Goldmine interviews Sarah Dash and Nona Hendrix of Labelle, the group who sang the original version of “Lady Marmalade.” They will be inducted by the Philadelphia Music Alliance and added to the Philadelphia Music Walk of Fame on October 4.
By Warren Kurtz
LABELLE is the greater Philadelphia area trio who began in the ‘60s as Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles as a quartet with Cindy Birdsong, prior to her 1967 departure to join Diana Ross and the Supremes. In March of 1975, Frankie Valli achieved his first number one solo single with “My Eyes Adored You,” written by Bob Crewe and Kenny Nolan. The next week, this number one single was replaced by another Bob Crewe and Kenny Nolan composition, beginning with, “Hey sister, go sister, soul sister, go sister.” With a sound very different from “My Eyes Adored You,” “Lady Marmalade” by Labelle became the trio’s biggest hit and like “My Eyes Adored You” was also a gold single for Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash. Goldmine spoke with Sarah Dash and Nona Hendryx about the group’s music, their wild outfits, solo recordings, and work with or involving Dick Gregory, Nile Rodgers, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and Captain Beefhart.
Labelle photos courtesy of Robert Konoly (left) and Randy Alexander (right)
Left to right in both photos: Nona Hendryx, Patti LaBelle and Sarah Dash
GOLDMINE: Sarah, happy birthday and congratulations on the Philadelphia Music Walk of Fame induction on October 4. To celebrate, I have been playing Labelle’s “Nightbirds” album with “Lady Marmalade” and all those powerful songs.
SARAH DASH: Thank you. Can you imagine that, girls from Trenton, New Jersey having a hit singing in French, “Voulez vous coucher avec moi ce soir?” This is the first time we sang in French since “C’est La Vie” in 1963 as Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles on the flip side of “Down the Aisle.”
GM: The flip side of “Lady Marmalade,” called “Space Children,” seemed to be fitting with the outfits I saw you wear on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.
SD: Ah, “Space children, universal lovers.” Nona wrote this about being a universal child, with no prejudice. Music is a universal language. We were the first black female group, as the Bluebelles, on UK television. Then in the ‘70s as Labelle, we had wild outfits, with silver to bring many minerals together, symbolizing togetherness in our clothing. There was piping in the outfits too, creating outrageous images. We were trying to determine how to bring people into our message and used the law of attraction, with audiences coming to see these wild dressed people.
GM: After Labelle disbanded, you had the first Top 100 charting solo single in 1979 with “Sinner Man,” which had a drive similar to what we would hear the following year with Irene Cara’s “Fame.” Your flip side “Look but Don’t Touch” is another favorite of mine, more in line with the sound of Shalamar’s “The Second Time Around,” which followed at the end of that year.
SD: When I tried to be a solo singer, it was different and difficult for me, after being part of a group for so long. I didn’t do well in the auditions. I had become friends with Don Kirshner and his wife Sheila. Donnie nicknamed me “Kid.” We were at a New York baseball game and Donnie asked, “Kid, did you get signed yet?” I told him of my record company struggles and he said, “I want to sign you.” I give a lot of credit to Don and his songwriters for my solo career. From April through August of 1978 I worked with his songwriters Carol George and Rob Hegel on my development. After seeing me on stage, Carol and Rob wrote “Sinner Man,” which was so fitting for me, I did it in one take. “Look but Don’t Touch” is one of my favorites too. The writers watched my interactions and this came out of knowing my personality. I had three albums on the Kirshner label.
GM: Where did you draw your power from for the more recent “I’m Still Here?”
SD: I was trying to get to the Kennedy Center in D.C. After a tired driver was weaving too much, I abandoned that travel plan and asked him to take me to the train station. I bought a ticket to sit in the cafe car. On the train, a box of sodas fell on me from overhead and crushed me. I went to the emergency room, then finally made it to the Kennedy Center where Dick Gregory and his wife were. This was around the time of the Million Man March. Dick Gregory was being awarded and he wanted me to sing Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” Stevie Wonder was there too. Dick was surprised to see me, “I heard you were in the emergency room.” That was true, but I wasn’t going to miss this. After that, I had surgery and was out of commission for four years. Later, I was working on an inspirational CD and was reminded that I had been through a lot. I said, “You know what, I’m still here.” Then I repeated, “I’m still here.” It became the theme of the song and it all goes back to Dick Gregory. You know, the content of his comedy was well researched. He could back up his humor and stories with facts. I saw him not that long ago and we reflected on our Kennedy Center experience.
GM: My condolences to you on his recent passing. Another friend of yours is a someone who also doesn’t seem get enough credit for his work, Keith Richards.
SD: Keith’s my baby! He doesn’t like to talk on the phone, you know, so what did he do? He sent me a fax! Who does that? He has written so many great songs. He is the Rolling Stones! I was thrilled to be part of the backing vocal trio, along with Bernard Fowler and Lisa Fischer on the Rolling Stones’ “Steel Wheels” album with “Mixed Emotions” and all those great songs. Keith is one of my favorite guitarists along with Jimi Hendrix and Nile Rodgers. I sang “My Love Song for You” on Nile’s first solo album “Adventures in the Land of the Good Groove.”
GM: You are also very active in the community.
SD: Being a “PK,” a preacher’s kid, I watched many people that my mother and father helped. I remember the generosity of a special few, not many, but those few who helped me when I needed it. I have coordinated donations of coats from Bloomingdales to children of the homeless women in the community. I am involved with the Evoluer House and the Trenton chapter of the Top Ladies of Distinction, which was started by Ladybird Johnson in 1964. We provide funding of books for children to go to college. I am on the board of the New Jersey Philharmonic. You can hear me sing “Trenton Makes Music” at trentonmakesmusic.org.
Space Children (EPIC 8-50048) Sarah Dash and Dick Gregory, courtesy of Sarah Dash
GOLDMINE: Nona, congratulations on the upcoming induction and all your songwriting, including half of the “Nightbirds” album. What impact did “Lady Marmalade” have on you?
NONA HENDRYX: So many years after getting our start in Philadelphia on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand as Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles, this became our biggest hit. We wanted something that was truthful about life, but hearing New Jersey girls sing about prostitution did anger some nuns.
GM: Then came your next single, “What Can I Do for You?”
NH: That one was written by our guitarist Rev Batts and pianist Bud Ellison. This was a really important song, communicating with the audience and having a dialogue on what we can do for them and what they can do for us.
GM: Its flip side, “Nightbird,” is beautiful. The opening melody reminds me of Neil Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” when you wrote, “Nightbird fly by the light of the moon.”
NH: This is an ode to Labelle as artists. We were female “birds” singing at night, often 8:30 p.m. through 3:00 a.m., then traveled overnight.
GM: When I listen to the “Nightbirds” album and look at the mid-‘70s orange Epic label, I think of one of my musical mentors from Cleveland, label executive Steve Popovich.
NH: Steve Popovich was quite a character. He was so passionate about music. He was passionate about Labelle. We spent a lot of time in Cleveland.
GM: In 1983, with your first charting single, Billboard’s review of “Keep it Confidential” ended with the sentence, “While the rock sound may not be what some expected of the singer, the controlled vocals and first class production mark a dynamic debut.” This song seems to hint at the sophisticated sound we would hear shortly from Tina Turner. I also enjoy the electronic backdrop of its flip side “Dummy Up.”
NH: Jeff Kent and Ellie Greenwich as songwriters for “Keep it Confidential” became good friends with me, working on this song about keeping a love interest mysterious. “Dummy Up” is a bit observational. Look to the left, look to the right, and maybe not saying what is going on.
GM: Thank you for your beautiful and powerful newer song, “In Praise of Older Men.”
NH: I wrote this for my father and men. There are all these songs about mothers and daughters and I wanted I wanted one to celebrate strong relations with fathers. There are older brothers and amazing people we just don’t hear of in song.
GM: You also continue to stay active with youth.
NH: I work with young women on science, math and robotics projects. I am part of the Technology Department at the Berklee College of Music, dealing with creative computerized hardware and software, controlling music and lighting, and voice and physical movements.
GM: You have quite a rock side to you playing the Acid Queen from the Who’s “Tommy.” You have concerts coming up celebrating a family member, Jimi Hendrix, and then there is Captain Beefhart.
NH: The “Tommy” experience was unique in Los Angeles. I had been offered the Acid Queen part on Broadway but had conflicts. In L.A., they tried something different for the show and had people wear headsets. On September 1, I will be at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Virginia near D.C., celebrating my third cousin Jimi’s 75th birthday. I will be singing one of my favorite songs of his, “The Wind Cries Mary” with Fishbone. On September 20th, I will be with Gary Lucas at Joe’s Pub in New York City for The World of Captain Beefhart. We have an album coming out together in October with so many wonderful Captain Beefhart songs.
Nightbird (Epic 8-50097) The World of Captain Beefhart Image courtesy of Nona Hendryx
On October 4, the Philadelphia Music Alliance will induct Labelle, Sister Sledge, the Soul Survivors, celebrating the 50th anniversary of “Expressway to Your Heart” and others, adding them to the Philadelphia Music Hall of Fame as members of its Class of 2017. To learn more, go to www.pmawalk.org.
For more on Sister Sledge, please read our Goldmine Fabulous Flip Sides article from earlier this year: www.goldminemag.com/articles/fabulous-flip-sides/fabulous-flip-sides-memoriam-joni-sledge-sister-sledge
Warren Kurtz is a Contributing Editor at Goldmine, known for “Fabulous Flip Sides” along with interviews, CD, DVD and book reviews. “Warren’s Fabulous Flip Sides” can be heard most Saturday mornings, in the 9 a.m. hour, Eastern time, on WVCR.com as part of “Moments to Remember.”