LABELLE / “Labelle Mixtape”
If I had to pick the golden age of 20th century black music, I’d have to say the seventies. By then we were post civil rights, deep into militancy, i.e. pushing hard to fulfill the diverse dreams burning in our hearts and minds. And the music, the music was like we the people, indeed was the people, the way we sounded being ourselves full out. All of ourselves. The heaviness of our hurts, the fierceness of our struggles, the wickedness of our humor, the tenderness of our loving and a plethora emotions all back, around and in between.
The seventies. All genres of our music was blowing full out. It was just hipness piled atop hipness, whatever was your thing, in the seventies it was a hip thing. From religion to hustling, from going way out to heading in integrating to the max, whatever, the seventies was when it was at its peak.
This week I call on the good sisters Labelle (Nona Hendryx, Patti Labelle, Sarah Dash) to bear witness to the great goodness that was the seventies.
Man, do I remember them. You always knew when they were in town. The freaks was out. Silver and shinning. Feathers and satin, sometimes even aluminum foil—you know some fool had made a cape out of the wrapping and was strutting down the street; look at mother’s child, mother’s child.
P-Funk was the bomb but with Labelle, well, the sisters was doing it for themselves and every manner of sexual orientation flamed out as though the red sea had parted and it was a race to see who could get to the far side first.
What it was with Labelle was a conscious effort to celebrate feminine fierceness in black. Female bodies not just black and beautiful, but fiercely black, fiercely beautiful. You would watch them and be awestruck, be aroused. Yes. They sang with a sexual passion so explicit it was damn near pornographic.
But at the same time it was otherworldly, spiritual in a non-western sense. The spirituality of celebrating freedom of expression.
Their bio is a well known (if you don’t know the basic, go here and read a brief biographical write up). I don’t want to bore you with facts. Just want to get out the way, let the music speak. Sing. Shout!
What this mixtape is, is a sort of survey extending from 1971 to 1976, covering the major recordings of Labelle when it was Patti LaBelle, Sarah Dash and Nona Hendryx. Before that it was Patti LaBelle and the Bluebells. They were a typical girl group of the sixties. A mixture of gospel roots with R&B sensibilities. After that it was solo careers, Patti LaBelle preeminent among the three.
I chosen two cuts each from four of their albums and four cuts from their last, and classic album, Chameleon.
From the eponymous Labelle album you hear their updating of R&B with the mash up of 1. “Runnin’ Out Of Fools/If You Gotta Make A Fool Of Somebody” and church front gospel on 2. “Heart Be Still,” which is actually a cover of “Peace Be Still” complete with a Hammond B3 organ to underscore the obvious.
Moon Shadow was their hard rock-influenced album featuring English rockers in the backing band. On 3. “Moonshadow” they offer a cross between a sermon and a rock-opera. 4. “Touch Me All Over” is a archetypal Labelle love song, openly sensual, intensely sensual.
For Nightbirds, their next album, Labelle went down to New Orleans, hooked up with quintessential producer/songwriter Allen Toussaint. The result was Labelle’s only number one single, their best known song 5. “Lady Marmalade.” For my ears, my sensibility, my libido, the song from the Nightbirds album that I savor the most is 6. “You turn Me On,” with its salacious chorus “I come like the pouring rain / each time you call my name (Here I Come, Here I Come!).”
After “Lady Marmalade” the ladies were in full flight. Their next album, Phoenix (out of print), reveled in their image hence their anthem song 7. “Far As We Felt Like Going,” and once again, it was the slow burner that set me alight. 8. “Take The Night Off” is a hard, up against the wall, uninhibited, raunchy love song, i.e. a quintessential Labelle love song.
By 1976 years of touring, years of orgasmic explosions on stage both took their toll on the group and paradoxically enabled Labelle to produce their masterpiece: Chameleon. You can hear it. The songs are longer, harder, absolutely exhaustive/exhausting.
9. “Get You Somebody New” is a lover’s fight, pushing all the intimate buttons; listen to how they ride the rhythm, whipping themselves into a frenzy, moaning wordlessly on the out chorus. They end abruptly: “get you somebody new.” Then on the other end of the love spectrum Labelle offers the sexy invitation 10. “Come Into My Life.” It’s a sincere plea of total vulnerability, who can resist?
11. “Isn’t It A Shame” is the ultimate breakup lament. Legend has it that this is also one of the songs that ushered in the group’s breakup—Patti wanted to do more like this, Nona wanted a different direction, Sarah couldn’t hold them together, The song became prophesy.
12. The final selection, “Going Down Makes Me Shiver” is an exaltant affirmation of the goodness of the group experience. Indelible memories of the pinnacles of pleasure Labelle achieved.
Although there would be a couple of failed attempts, it would be over thirty years before Labelle would reunite to record a full album. Regardless of what came before and what was to come afterwards, Labelle had made their mark. Labelle had changed the music. Labelle had set standards that the majority of vocal groups have yet to approach, not to mention equal.
Enjoy this celebration.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
This entry was posted on Monday, October 27th, 2008 at 2:36 am and is filed under Classic. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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