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SUPER-HEROINES OF THE SOUL UNIVERSE


By Mark Anthony Neal

Monday, September 15, 2008.

If Aretha Franklin is the Queen of Soul, then these three young women are the High Priestesses.”—Gail Berkley

Several decades before Patty LaBelle became the “voice” that always tears the house down, she was simply known as Patsy Holte, the lead singer of a group called the Blue-Belles (later Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles). That group, which included Sarah Dash, Nona Hendrix and Cindy Birdsong (before she defected to The Supremes to replace Florence Ballard in 1967) was a chitlin’ circuit favorite recording turn-table hits like “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman”, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, and the initial version of Ms. LaBelle’s signature tune “Over the Rainbow.”

 

Had the group not recorded another note after they were dropped from their label in 1969 there legacy as a solid, if not spectacular 60s girl-group would have been intact. But thanks to an intervention by Vickie Wickham, host of the British variety show, Ready, Steady, Go, the trio of Hendrix, Dash and LaBelle became one of the most revolutionary acts ever.

Patti Labelle and the Bluebells first came into contact with Vickie Wickham when the group toured the
UK in the late 1960s. When the group was dropped by Atlantic
, they decided to seek out new management. Wickham agreed to mange the group, but with one change—the group, now a trio, would simply be known as LaBelle. As Ms. LaBelle recounts in her autobiography, Don’t Block the Blessings.

 

Wickham had a clear sense of where she wanted the group to go: Labelle was “going to be bold, brash, brazen. It was going to be revolutionary.” And what Wickham meant by this, according to Ms. LaBelle, was that the group’s music was going to be “political, progressive, passionate…three black women singing about racism, sexism, and eroticism.”

 

The group signed with Warner Brothers and released their debut Labelle in 1971. The first single from that recording was “Morning Much Better,” which celebrated, to Ms. LaBelle’s dismay, sex in the morning. LaBelle was not your mama’s girl-group—these were three grown-ass black women celebrating their femininity and sexuality in an era where all the rules about race, gender and sexuality were about to be re-written and the music of LaBelle would be a critical component of this brave new world.

The hallmarks of Labelle’s debut and follow-up Moon Shadow (1972) were genre-bending remakes of classic rock recordings and the provocative song-writing of Nona Hendrix. Moonshadow, for example features a remake of The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (the opening theme to CSI
Miami
) and Cat Stevens’ (Yusef Islam) “Moonshadow”. When LaBelle sings the chorus to “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (“I'll tip my hat to the new constitution/Take a bow for the new revolution”) the song is pregnant with the spirits of both the Black Power Movement and the burgeoning feminist movement, but with sensibilities that black women uniquely brought to both movements.

 

In the case of Steven’s folk classic, Labelle takes the song and its intent straight to church for an extended 9-minute sermon. When one hears “Shade of Difference” (“we don’t care if you fade away/we gonna save the world today”), penned by Ms. LaBelle and Ms. Hendrix, it was clear that LaBelle was redefining what black women and women in general could sing about. As Ms. LaBelle told Africana.com in 2004: “I think we did something. I think we helped make it easier for the girl groups like Destiny’s Child. Yeah, we did our work. We paid a few dues.”

Part of the price that LaBelle paid for their provocative style—both in music and clothing styles—was that it took a long time for the buying public and commercial radio to catch on.

 

That all changed with the breakout success of “Lady Marmalade” (1974), which sold over a million copies. Like their very first single, “Lady Marmalade” celebrated not just sex, but women who were in control of their sexuality. The song is most well known for the French lyric “Vous lez vous coucher avec moi, c’est soir?”, which of course translates into “would you like to sleep with me tonight?”

 

When LaBelle appeared on Cher in 1975, television censors forced to group to change the lyric and to also tone down their outfits. At the time, the only way most commentators could describe LaBelle was to called them “Space Age R&B”, to which Ms. LaBelle responded “We are futuristic…but we are not outer space or spaced out…we are about inner space.”

 

Indeed LaBelle was before her time, and when we hear the music of MeShell Ndegeocello, Erykah Badu and Ani DiFranco we are hearing the legacy of a trio of grown-ass black women who were willing to be just that.

***

Originally published at AOL BlackVoices
(2005)

 

Mark Anthony Neal is the author of several books and a Professor of African and African-American Studies at Duke University, where he also serves as the Director of the Institute for Critical U.S. Studies.

 

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