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, "Voulezvous 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. 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."
For the Record . . .
Born on October 9, 1944, in Trenton, NJ.
Sang in Philadelphia soul girl group the Del Capris, early 1960s; joined the Ordettes, 1962, which became the BlueBelles; group became Labelle in 1971, released several LPs on the Warner Brothers, RCA, and Epic labels during the 1970s; released first of several solo records, Nona Hendryx, 1977; composed music for the off-Broadway play Blue (Three Things), 2001.
Addresses: Record company—Shanachie Records, 37 East Clinton St., Newton, NJ 07860.
Nona Hendryx, Epic, 1977.
Nona, RCA, 1983.
The Art of Defense, RCA, 1984.
The Heat, RCA, 1985.
Female Trouble, EMI America, 1987.
Skin Diver, Private Music, 1989.
(With Billy Vera) You Have to Cry Sometime, Shanachie, 1992.
With Patti Labelle and the BlueBelles
Sweethearts of the Apollo, Collectables, 1963.
The BlueBelles On Stage, Parkway, 1965.
Over the Rainbow, Atlantic, 1966.
Dreamer, Atlantic, 1967.
Labelle, Warner Bros., 1971.
Moon Shadow, Warner Bros., 1972.
Pressure Cookin', RCA, 1973.
Nightbirds, Epic, 1974.
Phoenix, Epic, 1975.
Chameleon, Epic, 1976.
Advocate, September 25, 2001, p. 81.
Entertainment Weekly, June 26, 1992, p. 40.
Essence, December 1989, p. 23.
New York Times, November 4, 1977, p. 69.
People, July 25, 1983, p. 14; June 18, 1984, p. 22.
Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), March 24, 2003, p. 36.
Times (London, England), June 13, 1987.
Since her teens, Nona Hendryx has written and performed pop songs that span a range of genres. She attained stardom in the 1970s as a member of the soul trio Labelle, and then went on to build a solo career that included guest performances with a variety of rock and soul bands as well as solo recordings.
Hendryx has also had a distinguished career as a songwriter. She wrote many of Labelle's hit songs, and continued writing her own material after the group split up in 1976. In addition to pop songs, she has written for the theater. Also active in the business segment of the music industry, Hendryx is co-founder and director of RhythmBank Entertainment, an independent record label, music publishing, and film production company.
Hendryx was born on October 9, 1944, in Trenton, New Jersey, and by the time she was 18 she had joined the Del Capris, a "girl group" based in Philadelphia. Soon after, she joined the Ordettes, where she met Patricia Holt, who became known as Patti Labelle, and Cindy Birdsong, who later became a member of The Supremes. With Sara Dash, who had sung with the Del Capris, the new group called themselves the BlueBelles. Their first single was "I Sold My Heart to the Junkman," which they followed in 1963 with a bigger hit, "Down the Aisle." But the BlueBelles failed to sell as many records as their label had initially hoped, and in 1969 they were dropped. Now a trio after the 1967 departure of Birdsong, the group decided in 1970 to hire British television producer Vicki Wickham as their new manager.
Renaming the group Labelle, Wickham gave them a new image. Instead of the sentimental songs they had covered in earlier records, they started covering rock hits by such stars as the Rolling Stones, Carole King, and the Who. In 1971 the group put out the album Labelle, followed by 1972's Moon Shadow. While Hendryx contributed only a few songs to this album, she wrote most of the original material for Pressure Cookin', which was released in 1973. According to a writer in Contemporary Musicians, the album contained no "standouts." With Nightbirds, however, released in 1974, Labelle had a major hit: "Lady Marmalade," written by Bob Crewe and Kenny Nolan, helped push the album to number one status.
With Nightbirds's success came star status for Labelle, and the group went on to record two subsequent albums, Phoenix and Chameleon, for which Hendryx wrote most of the songs. The material was becoming more experimental, however, and Patti Labelle felt that Hendryx's songs, though brilliant, were not right for the group. In 1976 Labelle disbanded. "It was heaven and hell," Hendryx told Advocate interviewer Carol Pope in 2001, describing her years with Labelle. "We were like sisters. We'd fight, love, and laugh. After 17 years, breaking up was like a divorce. [But] by separating, you get to see your strengths and limitations."
Hendryx recorded her first solo album, Nona Hendryx, a year after Labelle's split, but her solo career grew slowly, in large part because her record company, at a loss for how to market a black rock singer, failed to promote her effectively. As she told Pope, "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." Through the late 1970s and early 1980s she sang back-up vocals for several groups, including the Talking Heads and Defunkt, and provided occasional lead vocals and writing for Material, a jazz-funk group. She had a hit, "Do What You Wanna Do," with the English group The Cage, and worked with members of the group Propaganda. In 1983 she put out her second album, Nona, which included guest musicians Nile Rogers, Tina Weymouth, and Laurie Anderson.
While Boston Globe reviewer Jim Sullivan gave the album a mixed review, he raved about Hendryx as a live performer, calling her appearance at the Channel, a Boston club, "a sassy, strong, funk rock delight." Sullivan admired her songs' tough spirit and funky grooves, and wrote that her vocals "cascade over the instrumentation like a rip tide." A People review of the album quoted in Contemporary Musicians noted that though Hendryx's voice is not particularly distinctive, "she uses it to great advantage."
In 1984 Hendryx put out a third album, The Art of Defense, followed by Heat in 1985 and Female Trouble in 1987. According to Contemporary Musicians, none of these albums produced any Top 40 hits "but each made a respectable dent in the R&B album charts." In 1989 Hendryx formed her own label, Private Music, which produced her sixth solo album, Skin Diver. In 1992 she collaborated with soul singer Billy Vera on You Have to Cry Sometime, a compilation of vintage R&B covers.
In 2001, Hendryx accepted writer and director Charles Randolph-Wright's invitation to compose the music for his off-Broadway play Blue (Three Things). Reviewing the off-Broadway production in the New York Times, Bruce Weber noted that Hendryx's original music provided an "enlivening feature" in the play and added that her "lush and melodic original songs are layered onto the narrative seamlessly."
Interested in producing music as well as creating it, Hendryx founded RhythmBank Entertainment with her partner Bobby Banks in early 2004. The first musician they signed was Najiyah, a young gospel singer who was only in the fourth grade when Hendryx first heard her sing in 2003. Though RhythmBank is not a gospel label, Banks and Hendryx signed Najiyah because they believed so strongly that she deserved an audience. As Hendryx noted in material quoted in GospelCity, "We started out just wanting to sign music that we love and artists that we love. That's why we have a roster that includes someone like Najiyah, someone like [Los Angeles alternative rock band] Anubian Lights and the upcoming UK sensation, Stoner."
Such generosity has also extended beyond Hendryx's involvement in the music business. Openly bisexual, Hendryx has often done benefit performances for AIDS organizations such as Gay Men's Health Crisis. In addition, she made a trip to Africa in the early 2000s to witness the effects of AIDS on that continent. In 1999 Hendryx was inducted into the Rhythm and Blues Foundation Hall of Fame for her work as a member of Labelle.
At a Glance …
Born on October 9, 1944, in Trenton, NJ.
Career: Singer, songwriter, recording artist, 1963–; RhythmBank Entertainment, New York, NY, co-founder and executive director, 2004–.
Awards: Rhythm & Blues Foundation Hall of Fame inductee (as member of Patti Labelle & the BlueBelles), 1999.
Addresses: Office—RhythmBank Entertainment, 630 Ninth Ave., Suite 603, New York, NY 10036.
Albums (with Patti Labelle and the BlueBelles)
Sweethearts of the Apollo, 1963.
The BlueBelles on Stage, 1965.
Over the Rainbow, 1966.
Albums (with Labelle)
Moon Shadow, 1972.
Pressure Cookin', 1973.
Nona Hendryx, 1977.
The Art of Defense, 1984.
The Heat, 1985.
Female Trouble, 1987.
Skin Diver, 1989.
(With Billy Vera) You Have to Cry Sometime, 1992.
Contemporary Musicians, volume 52, Gale Group, 2005.
The Advocate, September 25, 2001.
Boston Globe, June 6, 1983.
New York Times, June 29, 2001; January 19, 2003.
"Legendary Performer Nona Hendryx Produces CD for Gospel Phenom," GospelCity, www.gospelcity.com (November 28, 2005).