By David Rolland
By David Von Bader
By Rebecca Bulnes
By Laurie Charles
By Chuck Strouse
By Lee Zimmerman
By Laurie Charles
Whether they admit it or not, everybody digs a diva. The sass, the swagger, the glam, the tantrums — divas are never, ever boring. In fact, at their best and their worst, divas can be about the best show on earth. And if you don't properly kowtow, a diva just might slap you off the map. After all, the very root of the word means "goddess."
So it stands to damn good reason that if you dig divas, you must really dig the three divas that form LaBelle. In name, they are Sarah Dash, Nona Hendryx, and the eponymous Patti. In experience, as you'll see at the Fillmore this Sunday, they are divadom supreme.
Born from the ashes of an early-1960s girl group named the Bluebelles, LaBelle, of course, is most known for its proto-disco smash "Lady Marmalade." The song was written by Bob Crewe and Kenny Nolan, of "My Eyes Adored You" fame, which they themselves unseated when "Lady Marmalade" hit number one on the singles chart. And the track was produced by the legendary Allen Toussaint, an R&B master who nevertheless had his songs covered by everyone from the Doors to Devo. Together, they all created a song that ranked among Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time."
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The track also happens to be a dirty ditty based on a Big Easy bad girl whose most famous line came from Tennessee Williams's immortally promiscuous Blanche Dubois. Yes, that's right, I mean "Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?" which, naturally, translates as "Would you like to sleep with me tonight?"
If the song said things nice girls never would have dreamed of saying way back in '75, the ladies who made it their refrain did likewise — and then some. Fully empowered and a little more than sexually forward, in sound as well as in image, LaBelle paved the way for many a dame to come.
Onstage, in space-age getups of sparkle and beam, they seemed to spring straight from the Funkadelic mother ship; in fact, they appeared to be nothing short of Venus incarnate. Thus it's little wonder why Sheila E. would put "Lady Marmalade" on her album Sex Cymbal, or that the likes of Christina Aguilera, Lil' Kim, Mýa, and Pink would assemble to remake the song for the Moulin Rouge soundtrack.
But LaBelle never would again match that track's massive success, and a year after wowing the whole wild world, the group called it quits. Dash would go on to disco semi-stardom with "Sinner Man" and a stint backing Keith Richards's X-Pensive Winos. Hendryx would keep creating critically acclaimed, but otherwise underappreciated, experiments in rock/soul. And LaBelle herself would solo up the pop charts, most notably in the mid-1980s with "New Attitude" (from Beverly Hills Cop) and "On My Own" (with Michael McDonald).
Beyond the ups and the downs and the sideways, though, all three divas kept their divaness intact (for evidence of that fact, witness Patti's upstaging of Diana Ross during Live Aid). And now, more than 30 years after their last LP, the ladies have returned with Back to Now. I won't spoil the joy of your hearing it, except to say that when you do, you will marvel at the sheer power of these incredible ladies. Each could teach every one of us a thing or three about life and the pursuit of unmitigated liberty, even if you've got no diva in you at all.