October 10, 2008 / 8:48 PM / 10 years ago

R&B trio Labelle back in spotlight with new album

LOS ANGELES (Billboard) - Old school can still command attention — just ask Tina Turner, who recently launched a sold-out world tour at age 68. Hoping to sashay its way into that zeitgeist is futuristic ‘70s rock-soul-funk trio Labelle.

Patti LaBelle (C) is joined by original members of LaBelle, Sarah Dash (L) and Nona Hendryx (R) during a tribute to LaBelle at the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans, Louisiana in this file photo from July 5, 2008. REUTERS/Lee Celano

Best-known for the 1974 No. 1 R&B and pop hit “Lady Marmalade,” Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash return October 21 with their long-awaited reunion album, “Back to Now” (Verve).

Several mini-reunions have transpired since the group’s last studio album, 1976’s “Chameleon.” The trio recorded dance hit “Turn It Out” in 1995 for the movie “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar” and two TV specials. In 1999, the group — originally known as the Blue Belles in the ‘60s, with fourth member Cindy Birdsong — received the Rhythm & Blues Foundation’s Pioneer Award. Then the trio sang the Hendryx-written theme song for the 2006 film “Preaching to the Choir.”

As talk about a Labelle reunion repeatedly surfaced through the years, it was always waylaid by the members’ individual careers — and by Patti LaBelle’s trepidation.

“I really didn’t know if we still had the vocal power,” LaBelle says. “But after we did the first song, I knew we were still some hot mamas.”

That song was “Dear Rosa,” a moving tribute to civil rights activist Rosa Parks that Hendryx co-wrote and produced. The group worked on the track at the same time it recorded the “Preaching” title theme, finally getting the ball rolling on “Back to Now.”

“Dear Rosa” is one of 10 songs on the album. The selections run the gamut from Cole Porter (“Miss Otis Regrets,” a 1970 live Labelle recording with Who drummer Keith Moon) to Wyclef Jean (who’s featured on uptempo lead single “Roll Out”). In addition to Jean, “Back to Now” includes production by Lenny Kravitz and the legendary Gamble & Huff, who signed LaBelle to their Philadelphia International label in the ‘80s.

Hendryx segues back into her role as Labelle’s primary songwriter, contributing the funk-infused “Candlelight” and the aggressive “System” — two then-unfinished songs set to appear on a new album that was later scrapped when the group disbanded in 1976.

“Thank God we taped our rehearsals back then,” Dash says. “After we decided to come back together last year, we thought those songs were a good place to start.”

Besides featuring “Without You in My Life” and other tracks co-written by all three women, “Back to Now” adds a contemporary vibe without taking away from the funkiness that longtime fans remember. The key ingredients of its sound — LaBelle’s soaring sass, Hendryx’s rock-edged stance and Dash’s earthy accents — remain intact.

“Labelle was a group that set your mind, spirit, body and soul free,” Hendryx says of the group’s legacy. “We’re 60 years young and still willing to go to the edge.”


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