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Friday, January 9, 2009

Labelle dials down the flamboyance (slightly) for first tour since '70s

As the ‘70s dawned, Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash transformed themselves from a prim, gown-wearing, ballad-singing girl group (the Bluebelles) into a glammed-out, rocked-up trio of sonic adventurers (Labelle, with a lower case “b”) who cut a new template for R&B. “Lady Marmalade” was Labelle’s signature hit, but it was the group’s live performances that set a new standard for rock and funk theatricality.

Labelle broke up in 1977, leaving behind a legacy of genre-bending boldness that influenced everything from disco to new wave, and can still be heard in the work of artists such as Santogold, Christina Aguilera and Prince. Now they’re back with their first album in three decades, “Back to Now” (Verve), and a reunion tour that brings them to the Chicago Theatre on Saturday.

Dash says the group has toned down some of its futuristic flamboyance in favor of a more refined “upscale” look. Gone are the days of space-invader wings, bucket-shaped hairstyles and stack heels.

“We wanted to do something age appropriate,” says the 63-year-old singer with a laugh. “I won’t be wearing the silver bra and waist band. But it’s going to look good, and we learned from doing the Apollo (a performance in New York a few weeks ago) that the people were there to hear us.”

After the group splintered, LaBelle established a powerhouse solo career, Hendryx worked with Talking Heads, Prince and Peter Gabriel while buffing up her reputation as one of R&B’s most consistently provocative songwriters, and Dash added her trademark harmonies to disco hits and the Rolling Stones alike. The group did one-off reunions over the years, and the pace picked up when Hendryx wrote a tribute to civil-rights pioneer Rosa Parks, “Dear Rosa,” a few years ago.

The trio got together in the studio to record the song, and found their trademark vocal blend remained as spirited as ever.

“Patti called me afterward and said, ‘Did you hear the playback?’ ” Dash says. “We still had our sound.”

LaBelle, Hendryx and Dash put their own money on the line to begin recording an album. Hendryx enlisted Lenny Kravitz to produce the first few tracks. “He walked in just after we got done recording our demonstration vocals, listened to the playback of ‘Superlover’ and said, ‘Man, I’m in.’ ”

Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the famed Philadelphia soul producers, pitched in on a few tracks, and added dubious modern production touches (including Auto-Tune vocal modulations) to “Rollout.” One thing got right was recording LaBelle, Hendryx and Dash harmonizing together while sitting on the couch in the recording studio. Among the album’s surprises is a remixed live version of Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets,” recorded on the group’s first tour in 1970 with the Who’s Keith Moon on drums.

“One day we heard it on YouTube,” Dash says. “The fans found it first and loved it. It was a time when we were working on new songs and new sounds, with Patti kicking and screaming the whole way, worried that our fans were gonna forget about us. It’s a song that shows we were definitely ahead of our time.”

Hendryx contributed a half-dozen tracks to the new album, though Dash and LaBelle rejected a few. “They were great songs … for someone in their twenties,” Dash says of a few of Hendryx’s more explicit contributions. “But she has the ability to move past that and try something else. We recorded enough music to start a second CD if we decide to go that way.”

Dash says the group dynamic has changed, with each singer established in solo ventures and each having her own manager. “Naturally, there are egos,” she says.

LaBelle is clearly first among equals in the group because of her solo success, but Dash says “she’s very conscious of our image and sound. It feels like we have a leader, and that is good. Diva-ism can be described in many ways, but I would not say that’s what we’re looking at. She’s a star, but we’re all different degrees of stars who recognize that the group has to come first.”



1 comment:

Unknown said...

Designer Larry LeGaspi's original and out of this world clothing designs helped put Labelle at the Metropolitan Opera House for the #wearsomethingsilver groundbreaking concert in March 1975, and on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine, the first time a black vocal group graced it's cover.
An article highlighting the role of fashion and the transformative nature of costume to open ears and eyes, omitting details of the artist who's imagination and hands it came from is dissapointing. Would love to see more written about this incredible visionary who designed the original costumes for KISS (Alive and Destroyer) Parliament Funkadelic #larrylegaspi #aheadofhistime