. “I’ve been down so many times and now I’ve got that perfect climb”, LaBelle testifies. For seven minutes, the group envelops the listener in a song that’s part baptism, part seduction. “Going, going, going…” fades the song out, a farewell to a wondrous era.
Until now, the Nightbirds-Phoenix-Chameleon trilogy has never been properly represented, save from a hastily thrown together compilation that’s half Labelle and half Patti LaBelle solo material. BGO Records has the distinction of being the first company to really put any substantial effort into securing Labelle’s legacy and their music. While the packaging is adequate, it fails to replicate the boldness of the original design of the albums. The black and white booklet offers a less-than-stellar facsimile of what record buyers experienced in the mid-‘70s after removing the shrink wrap. Perhaps the Legacy division of Sony will rectify the minor shortcomings of this set in a future domestic release.
The music is truly what matters most, however, and this set illustrates why no other group has ever approximated what made Labelle true innovators. To quote Nona Hendryx, there’s “So much more than I can tell / What I’ve said is but a drop in the well”. Except this: getting down to Patti LaBelle, Sarah Dash, and Nona Hendryx makes me shiver. Will you come?