The Silver Soul of LABELLE, "The All Girl Band"
Interviewed by Jim Oakley, Dianne Ripley and Barbara Weinberg
Edited by Barbara Weinberg
Recently the silver soul of Labelle flooded Detroit. Their concert at Masonic Temple was like a multiple orgasm rushing forth from three dynamite women-Patti Labelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash-enveloping the entire audience.
The stage was set ablaze with superspace-age, feathered costumes and radiant excitement. The night we saw Labelle was their fourteenth anniversary, when all their years together climaxed in a concert Detroit will not soon forget. It was an electrifying experience that is all too rare these days in the music world. When Patti vibrated on stage with "Space Children" it was as though she was making love to the universe, shaking energy out through her fingertips, legs and voice:
Space Children, universal lovers
Space Children, are there any other?
You' d better take some time and check it out ...
Check it out! Screaming, whirling, spinning, shouting. One moment they're hugging, caressing and kissing each other and the next Patti's down on the ground writhing, crooning, moaning.
The groups' lyrics are strong and political, as in their version of Gil Scott-Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised."
We will not be right back after a massage about a white tornado. White lightnin ', or white people in your toilet bowl. And things will not go better with Coke. Hooterville and Petticoat Junction will not be relevant, And women will not care if Dick finally screwed Jane on "Search for Tomorrow"
They are also sensual, sensitive and powerfully feminist-oriented as in Allan Toussaint's "All GirI Band," "Don't Bring Me Down," and Nona Hendryx's "You Turn Me On.
I come like the pouring rain,
Each time you call my name . . .
Labelle relates to the audience as a part of the act. Towards the end of their concert people were invited to join in on stage, which about 100 excited souls promptly did. While people cheered for an encore, the entire group, including the musicians, appeared marching through the audiences in a Gypsy/Gospel jamboree.
While their costumes (designed by Guy La Gaspi) and show are otherworldly, Labelle have their feet planted firmly on the ground, as we at the SUN and Jim Oakley, a brother from Ann Arbor's gay community, found out in the course of this interview before the concert ...
SUN: Fourteen years ago today you formed the Bluebells?
Patti: Yeah, and now our first hit record ["Lady Marmalade") is Number One on Cashbox, Number Two in Billboard with a bullet and Number Three in Record World. Our anniversary is in Detroit, and our first hit record is in Detroit, but Detroit seemed to be the reason that we didn't get a hit record before. I mean all the female groups coming from here, the Supremes, the Marvelettes and the Shirelles. Basically, Detroit seemed to be, not our enemy, but there I was so much competition! It's just weird that our anniversary would be here. But it's nice.
SUN: But now you have something that you are really sayinq to people and the Supremes and all those other groups have sort of drifted out into the past . . .
Patti: I guess because we really believed in what we were doing, and that's one of the reasons that the three of us are still here. Cause woman don't stay together for 14 years, and we've almost split, but we never did, because there was more love than there was hate. We were able to keep together, and that's amazing to me. We have an understanding and we know where everyone is coming from. That's why all that other stuff can't get in the way. I am bitter that it took us so long, but l'm glad, too. Because we have been able to see everybody go up and some of them come back down. Some of them get it and go to Hollywood and some of them go crazy and some of them go to drugs. I mean we have seen it all so we know what not to do.
SUN: Why did you first get together?
Patti: Cause everybody here wanted to sing and that's all that was on everybody's mind. The bright lights on the stage, to be out there and be fresh and chipper, and snaking it and making sure the guys were looking at us. Then the thing was the guys' reaction, but now it's different, because we don't care if they look. They don't have to have no eyes. We just want them to hear. That's the difference between Patti Labelle and the Bluebells and Labelle. We've grown up.. The material that we're doing, with Nona's writing and Sarah's writing and what the guys in the band are writing, are very important lyrics. They say much more. Before, there was nothing to be heard. They were pretty but what did it mean?
Sarah: Probably you yourself look at life differently than you did in 1965. And everybody's going through a revolution, a change, a total change in the way they approach life. People are taking things more seriously. In the 60's everybody was just beginning to wake up from the 50's. The 50's . was a dream world, for the American young people. Everyone went to the hop, and the drive-in movies, and they had their little soda shops. Everyone felt safe. They weren't dealing with Vietnam and Watergate and the problems in America. They weren't going through recession or depression.
SUN: I really like what you said in an interview in the Gay Advocate about the "Pretty Package." That underneath everything is this message that you want to convey, but if you present the concept of revolution to the people, they don't want to hear it. But when you come on stage, with all the energy n the world . . .
Patti: Like our clothes that we wear on stage, the feathers and everything . . . that's what I was saying earlier, you don't really have to see, we don't want you to see it. But for some people, they have to see first. The ones who are brainwashed by the Nixon administration, they might see Labelle someplace, they might see a poster of these three crazy looking ladies. So they say, "Wow, we should go see what they're doing, maybe they're the Supremes." They'll come and see all the feathers, and after they look at the feathers, they might listen. And then after they listen they leave remembering not the clothes, but what we said. That's what you have to do to get some people to listen to you. They won't listen to you if you speak like a human being. You have to be like a crazy raving animal. And you gotta talk loud and look loud and look crazy and they'll listen.
Sarah: When depression comes around, entertainment always wins out cause people use it as escapism. They don't want to be reminded that the dollar is inflated. It's important, at the time, when we do perform, to have a sense of awareness to present to the people. To educate them as well.
Nona: Right, we've been trying to do that, to talk about solutions to the problems with the music. To give them some kind of insight.
SUN: Some of your earlier albums contained such political numbers as "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." What kind of response did you receive from them?
Nona: Critics loved it. It wasn't received too well as far as people buying it. The record company was afraid to promote it cause it was so political. They didn't think there were any people out there like you. They were still I hung up on the Beatles thing! Everybody's gone through the flower power and the festivals and things. America has moved on to another awareness. The record companies weren't looking at the young people's minds to see this. They thought they could just sell music and nothing else. But today there are record companies like Epic- the people at Epic do realize because they are progressive people.
SUN: Do you think you have more control in getting what you want than you had at RCA?
Sarah: Oh yeah. We hardly knew anybody at RCA. You know-we got fired the day we got hired.
Patti: It wasn't personal- everything was business. At Epic though, we find ourselves making friends.
Sarah: They want to know what the artist is about. They want to understand so they know how to promote them. They've opened up areas for us we're not even in. They're pushing us. Nona: They'd go to the extent of if we wanted to play in a city where we really haven't gotten over yet on the radio or to peopie, they'll back us the money for it. Patti: Before, when we'd ask RCA or Warners to do that, they thought we were crazy. They got amnesia and couldn't hear us. "Who's Labelle? Who do you think you are?" they'd say. The other companies, when it came to talking about the contracts, would say "Well, we think the girls should be this, the girls can do this, the girls can't do that" before we even told them what we wanted. And they weren't even about to come down to see us perform to see what we were about. SUN: Along with your new relationship with Epic came somewhat of a change in your style- horns were added, songs were shortened, etc. What prompted this? Patti: The major influence came from Allen Toussaint, our producer. At f irst we hadn't really heard anything by him that we were really crazy about. Once we got there and worked with him and saw that he was so slow, we wanted to go back home. He hardly spoke, and then after three days he said, "Helio, girls." 'He was up there getting his genius stuff together. And when he came out with it, it was excellent. He's really fun to work with. It's good to work with somebody who is so intelligent when it comes to producing right andkeeping you in a box like he did. I had to sing within this box. I had to sing it kind of straight so that the average Jane Q. Public or John Q. Public could sing along with it. I said, "No, Allen, I can't!" But I tried j it and I could, but t was really hard. Nona: He saw what we had and he harnessed it. We aren't used to harnessed but that's what he did. He took ' all the energy and he molded it. SUN: So Nightbirds was an attempt to become more commercial and gain a larger audience. Do you feel you had to elimínate some political comment from it? Patti: There's a lot of political value in Nightbirds. The lyrical content in the album is alot about what's going on in the world. It's just that it's been shortened. That's what we mean by commercial ized, shortened enough so that they can play t and get the message in one minute instead of five. That was our problem on our other albums, Pressure Cooking, Moonshadow, and Labelle, although they said the same things as Nightbirds. When the songs are shorter, they can play them in the discotheques, and over the radio and that way they'll get over. The next one will be the same type of album, and t will probably come out this summer. SUN: How do you deal as people who want to have their own lives outside of your careers with all the adoration and attention that you've been receiving? Patti: It all depends on your priorities. You can't work yourself crazy. Cause if you work yourself crazy you ain't got nothing to work with anyway. So we're not going to go about t the regular way the most entertainers do. Sarah: When people start to become successful, they tend to have a lot of people around them. They forget who they are and what.they are. Anc i you cannot lose your perspective and forget about what you're trying to accomplish and what you're trying to say to people. Cause you begin "to think that you're better than they are. Walk with the Kings, but don't lose that peasant. joy that adoration but realize that we all come and go the same way. And t's nice that people admire you for your talent. I really like that. But after I take off this face, the one I make money with, I know that l'm st II Sarah and Nona's still Nona and Patti's stil I Patti. SUN: Right now you're n a prime position where people might try.to exploit you and try to make money from you. On the other hand, you can choose who and what you make money for. Have you done benefits? Patti: Yes, we have, many. We're definitely going to continue to cause I can't stand it. There's too many blacks getting up there and forgetting where they come from. SUN: You've really gained a lot of popularity, particularly in the gay communities. I think it was you. Nona, who said in an interview with the Gay Advocate that gay people live a very intense life in a society with all the rules that are set up for them. So anyplace they can go to relieve that tensión feels good and that's where a relationship with Labelle comes in. Nona: Part of that relation is communicated through our vocal sound which now isn't so pretty. It's more like tensión because of the way Pat sings. It's lower, not in how you sing but lower in the body. It'sguttier. More earthy. I think gay people have that cause of the emotional level that they live on all the time. You know, they feel it here in the gut. Like gay people, we experience the same sort of tensión of not knowing whether we will face opposition or acceptance. Our music comes out like that. So people can identify with this feeling. , SUN: I feel this being a gay person, so that when you get out there and release so much energy, it's just incredible, and it releases it ín me. You have these things trying to keep you down for so long and telling you to sit on your emotions, but after a while they sort of seize you. They come out and they don't come out in your busting people in the face and burning down buildings. They come out in a creative way. You get up there on stage and you release all this tensión and it comes out through music, which is a very basic and elemental kind of thing for people. Your music is so high level energy, that it really goes down to basic primitive things like moving your body and just responding to nonverbal kinds of things. The rhythm s so strong that you can't help but respond to it. Nona: That's alot because Pat's such a primitive vvoman, I mean she likes to do the basic things in life, like make love. How much more basic can you be? And on stage it's the same, even though she's dressed up in the glitter and everything. Patti: That's true. I streak on stage and everything. I can't stand clothes. I never realized until about a month ago. I took off my shoes and boots and carne out barefeet after getting off and they called from more. When we came back my manager Vicky says, "NO, love, you can't do a number cause people will talk about you." I don't , care and once we get out there we feel free. There's no inhibition. Nobody is greater than you and you are greater than nobody. And we are all of one. That's why we asked you to wear something silver so we could feel like you, not j just so you could just feel a part of us. But we want to feel like you and touch you and feel you and anything we want to do to you. And everything you want to do to us, ! cause I don't think anybody out there is gonna hurt us. ■ So when we go out in the audience, alot of people say, "You girls are crazy! People are gonna tear you apart." Nobody is gonna hurt us. I mean those people who came to see us have love, unless there's a few folks from the sys tem who ain't too kissy to what we're saying- they might ! come out and try to kill us or say "Shut up yo' mouth," ! but, I doubt they have the nerve to come in the house : anyway. But, we're not af raid of people. In Spain, they i say it made history- cause the kids never come on stage ; in Spain since the cops lock you up if you say helio. So about 100 people all jumped up on stage and everybody went crazy. They said that they never saw anything like it before. And they thought people were gonna bother us and that we were afraid. But, we know that we're giving good vibrations to people and they can't help give good vibrations right back. Karma, ya know? SUN: "Lady Marmalade," your number one record, has been banned from many radio stations because it is about a hooker . . . Patti: Right, and soon we'll be performing on Cher's TV show and I believe we're going to have to sing "Voulez vous Janccr avec moi" instead of "Voulez vous couchez avec moi." SUN: That'scrazy! Cher was just on the cover of TIME wearing a see-through dress, a lot more m what they would consider suggestive than the word "couchez." Patti: It's cause of the time 4 the show will ' come on, when families and continued on page 28 I "When depression comes around, entertainment always wins out cause people use it as escapism. They don't want to be reminded that the dollar is inflated. It's important when we perform to have a sensaof awareness to present to the people. To edúcate them." "When we go out in the audience, a lot of people say, 'You girls are crazy! People are gonna tear you apart!' ■BlWjwfB But, we know we're giving good vibrations to people and WÊwt they can't help give good vibrations right back. Karma, MSÈ ya know?" The energy level is so high "because Pat's such a primitive woman, I mean she likes to do the basic things in life, like make love. How much more basic can you be?" Labelle's Silver Soul contmued from page 19 children are watching. But so what? Children might have mothers who are prostitutes. But, still and all, "Will you sleep with me tonight?" That's not saying will you screw me tonight." It means lay by me, will you lay with me. You don't have to have intercourse. I sleep with my mother and we surely don't screw. So that assuming again. SUN: There's a tremendous problem in keeping sensuality and sexuality from children. Nona: And it's so wrong! That's the reason we have Lady Marmalades! Because we have been taught for so long not to deal with sex. A boy gotta wait until a certain age to know what a girl looks like underneath her clothes and he's all hung up and frustrated trying to hurry up and get to see what t is and he gets there and he can't do nothing. And plus he's hung up saying "Oh wow, I can't touch, I can look, but I can't touch because she might get pregnant, which is bad." But where did he come from? So that's why some peopie do go to prostitutes, cause they're trying to get rid of these frustrations. Sarah: Everybody's got to get their yayas out. Patti: You know, they give us two standards to live by and that's ridiculous. SUN: How do you feel about the song? Sarah: It's a good song. It's a commercial song. We laugh at the "Joes." You know, we go to hotels and we see the guys with the brown shoes and white socks, with their name tags, from toothpaste companies. And they see you get on the elevator and they say "Oh helio, nice young dies." Patti: It's kind of sad none of the other material that we had before this could have been number one. Cause it's just as good. But it's what the world is conditioned to. Something corny. The Revolutron Will Not Be Televised is not corny at all but they wouldn't let t be number one. In a music industry where so mach dreck is hyped and more meaningful material is kepi on the shelffor supposed "lack of commercial viabilii v " ir is inspiring to meet, see, and fee! the Lahelle experiencv. And Jor the very same reasims it 's eren more inspiring to watch art entire audience respond so intensely to the music. Tlieir wons, their sineeritv. and raw power are able to more masses. And now their single is numher one the Billhoard eharts.