Nona Hendryx belonged to the experimental rock-soul group Labelle in the 1970s, along with pop diva Patti LaBelle. Hendryx wrote much of their music, but their biggest hit, the cheeky and disco-fied 1975 number “Lady Marmalade,” came from another pen. Their “high, torrential harmonies,” noted Entertainment Weekly writer Tom Moon, “lifted ordinary songs into extraordinary exciting events - and spawned a slew of imitators.” After they disbanded, Hendryx, Labelle, and the third member, Sarah Dash, all pursued solo careers with varying degrees of success. Hendryx has produced a string of solo records that showcase her penchant for exploring new musical styles.
Born on October 9, 1944, in Trenton, New Jersey, Hendryx was singing in a Philadelphia girl group called the Del Capris by the time she was 18 years old. She and Sarah Dash were recruited to join a rival group, the Ordettes, which included Patricia Holt, who would soon change her last name to LaBelle, and Cindy Birdsong, a future member of Motown’s Supremes. The quartet became the BlueBelles, and their first single, “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman,” was a minor hit, but with a possibly spurious provenance - it may have been recorded by another girl group but released with the BlueBelles’ name on it. They fared better with a 1963 single, “Down the Aisle,” and then began covering sentimental tunes such as Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and the theme from The Wizard of Oz, until Birdsong departed for the Supremes in 1967. The BlueBelles were dropped by their label after failing to produce any more hits by 1969, but decided to team with successful British television producer Vicki Wickham the following year.
Wickham became their manager as well as producer, renamed them simply “Labelle,” and revamped their image and music. The three women donned futuristic outfits, started covering rock tunes, and even opened for the Who on the U.S. leg of the British rockers’ tour. Signing with Warner Brothers, they issued Labelle in 1971, which featured funkier versions of Carole King as well as Rolling Stones’ songs. Hendryx wrote a couple of songs for the album, one of them with Patti Labelle. Their next release, 1972’s Moon Shadow, had them covering the popular Cat Stevens’ hit from the previous year, as well as the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again”; Patti Labelle penned the remainder of the songs.
Hendryx, Labelle, and Dash were forced to move to the RCA label, which issued Pressure Cookin’ in 1973. Hendryx wrote most of the songs for the album, but there were no standouts. Jettisoned by their corporate parent once again due to a lack of commercial success, they landed at Epic in 1974, which paired them with veteran New Orleans producer Allen Toussaint. Their fourth LP as Labelle, Nightbirds, was recorded there, and songwriters Bob Crewe and Kenny Nolan, who had enjoyed a recent hit with Frankie Valli’s “My Eyes Adored You,” stepped in to provide the racy “Lady Marmalade.” A drastic change from the Valli song, “Lady Marmalade” was the tale of a New Orleans prostitute that featured the memorable line, “Voulez-vous couchez avec moi ce soir?.” Released in late 1974, Nightbirds steadily climbed the charts, thanks to “Lady Marmalade,” which reached number one in March of 1975.
Buoyed by their success, Hendryx and the group had a few more minor hits with Phoenix and Chameleon, but never scored a repeat of the “Lady Marmalade” hit. By then Hendryx was writing the majority of the songs, but 1976’s Chameleon showed a more avant-garde, experimental style, and many of the tracks clocked in at over five minutes in length. The group decided to go their separate ways that same year. Hendryx was a bit surprised by it, she told New York Times journalist John Rockwell. “It was a conflict that was almost not spoken,” she said a year later. “I wrote for the group, and if Pat[ti] did harbor any kind of feelings that she didn’t want to sing what I wrote, she didn’t let on. I assumed that all our heads were in the same place, but I found out they were not.”
Hendryx put out her eponymous solo debut in 1977 on Epic. The label, however, was uncertain about how to market a black female rock singer, and the meager promotional efforts kept the record buried. In order to make ends meet, Hendryx was forced to rely on studio work; the gigs helped introduce her to a number of musicians and producers who became fans, and she went on to sing backup with the Talking Heads. Members of that group linked her to experimental New York producer Bill Laswell, who helped out for her second solo effort, Nona, in 1983. One track on it, “Design for Living,” featured an all-star lineup of Talking Head Tina Weymouth on bass, Go-Go’s drummer Gina Schock, Nancy Wilson of Heart playing guitar, and even Laurie Anderson on violin. A People review asserted that “Hendryx’s voice is not the most distinctive instrument going, but she uses it to great advantage.”
For her new label, RCA, Hendryx produced a third record, 1984’s The Art of Defense, and Heat a year later. Female Trouble was released in 1987 on EMI. None failed to produce any Top 40 hits, but each made a respectable dent in the R&B album charts. By 1989 she had formed her own label, Private Music, which issued her sixth solo work, Skin Diver, in 1989. Three years later she teamed with soul singer Billy Vera for You Have to Cry Sometime, a 1992 release of vintage R&B covers on the Shanachie label.
Whether you’ve been a fan since the days of Labelle and her acclaimed solo albums of the ‘80s or you’re new to her signature sound, Nona will have you moving your feet and working your brain at the same time with her latest release, Mutatis Mutandis (“changing those things which need to be changed”) (2012). On focus tracks “The Tea Party” and “Black Boys,” the groove is deep and the lyrics are as current as the crawl on the 24-hour news networks. Powerhouse vocals, blistering guitars, killer horns, gospel flourishes, and unstoppable beats fuel scathing attacks on political and religious conservatives, corporate greed, and black-on-black violence, among other targets. The result is an album steeped in vintage R&B and soul, but totally in tune with the here and now.
Nearly four decades after her own career began, Hendryx reflected on the difficulties of the music business, in an interview with the Advocate’s Carole Pope. “It’s as tough as ever for emerging artists,” she asserted. “Rock and roll is not considered black music. It’s been co-opted by the white audience, and it’s difficult to reclaim as our own. Radio dictates what rock is, and its parameters are increasingly narrow.”
Openly bisexual, Hendryx has long been active in HIV and AIDS causes. She has collaborated with writer and director Charles Randolph-Wright, composing the music for his off-Broadway play Blue (Three Things) in 2001, which starred Phylicia Rashad. The enduring appeal of “Lady Marmalade” was resurrected when it was covered by a pop-star supergroup of Christina Aguilera, Mya, Pink, and Lil’ Kim in 2001. Although she remains on the fringes of the music scene, most critics deliver high marks for Hendryx’s somewhat obscure solo work. And that, she told Moon, seems like justification enough. “I aspire to make music that serves and moves people, because music can get into places nothing else can reach.”