In its 16 years together, Labelle developed from a fairly conventional '60s girl group — replete with sequined gowns, bouffants, and polished choreography — into a band with a unique, space-queen look, an idealistic political consciousness, and an individual gospel-tinged, funky rock & roll sound. They began as Patti LaBelle and the Blue Belles, bringing together LaBelle and Cindy Birdsong from the Ordettes with Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash from the Del Capris. Their 1962 single "I Sold My Heart to the Junkman" became a Number 15 hit, followed by versions of "Danny Boy" (Number 76, 1964) and "You'll Never Walk Alone" (Number 34, 1964).
The Blue Belles became a trio in 1967 when Birdsong left to replace Florence Ballard in the Supremes. Although they were hugely popular at the Apollo Theatre and on the soul circuit, they were mismanaged. In 1970 Britisher Vicki Wickham (who knew the Blue Belles from their mid-'60s appearance on the English TV show Ready Steady Go, which she produced) became their manager, revamping their image and leading them toward more contemporary rock. She also encouraged Hendryx to contribute more of her own songs.
In 1971, after Wickham rechristened the group Labelle, it released an eponymous debut on Warner Bros. and toured the U.S. with the Who. That same year the band collaborated with Laura Nyro on Gonna Take a Miracle, a collection of '50s and '60s soul and doo-wop remakes. In 1973 Labelle, at a headline Bottom Line show, joined the glitter trend, debuting its soon-to-be-famous lamé space-cadet suits. In 1974 it became the first black act ever to play New York's Metropolitan Opera House; there it introduced what was to become its only million-selling hit, "Lady Marmalade" (Number One, 1975), a shouter about a Creole hooker. The single, written by Bob Crewe, Allen Toussaint, and Kenny Nolan, highlighted its Nightbirds LP, produced by Toussaint in New Orleans.
Since Hendryx and Patti LaBelle had basic musical differences, Labelle broke up in 1976. Sarah Dash played small clubs and began recording solo albums in 1979. She continues to work as a background singer for various artists, including Keith Richards, the Rolling Stones, LaBelle, and Hendryx. The three were reunited on "Release Yourself," from LaBelle's 1991 solo album Burnin'. Following a decade and a half of brief reunions and collaborations, the ladies of Labelle announced a full-scale reunion in 2008, with intentions to release an album and tour.
Portions of this biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
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