Labelle, the trio of Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash, turned the music world on its head, with their seamless vocalizing (honed singing doo wop in Philadelphia in the 1960s), wild ‘Space Deco’ costumes and extravagant stage shows. Their albums, and thematic concerns in the 1970s influenced generations of young women, including Adele Bertei, a musician and writer from Cleveland who later became part of the No New York scene. In her new book, Why Labelle Matters, Bertei speaks to the impact that Labelle had on her personally and on the wider American culture. PKM’s Fiona McQuarrie spoke with Adele Bertei.
Labelle, the R&B-funk-rock-dance trio, broke so many molds in the 1970s, for female vocal groups, for Black women, and for music in general. Though Cindy Birdsong—who later joined the Supremes—was in an earlier incarnation of the group, the core trio was Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash [Sarah, sadly, passed away on Sept. 20, 2021]. As the trio collectively known as Labelle, they released eight studio albums, from 1967 (Dreamer, on Atlantic Records) to 2008 (Back to Now, an album celebrating their reunion after 32 years, on Verve Records).
After the trio initially broke up, in 1976, and each member pursued a solo career (most visibly by the group’s namesake Patti LaBelle), their collectively brilliant early work has gradually slipped into obscurity. It was briefly resurrected by a 2001 cover of “Lady Marmalade” by Mya, P!nk, Lil’ Kim, and Christina Aguilera.
But now musician and author Adele Bertei, a Labelle fan since her early teens, has published a new book, Why Labelle Matters (University of Texas Press), which not only chronicles the group’s history but demonstrates, as the title suggests, why their music was and is so important. Fiona McQuarrie interviewed Bertei about the book for PKM.
PKM: You have an extensive musical and creative resume. So out of all the acts that you’ve been influenced by, why Labelle? And why a book, instead of, say, a feature-length article?
Adele Bertei: I’d written an essay on Tori Amos for Evelyn McDonnell’s book Women Who Rock, and Evelyn approached me for the Why Music Matters series asking if I’d like to propose a book. I suggested either Patti Smith or Labelle, due to their tremendous influences on women in rock and on me personally. Someone had been assigned Patti Smith, and no other books existed about Labelle, which didn’t surprise me. The awareness of the group of three has been eclipsed by Patti maintaining her stage name of Labelle. That is changing finally.
There is a chapter on Labelle in Black Diamond Queens: African American Women in Rock and Roll by Maureen Mahon, and others are writing more. But most people I’d speak to about writing a Labelle book immediately assumed I meant Patti. When I’d explain it was the trio who gave us “Lady Marmalade” and so much more, I’d get a vague look. I felt it imperative to tell what I knew and could examine of their story and the impact they had on the culture at the time. Patti, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash started out singing together in 1961, and theirs is an epic American musical journey…worthy of more books than mine, for sure.
“Boogie Fever”/”Shake Your Booty”/”Sara Smile”/”Lady Marmalade”, 1975
PKM: One of the strongest themes in the book is how much Labelle meant to you personally, especially during difficult times in your life. When did you first become aware of them and their music? What resonated so strongly with you?
Adele Bertei: The theme of the series—why music matters— gave me the freedom to weave together Labelle’s story with my own personal relationship to their music, and also speak to the science around music as a healing modality. I was a queer white girl in Ohio, a ward of the state growing up with Black girls whose families had abandoned them as did mine. Cleveland was intensely segregated. I knew no other white people with access to Black co-workers, students, friends. These experiences shaped my early understanding of systematic racism, and of class. The warmth and joy of Black music, from gospel to Aretha, became a form of nurturance for me.
I first heard Labelle on Laura Nyro’s Gonna Take a Miracle LP and it rocked my world; initially through the formidable power of their voices together. The passion, that fierce blend took me over. Here were Black women singing with a white woman, and not as typical backing singers. Something new was going on in the grooves that had not ever been heard before and it stopped me in my tracks. It reminded me of the girls I sang with in Blossom Hill and the kind of camaraderie that happens when voices join in song… the vulnerability it takes to pull your heart up from your throat into air and dance the notes around with other voices. It’s so liberating. You could hear how much these women loved each other. It was communion…with an inexplicable spirit that is only felt during creative acts. Their music elevated me into the courage to follow my own path.
PKM: It’s quite amazing how persistent Labelle were, going through different record labels and managers, and trying different styles until they found something that clicked. What do you think kept them going through all of that lengthy evolution and relative lack of success?
Adele Bertei: Their friendship. Their belief in their talent and in each other. They had an incredible bond, were extremely loyal and determined to succeed together, no matter the obstacles. They felt so betrayed when Cindy Birdsong left them to join the Supremes, but it seems it made their bond and their will to succeed stronger. Women who were born earlier than the 1960s were taught to always look better than the next girl, to compete with one another for attention, for guys…dynamics that continue today. Labelle were feminists, but probably would never have referred to themselves as such. Their personal power as a group of women blossomed professionally when they hired Vicki Wickham as their manager. They also had a woman lawyer, and were in control of their work and presentation, which was extremely rare for women entertainers at the time.
PKM: And then what finally made them famous was something that was really different for female vocal groups, with the three different personas and the extravagant costumes. That was risky because it was so unusual. Why do you think that departure worked for them?
Adele Bertei: Bowie had brought a new theatricality to rock and roll in 1972 when he started touring Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars…the wild make-up, the costumes, the choreography. Labelle’s manager Vicki Wickham was watching. She’d produced Ready Steady Go! for the BBC in London – she was part of the team who booked acts like Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones and the Who, introducing them to the Brit TV audience. Vicki was Swinging London’s quintessential hip girl; she also wrote for music rags like Melody Maker and had her finger on the pulse. She suggested Labelle take off the girl group drag and break out with a new look. She also encouraged Nona to write the trio’s feelings into lyrics, and speak to what was going on in Black American politics at the time. The Black Arts Movement was in full bloom in New York City, and Labelle were part of that scene. 1971 was their moment to shake off the masquerade of assimilation, to play to their authentic Blackness, essence. and vision. That vision would begin to expand into a creation no one saw coming.
“Something in the Air”/”The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, 1973
PKM: It was fascinating to learn that those wonderful outfits were made by Larry LeGaspi, a fan who became their costumer. What was his story, and why did they agree to work with him when he was relatively unknown?
Adele Bertei: Larry LeGaspi was a Fashion Institute of Technology student and a long-time fan of Patti Labelle and the Bluebelles. In the early 1970s he had a boutique in the West Village called Moonstone, and he started creating fashion he called ‘Space Deco’. He met up with Labelle at one of their early shows and was bowled over by their new musical incarnation, but maybe not as impressed by their outfits. He invited them to Moonstone, showed them a few designs…and the rest became history, for Labelle and for LeGaspi.
The Spacesuits and mytho-poetic costumes he created for Labelle brought clients scrambling to his door: George Clinton, KISS, Grace Jones, Divine and others. LeGaspi’s costumes were iconic. He helped launch Labelle into the stratosphere of rock culture, helped Labelle change the game. Before Labelle were being lowered via wires onto theater stages in extravagant costumes, no one had ever witnessed women in rock performing such extraordinary rock shows. LeGaspi helped them in their process of flipping all expectations about how rock women, especially Black women in music, should present.
Labelle flying at the Metropolitan Opera House, 1974
PKM: Younger music fans likely know Labelle as the band that first did “Lady Marmalade”. Some music lovers are glad that the Moulin Rouge! cover version brought some more attention to Labelle, but there are others who think the cover is mostly vocal acrobatics that entirely misses the vibe of the song. What’s your take on that cover?
Adele Bertei: Well, I’m a huge fan of Baz Luhrmann…am still crushed over The Get Down being cancelled. I enjoyed the visual theatricality of the Marmalade version in Moulin Rouge! Christina, P!nk, Mya and Lil’ Kim got their strut on magnificently. But their vocal version can’t compare to the real deal. I’m thrilled if it brought more listeners to Labelle’s body of work, and their LPs need to be listened to by those who aren’t aware of what I call their vocal blend: their ‘rage of love’. I was talking with Lenny Kravitz while writing the book—Lenny produced their reunion LP Back to Now in 2008—and he was telling me how he’d never heard a vocal blend as fierce as theirs, that they still had it some thirty years later. He said when they were in the studio recording, Patti was blowing out the microphones!
Labelle promotional video for “Lady Marmalade”, 1974
PKM: You discuss how Labelle’s work reflects Afrofuturism. I hadn’t made that connection before, but I can certainly see it now, and I can see Afrofuturism in the work of current artists like Janelle Monáe. Can you explain a bit more about where you see Labelle’s music and image fitting into the story of Afrofuturism?
Adele Bertei: There are several Black authors and scholars that have written and are writing about Afrofuturism. Ytasha Womack is one. I would love to hear more about Labelle’s position in Afrofuturism from other writers’ perspectives. The Epic trilogy of Labelle LPs – Nightbirds, Phoenix and Chameleon – deal with futurist themes and are deeply feminist, grounded in the social anxieties of the time (the early-mid-1970s) while speaking to a utopian future. The lyrics and Labelle’s look could definitely be deemed Afrofuturist in the tradition of artists like Sun Ra—especially Nona Hendryx, who continues to embrace technological reimaginings and the intersecting possibilities of time and space toward an enhanced future.
I remember how excited I was when Janelle Monáe released Metropolis: The Chase Suite, with “Sincerely, Jane”…That record! A masterpiece of Afrofuturist opera. I wonder if she’ll return to her earlier themes?
“Are You Lonely” at the Metropolitan Opera House, 1975
PKM: You were involved with an album that was released on Nona Hendryx’s label. Did you know her before doing the book?
Adele Bertei: I’ve known her, not well, since 1978 when she was performing with what I call her ‘noise’ band Zero Cool. We knew each other from the scene in NYC. I had an all-girl band called The Bloods and was also performing solo with backing tapes. Jump to 2004. I was singing lead in a local LA band called the Anubian Lights, and she had a record company and signed us on her label Rhythmbank for an LP we recorded called Phantascope.
PKM: Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash are both interviewed in the book, but Patti Labelle isn’t. Did you ask her to contribute?
Adele Bertei: Patti was impossible to get a hold of! I tried, asked endlessly. Couldn’t find a manager for her, or a contact, so I had to go on whatever I could find in interviews and videos, her books, and anecdotes from others.
PKM: Your book Peter and the Wolves came out at the end of last year, and now you’re working on a memoir. Were you working on all of these books at the same time? Did these projects inform each other?
Adele Bertei: I’ve been working on several books since moving to LA in 1993…my crazy life and all of its experiences inform whatever I create or write and there are many crossovers…the stories weave in and out of one another. I have a childhood memoir called Twist coming out in the spring of 2022, which is part of a trilogy and is the prelude to Peter and the Wolves. No New York, which I’m still writing, picks up from where Peter and the Wolves ends. No New York picks up with me moving to the East Village and joining the Contortions, and is about the downtown New York scene, music, film, and art circa 1977 through the 1980s.
PKM: What do you see as Labelle’s most lasting influences?
Adele Bertei: Their recordings and the films that exist of their performances pay testimony to the profound beauty and power of the female voice in harmony. They gave us Black female musical power at its most raw and ecstatic, paving the way for the women coming after to create without bowing to any restrictions or conformities: with truth and imagination unchained.
PKM: What records or songs would you recommend to someone who doesn’t know Labelle at all?