Definitely looking forward to this one.

By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / October 21, 2008

It’s fitting that when the women of the trailblazing trio Labelle finally decided to reunite, it was to pay homage to another groundbreaking black woman.

“When Rosa Parks died [in 2005], there was a song that I had written called ‘Dear Rosa,’ and I wanted Labelle to record that as a tribute to her,” says Nona Hendryx. “I think it’s important to make sure people don’t forget.”

The women of Labelle – Hendryx, Patti Labelle, and Sarah Dash – would never place themselves on the same plane as the civil rights pioneer. But what they accomplished in the ’60s and ’70s – morphing from a typical girl group into genre-bending queens of glam, soul, gospel, and rock – was in its own way an act of defiance, and it too should not be forgotten. (Their silver spandex spacesuit costumes are best left interred in the ’70s, however.)

Along with Tina Turner and Mother’s Finest, two other masters of rock-inflected funk, Labelle helped prepare the world for everyone from Lenny Kravitz to Santogold.

Memories of the “Lady Marmalade” ladies should be pleasantly jogged by today’s release of “Back to Now,” the first Labelle album in 32 years. It is a continuation of the group’s signature blend of styles, sublime harmonies, and social and political observations.

Although nine of the 10 tracks are new recordings, including “Dear Rosa,” the album does include several nods to the past. The dramatic funk rocker “System” and the optimistic ballad “How Long” were written by Hendryx just prior to the group’s amicable split in 1976. In their first studio outing in many years as well, Philly soul legends Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff add production finesse to several tracks. And a digitally remixed 1970 performance of the Cole Porter standard “Miss Otis Regrets” closes out the album.

“We thought about redoing it,” says Hendryx, “but we have Keith Moon from the Who on drums and Nicky Hopkins who plays with the Rolling Stones [on keyboards]. You can’t do that again.”

Hendryx says Labelle was also determined to keep the reunion forward-looking. “It is about now,” she says. “We’re bringing some of what was then [back], but I live in the present.”

In a nod to that present they also sought out Kravitz, a big fan of the group, and Wyclef Jean, a buddy of Patti Labelle, to produce several tracks.

“Lenny went back and listened to a lot of the stuff that Allen Toussaint did on the ‘Nightbirds’ album,” says Hendryx of the group’s most successful disc, thanks to “Lady Marmalade.” “And you know, he lives in that old school, analog, let’s-cut-it-live place, so it was great that he has that sensibility and love and appreciation for music of the past.”

With Jean the trio co-wrote the album’s first single “Roll Out,” a snappy contemporary soul pop kiss-off to no-account men. In it Hendryx, Labelle, and Dash inform the song’s sad-sack antagonist that they will be leaving him and taking the car while they’re at it, thanks.

“We sat on the couch with no headsets, we didn’t even go in the little booth,” says Labelle of the recording. “It was very relaxed.”

Labelle, who went on to have the most high-profile solo career of the three women, admits she was a little concerned about the reunion. “I definitely didn’t want to half step. If we weren’t going to sound great, I think we should not sing,” she says with a laugh. “It was a surprise to me that we still had it.”

The women have remained good friends over the years, with Hendryx and Dash sharing relatives and Hendryx collaborating on Labelle’s solo albums.

“We never lost love for each other,” says Labelle.

“It’s sisters – it’s very difficult not to be in each other’s lives,” says Hendryx.

Like most sisters, the ladies of Labelle have also picked up where they left off when it comes to bickering.

Asked what they fight about now, Hendryx laughs and lets loose with a litany: “somebody’s late, what we’re going to eat, you shouldn’t be eating, I want to wear that instead of you wearing that.”

Labelle giggles as she explains it less diplomatically in a separate interview. “We have fights about when they come to my house they junk it up. Oh they’re sloppy,” she moans. “They know they are. But they’re my girls, and you know when you have a sister who’s not doing things the way you want, you want to kick her butt? I tell them if you don’t want to fold it, hide it in the closet so I can’t see it. I don’t play that. I’m very anal when it comes to neatness.”

But the trio, who will tour for the new album in early 2009, also share wigs and recipes – Labelle has a signature line of the former and a forthcoming cookbook/DVD devoted to the latter – and a sense of renewed purpose.

“Yesterday on a live radio broadcast in Philadelphia we were singing ‘Roll Out’ and all the people in the little room stood up and started doing their hands in a rolling position,” says Labelle, already picturing future audiences taking up the move. “Everybody was rolling out, putting their hands up in the air like they just don’t care. That’s going to be fun when we do it onstage.”

Sarah Rodman can be reached at
© Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company.