The METROPOLITAN Opera House in New York was invaded by aliens on Sunday, Oct. 6, 1974. A funky band replaced the orchestra that night; West Village drag queens sat next to Puerto Rican couples and Black Power glam rockers from uptown.
The crowd watched as two women -- wearing so many feathers they looked like birds -- descended from the rafters to join a third onstage. The trio's harmonies were so close that their voices seemed to merge in a swirl of gospel, rock and soul.
This was Labelle in the mid-1970s. They were not just a pop group with one enormous hit, "Lady Marmalade," but a phenomenon whose music helped change the very idea of what pop and the artists who made it -- especially women singers previously confined to "girl groups" -- could be.
"People were looking for three outrageous women who might sing and say anything," said Patti LaBelle in a recent interview, reflecting on the emergence of the group she'd formed with Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash when they were teenagers, and which has reunited for a new album, "Back to Now," to be released Oct. 21 on Vanguard Records.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, October 12, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Labelle: An article in today's Arts & Books section about the vocal group Labelle said its new album, "Back to Now," is being released on the Vanguard label. Verve is releasing the album.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, October 19, 2008 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Labelle: An article last Sunday about the vocal group Labelle said its new album, "Back to Now," was being released on the Vanguard label. Verve is releasing the album.
"The idea was for artists to sing what they live and write the songs they live. And we really treated it like a band, not a girl group," said Hendryx. "Three minds, but one mind at the same time. And that did allow for different things to be said."
During the mid-1970s Labelle stood alongside David Bowie and George Clinton's P-Funk as visionaries of spectacular, genre-blasting pop.
"Alice Cooper and David Bowie, they were doing their thing," Clinton said by phone from a spot on his current tour to promote his new project, the doo-wop flavored George Clinton and his Gangsters of Love. "That whole period, everybody was going for theatrical rock. So we just said, 'Let's go all the way with it. Let's do it all.' That's what we did, and that's what they were doing too."
After spending the 1960s as the vocal group Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles (who, among other accomplishments, toured with the Rolling Stones), the group guided by manager Vicki Wickham enacted one of pop's most remarkable transformations. They traded in their wigs and satin gloves for futuristic costumes by rock designer Larry LeGaspi, began recording Hendryx's politically forthright and erotically charged songs, and developed a stage show that was part gospel revival, part circus, part love-in.
They refashioned "Moonshadow" by Cat Stevens into a gospel stomp and opened for the Who -- "Back to Now" includes one cut from the vaults, a cover of Cole Porter's "Miss Otis Regrets" featuring Keith Moon on drums. They recorded an album with Laura Nyro and followed Bette Midler's famous engagement at New York's gay mecca the Continental Baths.
"It wasn't really accepted that black girls could sing these songs," said Wickham, who also managed Dusty Springfield, from New York. "A lot of Nona's songs had double entendres, it wasn't like radio was going to jump on it. The time really wasn't right, but I also think that we were so big on doing it live and having great audiences that nobody really said, 'Hang on a second, you need to have something that goes on radio.' "
The Labelle legacy
"Nightbirds," Labelle's masterpiece, was recorded in New Orleans by that city's maestro, Allen Toussaint. "Lady Marmalade" is its signature tune, and remains a touchstone for young singers. The group's practice of sharing lead vocals was taken up by later female groups such as En Vogue and Destiny's Child, and solo artists including Fantasia and Christina Aguilera cite Patti LaBelle as an influence.
But the legacy of Labelle, the band, might be coming to the fore only now, as category-defining artists such as Gnarls Barkley and Santogold revive the legacy of black rock. Lenny Kravitz, an early adapter of that sound, produced several tracks on "Back to Now."
"In America more than other places, when you don't put something in a nice, neat box and label it and put a ribbon on it, it's hard for people to grasp," Kravitz said by phone from Paris, where he lives part time. "All the years I was trying to get a record deal I kept hearing, 'It's not black enough' or 'It's not white enough.' That's the same thing with Labelle.
Kravitz had planned to helm the whole project, but his touring schedule interfered. So the group turned to other producers, including Wyclef Jean (whose "Roll Out" is a cheerful attempt to adjust the Labelle sound for the auto-tuned era) and Patti's childhood friend Kenneth Gamble, who, with his partner Leon Huff, originated the forward-thinking Philly soul sound embodied by artists like the O'Jays. Their "Tears for the World" provided Labelle with a 21st century anthem -- and Patti with the album's most stunning vocal high note.