All of a sudden 2008 isn’t looking so bad. Not only is Obama going to become the next American President, but powerhouse ’70s glam rock girl group LaBelle has reunited and recorded their first album together in 30 years. Best known for their hit song “Lady Marmalade”, LaBelle mixed R&B, rock and funk into a soulful cauldron of big hair, feathers, sequined space suits and other female-to-female styles that would eventually pave the way for an entire generation of drag queens.
A few weeks back, we spoke with legendary LaBelle ladies Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash about why they reunited, how they deal with over-anxious fans and the story behind the politically-charged songs on their new album, Back To Now. Read the Q&A and watch some explosive performance footage after the jump. (You will cry real tears, girl. We promise.)
Why did LaBelle decide to reunite and record an album?
Patti: I’ve been lying to the public for the past four years, saying that we’re going to get together really soon at every show I did. The audience would go crazy and I knew I was telling a fib but I knew that eventually we would do it. My plate was so full, I couldn’t find the time when Sarah was ready or when Nona was ready. It was basically me messing up.
Finally we got the time to do it and I was a little nervous at first thinking we didn’t have it like we had it before. I said I definitely don’t want to do a reunion and if you do a reunion please do it with the original ladies. My friend Diana Ross did it with other ladies and that didn’t quite work. I knew I had to do it with Sarah and Nona. We had been in contact with each other and doing little special shows together. So we finally got a chance to sing something and when we finished I said, “Is that us?” Of course it was us you fool! We just recorded this here song!
What was the song?
Patti: “Dear Rosa” ⎯ it’s about Rosa Parks. And I said, oh we still have it and we continued.
Your shows back in the day were pretty crazy, in terms of the hair, the costumes and the staging. Do you have a tour planned and what can people expect?
Patti: They can expect us to look as how we did and how we look now ⎯ sort of in the middle. If you see the new CD cover ⎯ we’re not going to be dressing like that on stage all the time, with the feathers, but it’s a beautiful mix of what we were and what we are now. We’re going to have age-appropriate clothes. Sarah may not be wearing those breast plates as she was back in the day, those beautiful things. And I’m not wearing anything with my stomach hanging out ⎯ not that I ever did anyway! We’re going to look our age. We’re going to look age-appropriate. We’re going to look fierce.
How rowdy and crazy do your fans get at shows?
Nona: There was a woman live on the radio ⎯ they were up dancing singing along, we couldn’t stop the song “Roll Out”, they kept it going.
Patti: We have very enthusiastic fans. Some of them are older fans and then they have their kids with them. The kids found out who we are through their parents so we have the mothers and the fathers and their children who they’ve turned on to LaBelle.
Nona: Also in New Orleans when we did the Essence show, the stage just turned into a free-for-all at the end when we were doing “Lady Marmalade”. People are used to coming up and being a part of it. There’s no separation between us and them.
Click to play Labelle’s hot new single “Roll Out” (featuring Wyclef Jean):
How do you deal if they get a little too crazy?
Patti: You play with them and work with them and you whisper in their ear, “If you don’t sit down I’m gonna slap the fool outta you.”
Sarah: Patti has the ability to control the security when they get very rowdy with the fans. She keeps it together. She won’t let the security abuse the people who rush the stage.
Patti: We never have fans that can’t be talked to. We can talk ‘em down. This is their moment to get close to us and I appreciate that. They want to get close to us ⎯ it’s not their fault that they’re very anxious. But there are ways to talk to people and not disrespect their love for LaBelle by throwing them off the stage.
What’s the craziest hair you’ve ever worn?
Patti: I wore the craziest hair when the group broke up. I wore the fans and the buckets on top of my head. As LaBelle, Nona wore a bunch of beautiful headdresses which she has on the new CD cover. And Sarah wore basic hair but she had these fierce breast plates on that Madonna started wearing after Sarah wore ‘em. We were actually the beginning of people like KISS wearing this stuff, they saw us and got our designer to make them some drag. The Funkadelics also did a LaBelle move. And that’s all compliments because people saw what we had and they wanted to put on some of the things we had on. But when you see us darling we will not be wearing that stuff. We’ll be in the middle of that and now.
Any tips to anyone who wants to wear that stuff now?
Patti: Hmmm. Yeah, if you got the body.
Nona: I think for females we did break the mold in terms of what girl groups were wearing and then as individuals we just continued to evolve on our own making new strides. Since Labelle, girl groups have been able to wear just about anything.
Patti: Or nothing.
What female performers do you find inspiring today?
Patti: There’s Amy Winehouse if she’s not in jail. I love Fantasia, I love Beyonce, I love Mariah Carey. Christina Aguilera can sing her but off. And Estelle.
Fantasia is a baby Patti Labelle. When I see her, I see me when I was younger. But even though I’m not as young as she is, we can still stand strong together. She’s phenomenal, she does what she does. She takes her shoes off. She doesn’t think about what she’s doing on stage and that’s what I love about her. When I’m on stage I never think about anything I just sing.
When you kick your shoes off on stage have you ever hit anyone?
Patti: Heck yes. I hit Sarah the other day when we were at the radio station performing live ⎯ not with my shoe, with my hand. I’m just like a free bird on stage, I’m just wild and I hit Sarah by accident twice.
See Patti cold cock Sarah with her mic at the 3:14 mark.
A lot of artists have been stepping up to show support for Obama and bring out the youth vote. Are you part of that movement?
Patti: We’re part of it honey. Young kids are showing younger kids that they need to vote. Younger kids have not been this interested in politics ever. And I can say for myself I have not been this interested in politics. We need Obama.
As much as Lil Bow Wow is walking across the United States or wherever to get young people involved and get their butts to that polling station and pull that thing that says Obama, the better off we’re going to be as whites, black, Asian, all people are going to be better off for that move we’ll make on November 4. People will sit down and say I had to go to a yoga class so I didn’t vote. Well they need to be kicked in the butt. We’re all for anybody who can inspire people to do what they’ve never done before. Some people have never voted before in their lives. This is the time everybody is going to do the right thing I believe.
Does the new record have a political dimension to it?
Patti: Oh God, there’s four major political songs on it that we didn’t really intend to have this political thing come out the way it came out. We were always singing political songs 30 years ago and it’s something we’ve been doing all our LaBelle lives and my Patti Labelle life. I’ve been doing political stuff on stage because it has to be a time for political movement, a gospel movement, a ballad moment a rock n’ roll moment. With our album we did a bunch of political stuff and we didn’t even realize how thick we’re in today ⎯ we’re in some thick stuff. And when the songs were finished we say god that’s just what’s happening now. It’s not like we sat down and said we’re going to write something about the economy. It didn’t happen that way. Nona had written some of these songs 30 years ago.
What are some of those songs?
Patti: “System don’t you bother me!” ⎯ “System” is about The System. Now that song is a drama. You have to see it. We have to play it out on stage: Sarah is the undecided voter. Nona is like the McCain people. I’m like the Obama people. I’m trying to bring Sarah to my side, Nona’s trying to bring her to her side. So for these undecided voters, if they hear System maybe they’ll pull the right lever. We’re singing songs that we love and songs that are age appropriate as well. We’re not going to sing a teeny bopper song. I think we’re the only girl group out there now period who’s out. There aren’t many girl groups out there. I heard Danity Kane just fired two girls or something. I don’t think they’re singing the stuff we would be singing. And I’m not being smart or anything, we’re just singing songs that make sense.
Watch Patti tear up the stage performing the LaBelle classic “Isn’t It A Shame” during a 1985 concert.