In the 60s Nona Hendryx, Sarah Dash, Patti LaBelle (neé Patricia Holte), and Cindy Birdsong (who later joined the Supremes replacing Florence Ballard), were founding members of the Blue Belles, a singing group who made their way on the charts and would become to be known as the “Sweethearts of the Apollo”. In the 70s Hendryx, Dash, and Labelle rebranded themselves as Labelle and scored a number one hit with “Lady Marmalade.” Known for their futuristic fashion and funk sound, Labelle became the first rock group to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House and the first Black vocal group to appear on the cover of RollingStone magazine in 1975.
After the group disbanded in 1976, Hendryx, Labelle’s chief songwriter, carved out a successful solo career, garnering a slew of devoted fans across the globe with a musical style that explored funk, rock, new age, and R&B. Hendryx, who is also a distant cousin of rock legend Jimi Hendrix scored a top 5 R&B hit with “Why Should I Cry” in 1987, and has also gone on to write music for stage and film including Lee Daniels’ 2010 Oscar-nominated Precious. Recently, Trenton Journal’s Kenneth Miles caught up with Hendryx to talk about her musical legacy, the importance of Women’s History Month, and her fondest memories growing up in the capital city.
Thank you for taking the time to speak with us. In addition to six decades in the music industry, you’re also known for your activism and empowering women. What does Women’s History Month mean to you?
It’s important that the light is shone on women and [their] achievements. Mothers do everything—taking care of children, looking after sick husbands and sisters and brothers or parents. It’s a lot the woman has responsibility for and that’s why they’re so good at multitasking. [Women] have to multitask from the time they get pregnant and especially when they give birth. So I think that’s what it means, that there is an opportunity for people, individuals to show their appreciation for the women in their lives.
I read a comment on YouTube that read, “Labelle was not a lead singer and two background singers, Labelle was three solo artists collaborating as a group and anyone who truly understands the musical influence of Labell understood this.” What do you feel were your strengths as a member of Labelle?
I think about my background in terms of my love of poetry and my perception of life and how I got to the writing of the music that I wrote for Labelle. I had a certain personality that members of the audience identified with the same way [they] did with Sarah and with Pat. And that is more of why we were like a band as opposed to your traditional girl group. And so therefore, my personality, my perspective, my songwriting, my lyric writing, my level of poetry, which came through…I think those are my strengths.
Were you encouraged to write songs back in the day when you first started out recording?
My first song that I wrote I was not encouraged by someone to write it. I think I just had both urges and needed to try and do that, and then I was encouraged. Yes, I had people who, like my friend Curtis Mayfield and his brother, encouraged me to finish the first song that I wrote and Patti Labelle and the Blue Belles eventually recorded. So yeah, there was encouragement. Then there was encouragement from Vicki Wickham and [others] who signed Labelle to Track Records. Their encouragement was that you’re not a girl group in that old mold anymore. You’re singers, but we work with singers and musicians who write their own material, can you do that? And that was a question that got answered.Do you have a favorite author or poet that inspires your songwriting?
That’s hard. There’s so many great authors and poets. I have a great love of Shakespeare, because [he’s] poetic. It’s all different forms of putting words together, but also there’s a narrative. There’s stories, there’s plays…just this wealth of using the English language. Then there’s people like E.E. Cummings and Nikki Giovanni, who I love. I [also] read poetry by James Baldwin; he’s also one of my favorite writers.
You’ve once mentioned that Sarah Dash was responsible for getting you to form a singing group when you were teenagers in Trenton and that you originally had plans on being a school teacher. Do you remember the last time you spoke with Sarah Dash?
I spoke to Sarah like two days before she died. We texted each other, because we were going to get together, she, Pat and I about doing a documentary [on Labelle] and also some other things in terms of what Labelle might do and could do. [Sarah] went to see Patti I think that Saturday and she was on stage with [her]. We spoke quite often, but not every week.
Labelle was known for elaborate costumes in the 70s, space suits, feathers, and intricate head pieces. Do you still own the wardrobe from that era?
Yes, I have kept them. Some of them have gone to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Some have gone to the Smithsonian [for] a year long Afrofuturism exhibition at the African American National Museum. Two of my costumes are there. One is on display on the top tier where the music artists display are and one will be in the year long exhibition I think that they’re doing in the lobby of the building.
|What would you say has been the highlight of your career thus far?|
I don’t think I have that one yet. Looking back on it, there are so many peaks and very few valleys in terms of what I did not set out to do, but what became my profession. It’s all tied into the creation of music and art. The first time we played the Apollo theater, the first time going to Europe and performing. The first time going to China and Japan, those countries have very different cultures [from the United States]. Watching people sing along to our songs and dancing, showing so much appreciation for us…you just don’t know growing up as a child in Trenton, New Jersey that you are going to have that kind of place in life. Then, playing the Metropolitan Opera House and having an audience that would be called the cream of New York in the arts and other areas come to celebrate us in that role in that way. [Also], the time we played at the War Memorial building in Trenton, New Jersey, that was really a highlight for Sarah and myself and our families.
What is your fondest memory of growing up in Trenton?
I was a majorette and I loved that experience of being a part of the marching team and learning how to twirl a baton. It was fun. I had a great time doing that. I went to Parker School and we would go on these field trips and learn about different plants and things in the woods. I also really loved walking to school except for when it snowed. I loved walking from South Trenton to Junior Four with my friends. We [also] had something called sports night, where you had a red team and a black team and you trained most of the year for sports night. I wasn’t one of those people who didn’t like school, I enjoyed school.
Do you see your musical influence as a solo artist, and as a member of Labelle in any of the group’s today?Labelle changed the game in terms of female performers and what they looked like, what they were singing, [and] how they performed. Yes, there has been a ripple effect and not only in the women who came after Labelle, but P Funk was inspired by Labelle, Earth Wind and Fire, Grace Jones, Kiss…they all went to the same people to get them to design costumes for them.
What advice would you give women who aspire to have a long successful career such as yourself?
Luck is a big part of a long career, but I also think being flexible [to] always learning, and being curious. Try not to do what somebody else is doing, find your own voice and your own expression of your creativity, and collaborate with others. I’ve collaborated with people almost my entire career from Pat and Sarah to all the way to now. I learn and exchange different ideas. Pat and I are about to do a Labelle musical so that will bring some of [Labelle’s] story forward.