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Rock Solid Woman: 20 Essential Nona Hendryx Performances

Photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

Whether a nightbird in flight or a skindiver in transformation, Nona Hendryx is the quintessential Rock Solid Woman. PopMatters celebrates Joe's Pub at the Public's very first Vanguard Resident with 20 of her most unforgettable performances.

Nona Hendryx defines a "Rock Solid Woman" as a woman who "mines and tends our feminine emotions and refines them with her art". As a songwriter, producer, vocalist, poet, educator, and visual artist, Hendryx is the quintessential Rock Solid Woman. Love is her frequency, and she channels it into everything she sings or creates.

In the midst of her recent collaboration with Gary Lucas on The World of Captain Beefheart (2017) and her Keep Funkin' (2018) EP with Soul Clap, Hendryx is curating a year of concerts and events as the inaugural recipient of Joe's Pub at the Public's 2018 Vanguard Residency. Earlier in January, she staged her own solo show, Mamafunk, which featured a combustible combination of funk and rock, and produced Parallel Lives: Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf, an immersive concert experience that explores the similar trajectories shared by Lady Day and the "Little Sparrow".

True to previous productions of Parallel Lives, Hendryx melded music, poetry, and dance together for a night of mesmerizing performances. Les Nubians vocalist Célia Faussart, Mudbound (2017) composer Tamar-kali, Ki Ki Hawkins, Raven O, and Hendryx herself each shone in their interpretations of songs closely identified with Holiday and Piaf while poet/actress Liza Jessie Peterson delivered spoken word passages that captured the essence of each woman's vocal artistry. A four-piece string section and a band of virtuosos led by MD/keyboardist Etienne Stadwijk unveiled heretofore unseen nuances in the evening's setlist of timeless standards.

Before Parallel Lives returns in May, Hendryx will present Liza Jessie Peterson's Down the Rabbit Hall on 19 March and bring Rock Solid Women's Festival to Joe's Pub from 29 March through 31 March. Phylicia Rashad, S. Epatha Merkerson, Sophia Ramos, Moor Mother, Kimberly Nichole, and musical director Allison Miller are among the formidable artists, musicians, poets, and actors slated to perform at the three-day festival. A week later, Hendryx will be honored at the "Inaugural Joe's Pub Vanguard Gala" directed by Charles Randolph-Wright (Motown: The Musical) with musical direction by renowned singer/songwriter/activist Toshi Reagon.

The Vanguard Gala's Honorary Chairs are two women who've traveled untold miles with Hendryx for nearly 60 years, Sarah Dash and Patti LaBelle. From their earliest incarnation as the Bluebelles (later, Patti LaBelle & the Bluebelles) with fourth member Cindy Birdsong, they possessed a vocal blend, unlike any other group. Christened the "Sweethearts of the Apollo", the Bluebelles toured the Chitlin' Circuit and shared bills with legendary acts like James Brown, before Birdsong departed the group in 1967 to replace Florence Ballard in the Supremes.

Groundbreaking Ready Steady Go! producer Vicki Wickham, who ran the New York office for UK-based Track Records (the Who, the Jimi Hendrix Experience), began managing the group in 1970 and helped revamp their style, from wardrobe to repertoire. The trio unveiled a new sound, a new image, and a newly trimmed name on their Warner Bros. debut Labelle (1971) and joined Laura Nyro for Gonna Take a Miracle (1971) later that same year. Hendryx soon emerged as the primary songwriter of Labelle, her songs accompanying material by Cat Stevens ("Moon Shadow") and Gil Scott-Heron ("The Revolution Will Not Be Televised") on subsequent albums.

With the release of Nightbirds (1974), Labelle became glam rock goddesses, making history as they descended from stage ceilings and packed concert halls with their devoted legion of silver-attired "space children". Though the trio dissolved Labelle in 1977, they supported each other's solo endeavors and briefly reunited to record the number one dance hit "Turn It Out" for the film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995). Featuring productions by Hendryx, Lenny Kravitz, Wyclef Jean, and Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff, Back to Now (2008) marked Labelle's first album in more than 30 years and launched a multi-city reunion tour.

In October 2017, Hendryx, Dash, and LaBelle were fêted by the Philadelphia Music Alliance's "Walk of Fame". "Our group was, and is still an unchallenged musical entity," says Sarah Dash. "The harmonies speak for themselves. Nona is a fabulous songwriter."

Indeed, the songs that Hendryx composed as both a solo artist and member of Labelle furnish many of the 20 video clips compiled below. Each performance illustrates how Hendryx has embodied the idea of a Vanguard Artist in every phase of her career. Whether a nightbird in flight, a skindiver in transformation, or a Rock Solid Woman who rocks your soul, Nona Hendryx creates musical brilliance from constant motion.

Photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo

1. Labelle, "Live on Soul!" (1972)

"If there's anybody that has a heart condition, call your doctor and tell them to be ready for an emergency because we'd like to present to you three of the baddest sisters in the world." DJ Gerry Bledsoe wasn't exaggerating when he introduced Labelle during their October '72 appearance on Soul!, Ellis Haizlip's legendary music program broadcast on WNET in New York. The trio opened with a pair of songs that Hendryx penned for their second Warner Bros. album Moon Shadow (1972), "I Believe That I've Finally Made It Home" and "Touch Me All Over", and sparked a series of climaxes in their reimagining of Nina Simone's "Four Women" and the Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again". By the end of their 25-minute set, they'd brought the studio audience to a fever pitch through sheer vocal magnetism.

2. Labelle, "Are You Lonely" (Live) (1975)

Labelle recorded Pressure Cookin' (1973) for RCA before relocating to Epic Records the following year. Recorded in New Orleans, Nightbirds (1974) marked the first of two albums Allen Toussaint produced for the trio. "It was absolutely wonderful," he recalled in a 2014 interview. "The whole thing was a delight. They just walked into the studio, and they were marvelous. Nona's lyrics were so powerful" (Wikane). Hendryx's songs were the heart, soul, and conscience of Nightbirds. She threaded socially incisive observations through her lyrics on "Are You Lonely" while Patti LaBelle's lead vocal brought an urgency to couplets like "You've been running around counting teardrops / They said it was rain falling from the sky. You've been wondering why the rain never stops / Only tears your people cry."

3. Labelle with Cher, "What Can I Do for You" (Live) (1975)

Nightbirds ushered in a series of firsts for Labelle and the industry at large. In October 1974, Labelle was the first black act to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House. Nine months later, they became the first black female group to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone. In between, they scored their first number one hit on the pop and R&B charts with Bob Crewe and Kenny Nolan's "Lady Marmalade". Hendryx once characterized the success of the song as a "door opener" to other statements the trio wanted to make in their music. Penned by Labelle band members James Ellison (keyboards) and Edward Batts (guitar), "What Can I Do For You" delivered a spirit of empowerment to living rooms across Middle America when the trio guested on The Cher Show. The song became a club anthem, kindling the burgeoning disco movement as it reached the Top Ten on both the R&B and disco charts.

4. Labelle, "Messin' With My Mind" (Live) (1975)

Labelle reunited with Allen Toussaint for their second Epic set, Phoenix (1975). The trio's voices were in full flight on the songs Hendryx wrote for the album, from the sublime title track to the celestial-themed "Black Holes in the Sky". At the time of its release, Phoenix was eclipsed by Nightbirds' watershed success and has often been overlooked in favor of the trio's commercial breakthrough. However, Phoenix is every bit as strong as its predecessor, with vocal arrangements that only Nona Hendryx, Sarah Dash, and Patti LaBelle could finesse so seamlessly. "Messin' With My Mind", in particular, remains an undeniable funk-rock masterpiece with a galloping rhythm that doesn't relent for five minutes. Upon its release in September 1975, the song rocketed to the Top Ten of the disco chart. Two months later, the trio nearly set the stage ablaze when they performed "Messin' With My Mind" on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert.

5. Labelle, "(Can I Speak to You Before You Go to) Hollywood" (Live) (1975)

There are seven words that are intimately familiar to any dedicated Labelle fan: "Have you got a minute my friend?" That question is the gateway to a treasure in the trio's catalog, "(Can I Speak to You Before You Go to) Hollywood". Written by Nona Hendryx for Pressure Cookin', the song spotlights each vocalist singing extended verses as they counsel a friend who's lured by the fiction of Hollywood. It culminates with Dash, Hendryx, and LaBelle exclaiming, "I believe in you / hope all your dreams come true". Rolling Stone called "Hollywood" a "remarkable" song and noted how Patti LaBelle sang her part with "warmth and a lack of reproach" (8 November 1973). When the trio included "Hollywood" during their November 1975 guest spot on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, viewers saw three phenomenal women give the performance of a lifetime.

6. Labelle, "Live on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert" (1976)

Labelle performed nearly all of Chameleon (1976), their last album for Epic Records, during their appearance on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert in October 1976. Produced by David Rubinson, Chameleon underscored the group's ease with funk, hard rock, ballads, and Latin-based rhythms alike, as well as songs like "Going Down Makes Me Shiver" that transcended genre altogether. The transition between "Chameleon" and "Gypsy Moths" evoked a musical orgasm, though one that was interrupted by a commercial break on Rock Concert. The staging of "System", another tune penned by Hendryx, created a compelling sequence where Hendryx and LaBelle squared-off to seal the fate of Dash's soul. Twenty-two years later, Lenny Kravitz would masterfully capture that dynamic in the studio, producing "System" for the trio's Back to Now reunion album.

7. Nona Hendryx featuring Carlos Santana, "Winning" (Live) (1982)

Nona Hendryx and Patti LaBelle both released their self-titled solo debuts on Epic in 1977. While LaBelle re-teamed with Rubinson, Hendryx collaborated with Michael Sherman (Alice Cooper) and ventured further into rock. Rolling Stone praised Nona Hendryx (1977), calling it a "bold first installment in Nona Hendryx's new career … Hendryx is at her best as an all-out rocker" (1 December 1977). The album opened with the only track the singer didn't write for her debut, Russ Ballard's "Winning". The song showcased her strength in a rock milieu, her voice matching Eddie Martinez's guitar solos in both power and ferocity. Five years later, she'd perform "Winning" at Musicourt (1982), a charity event at Forest Hills Stadium in New York that featured tennis pros and a roster of rock acts led by MD Todd Rundgren. Carlos Santana, who recorded "Winning" on Zebop! (1981), joined Hendryx onstage for the ultimate rendition of her very first solo single.

8. Nona Hendryx, "Bustin' Out" (Live) (1982)

Throughout the late '70s and early '80s, Hendryx released a series of singles for Arista UK and recorded Holland-Dozier-Holland's "Love Is Like an Itching in My Heart" (1981) with Busta Jones and Jerry Harrison (Talking Heads). She also teamed with the Cage on a cover of T-Connection's "Do What You Wanna Do" (1982) mixed by John Luongo. However, her collaboration with Material on "Bustin' Out" (1981) became the clarion call of New York's "No Wave" movement and spawned one of the most bracing tracks of her career. Written by Hendryx, guitarist Ronny Drayton, and Material members Bill Laswell, Michael Beinhorn, and Fred Maher, "Bustin' Out" was a pioneering fusion of rock, new wave, and dance. A year later, her performance of "Bustin' Out" at Musicourt was the match point of the night, with Drayton and former Labelle bassist Carmine Rojas amplifying the song's signature riff.

9. Nona Hendryx, "Transformation" (1983)

After performing and recording with everyone from Cameo to Talking Heads, Hendryx formed her own bands, Zero Cool and Propaganda, and received some of her best reviews since Labelle's heyday. In fact, New York Times critic Stephen Holden called Propaganda's appearance at the Ritz "one of the most exhilarating rock shows that this writer has seen in some time" (1 May 1982). Experimentation was the key element that focused Hendryx's musical vision on her first album for RCA, simply titled Nona (1983). Produced by Hendryx and Material, the album coalesced edgy yet accessible sensibilities that appealed to clubs and college radio alike. In the company of solid tracks like "Dummy Up", "Living on the Border" and "B-Boys", "Transformation" emerged as the defining anthem of Hendryx's solo career.

10. Nona Hendryx, "Keep It Confidential" (Live) (1983)

Rolling Stone applauded Hendryx's first new album in six years with a stellar review. "A tour de force ... the finest pop-funk album since Prince's Dirty Mind," the magazine stated in its four-star assessment of Nona (12 May 1983). Even The Washington Post added a list of superlatives, describing the singer's sound as "an adventurous mix of rock, funk, reggae, and electropop" (6 May 1983). With no shortage of options, RCA issued "Keep It Confidential" as the album's lead single. Written by Ellen Foley, Ellie Greenwich, and Jeff Kent, it featured an impassioned vocal performance from Hendryx. Guest musicians like Nile Rodgers and Kashif added even more luster to the song, piloting it to #22 on the R&B singles chart in May 1983.

11. Nona Hendryx, "I Sweat (Going Through the Motions)" (1984)

Material producers Bill Laswell and Michael Beinhorn joined Hendryx at Electric Lady Studios to co-produce her second RCA release, The Art of Defense (1984). The album was a solid follow-up to Nona, with musicians like Bernie Worrell, Eddie Martinez, Jeff Bova, and Trevor Gale helping Hendryx expand her sound on moody excursions like "Soft Targets" and "To the Bone" rather than repeat the approach she took on the previous album. "I become the beat," she proclaimed on album opener "I Sweat (Going Through the Motions)", a propulsive, six-minute workout that brought her back to the R&B Top 40. Her guttural scream at the song's climax echoed through clubs as François K's 12" remix made the rounds in 1984. The following summer, "I Sweat" found another home on Arista's soundtrack to the John Travolta / Jamie Lee Curtis vehicle, Perfect (1985).

12. Nona Hendryx, "If Looks Could Kill (D.O.A.)" (1985)

The Heat (1985) capped Hendryx's trio of RCA releases with an album that roared. It delivered on the promise of the album title, serving eight alternately searing and sensual grooves that could melt vinyl, from the anti-apartheid sentiments of "Revolutionary Dance" to the singer's collaboration with Jean Beauvoir (the Plasmatics) on "I Need Love". RCA issued "If Looks Could Kill (D.O.A.)" as a single, generating rave reviews for one of several self-penned tracks on The Heat. "The strongest single of her solo career ... her hottest vocal ever," Billboard declared. Rolling Stone's review was no less effusive, stating, "'If Looks Could Kill (D.O.A.)' pits Nona's oozy delivery and a midnight sax against cooing girl-group harmonies with steamy results" (7 November 1985).

13. Nona Hendryx, "Why Should I Cry?" (Live) (1987)

Newly signed to EMI America, Hendryx and co-producer Dan Hartman enlisted a dream team of co-writers and musicians forFemale Trouble (1987). Featuring George Clinton and Mavis Staples on guest vocals, Prince contributed "Baby Go-Go" under the pseudonym Joey Coco. Elsewhere, the System presided over "Drive Me Wild" and "Too Hot to Handle" while Flyte Tyme producers Jellybean Johnson and Spencer Bernard led "Rhythm of Change" and "Why Should I Cry?" Fresh from producing Janet Jackson's blockbuster Control (1986), Flyte Tyme figureheads Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis played on the latter tune, powering "Why Should I Cry?" to the R&B Top 5. Though Hendryx's tenure at EMI America was short-lived, "Why Should I Cry?" became the highest-charting R&B hit of her solo career.

14. Nona Hendryx, "Winds of Change (Mandela to Mandela)" (Live) (1987)

Several Nona Hendryx songs have become classics over the years independent of charts or radio play. "Winds of Change (Mandela to Mandela)" is at the top of that list. Hendryx had long been a staunch activist in opposing South Africa's policy of apartheid, participating in Artists United Against Apartheid's "Sun City" (1985) single written by Steven Van Zandt. She was inspired to write "Winds of Change" after reading Winnie Mandela's Part of My Soul Went with Him (1985). "It was a very thin book, but it broke my heart," Hendryx said during a recent performance at Joe's Pub (11 January 2018). "Winnie's often the forgotten soldier." Rolling Stone commended "Winds of Change" in the magazine's review of Female Trouble, writing "This quiet anthem moves with a subtle stateliness" (16 July 1987). Decades later, "Winds of Change" remains a profound statement of love, humanity, and freedom.

15. Nona Hendryx, "Women Who Fly" (1989)

Hendryx closed the '80s with Skindiver (1989), an album that exemplified the singer's boundless creativity and predilection for marrying cutting-edge technology and music. Co-producing the album with Peter Baumann (Tangerine Dream), she programmed layers of computers, drum machines, and electronic percussion across the album's ten songs. "The dense, almost ambient, soundscapes she constructs and her always great singing make this a satisfying foray into uncharted territory," AllMusic later wrote. However, the more progressive orientation of the album didn't mute the vulnerability and thoughtful introspection of songs like "Women Who Fly". "Pride goes to my head like cheap wine / And I honestly hate when the winner's fate isn't mine," she sang. Following Jefferson Starship's cover of "Women Who Fly" on their Deep Space/Virgin Sky (1995) concert album, Hendryx and acclaimed playwright/director Charles Randolph-Wright developed Skindiver into a sci-fi rock musical with readings at Joe's Pub (2007) and Washington D.C.'s Arena Stage (2011).

16. Nona Hendryx, "Rock This House" (Live) (2012)

Over the years, certain songs have become mainstays of Nona Hendryx's concerts. "Rock This House" is a song that invariably prompts applause whenever Hendryx enters the stage. Originally produced by Hendryx, Bernard Edwards, and Jason Corsaro on The Heat, "Rock This House" featured Keith Richards on guitar and was subsequently issued as a 12" promo single using Arthur Baker's remix. The song also scored Hendryx a nomination for "Best Rock Vocal Performance, Female" at the 28th Annual Grammy Awards. Remarkably, Hendryx's nomination for "Rock This House" alongside contenders Tina Turner ("One of the Living") and Melba Moore ("Read My Lips") represent the only time in the Recording Academy's entire 60-year history where black artists outnumbered white artists in a rock category.

17. Nona Hendryx, "Temple of Heaven" (Live) (2012)

Four years after Hendryx reunited with Patti LaBelle and Sarah Dash on Labelle's Back to Now, she emerged with her first solo set in 23 years, Mutatis Mutandis (2012). Released on Ani DiFranco's Righteous Babe Records, the album included tuneful treatises on politics ("Tea Party"), religious dogma ("When Love Goes to War"), the environment ("Oil on the Water"), and toxic media figures ("The Ballad of Rush Limbaugh"), plus a gut-wrenching version of "Strange Fruit". The vitality of Hendryx's live shows fueled "Temple of Heaven", a song she wrote with powerhouse musicians Felicia Collins and Gail Anne Dorsey. Ronny Drayton (guitar), Trevor Gale (drums), Warren McRae (bass), and Etienne Stadwijk (keys) anchored the studio version of the song, with the singer's longtime background vocalists Ki Ki Hawkins and Keith Anthony Fluitt adding powerful, angelic harmonies to the bridge. To this day, few Nona Hendryx recordings are more essential than "Temple of Heaven".

18. Nona Hendryx, "Design for Living" (Live) (2013)

Technology has constantly catapulted Nona Hendryx forward to places that few artists dare to explore. Several inventions have stemmed from her work with the Music Ensemble, Music Theatre, and Electronic Production and Design (EPD) Departments at Berklee College of Music, where she's served as an "Ambassador for Artistry in Education" since 2011. In March 2013, Berklee presented Nona Hendryx Rewired, a concert that featured students and faculty reinterpreting Hendryx's songs using innovative musical technology. When Hendryx took the stage wearing her Audio Tutu (a plexiglass tutu outfitted with a sound system), she performed "Design for Living" with a very special guest — a robot. Decades earlier, Hendryx's original recording of "Design for Living" on her first RCA album was particularly notable for an all-star cadre of guest musicians that included Valerie Simpson, Laurie Anderson, Gina Schock, Nancy Wilson (Heart), Patti LaBelle, Kim Clarke, Carole Steele, and Tina Weymouth.

19. Nona Hendryx & Gary Lucas with the Metropole Orchestra, "When It Blows Its Stacks" (Live) (2013)

Throughout her six-decade career, Hendryx has thrived on collaboration, whether touring with Joyce Kennedy and Sandra St. Victor in "Daughters of Soul", revisiting "Transformation" on Terri Lyne Carrington's Grammy-winning Mosaic Project (2011), recording "Higher Purpose" with Paul Haslinger for Sleeper Cell (2005), writing songs for Charles Randolph-Wright's musical Blue (2000), or partnering with visual artists like Carrie Mae Weems and Nick Cave. In 2013, Hendryx and Gary Lucas appeared with the Metropole Orchestra at Amsterdam's Paradiso concert hall for a tribute to Captain Beefheart, performing a thunderous rendition of "When It Blows Its Stacks". Four years later, Lucas and Hendryx explored The World of Captain Beefheart (2017) on their full-length set for Knitting Factory Records. "Dean of American Rock Critics" Robert Christgau awarded the album an "A-" while All About Jazz noted how Hendryx brought a "sassy kick to the jangly agitation of explosive tunes like 'Sun Zoom Spark' and 'Sugar 'n Spikes' and expressive tenderness to Beefheart ballads like 'My Head Is My Only House Unless it Rains', 'Too Much Time', and 'I'm Glad'".

20. Soul Clap featuring Nona Hendryx, "Shine (This Is it)" (2016)

Nona Hendryx knows a good beat. She knows how to transport the mind and body through melody and rhythm. Her recent work with Soul Clap (Eli Goldstein and Charles Levine) crystallizes all of those qualities. "Shine (This Is It)" marked her first project with the renowned house and funk DJ/production duo, whose airy, streamlined grooves created a space for the singer's voice to soar. "Let go of your fears and regrets in the shape of tears," she cried over the beat, a wave of sound greeting her words. The success of "Shine (This Is It)" led to Soul Clap's latest project with Hendryx, Keep Funkin' (2018). Issued on Soul Clap Records, the four-song EP features the singer's work with musicians like Nile Rodgers and Selan ("Scream"), and Jason Miles ("Funkin' for the World"), plus "Ooo Ooo Ooo" and her rousing, gospel-tinged "I Feel Joy". From Labelle to Soul Clap, no one can a wield a beat and a rhyme quite like Nona Hendryx.

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