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Soul-sister reunion

The Baltimore Sun

Patti LaBelle thought the magic was gone, so she didn't want to do it at first. Besides, too much time had passed.

More than 30 years ago, the soul diva and her longtime girlfriends Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash - collectively known as Labelle - were among the hottest, strangest groups in pop. They were three black women dressed in outrageous drag (feathers galore, mile-high platforms, even metal breastplates) belting full-throttle, in-your-face songs about sex and politics. The trio's biggest hit was 1975's "Lady Marmalade," a funky ditty with a memorable French chorus about a New Orleans prostitute.

But the group, which started in the early '60s, soon broke up after the single became an across-the-board No. 1 smash. LaBelle then launched a hugely successful solo career - dotted with Grammys, gold and platinum records - while Hendryx and Dash maintained quieter careers doing session work and sporadic solo projects.

Now, after 32 years apart, the trio decided to give it a go again. Back to Now, the reunion album, is due out Oct. 21.

"We've been trying for the last five years to do this," says LaBelle, who headlines a solo show at Pier Six Concert Pavilion on Saturday night. "I didn't want to come back. It had been so long. ... I didn't want to half-step, and I didn't want my girls out there half-stepping, either. Finally, I said yes. We sang the first song together and, my God, we still have it."

Just as the group's '70s albums braided gospel, rock, soul and funk, the new album goes "in all different directions," LaBelle says. To update its sound, the trio worked with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, Lenny Kravitz and Wyclef Jean.

"The song selection was very spontaneous," says LaBelle, who last week was at home in her native Philadelphia. "Like Wyclef - he's very unorganized, wouldn't have anything ready, you know. He'd bring in tracks and tracks for us to listen to, and we'd pick one and put our lyrics on it. He'd let us work out the song. He's a very open producer."

LaBelle, Hendryx and Dash are all now in their mid-60s, but they haven't necessarily mellowed with age.

"We fought and fought like real sisters, just like we did back in the day, child," LaBelle says. "It could be a wrong note somebody made. If I did it, I'd fess up. But at the end of the day, though, we still love each other."

After more than 40 years of performing, LaBelle says she feels more comfortable with and in control of her career. Aside from the reunion album, the singer renowned for her powerhouse, intergalactic high notes has launched several nonmusical projects. She's a brand now. About a year ago, she started a wig line, the Patti LaBelle Collection. In between recording and touring, she tapes a TV One show called Living It Up With Patti LaBelle, a pseudo-reality show that follows the singer as she does various activities: eating and chatting with celebrity friends, shopping for jewelry, visiting spas.

Last month, the singer-cum-cookbook author launched Patti's Good Life, a line of natural food products that includes seasonings and relishes. Recipes for the Good Life, her third cookbook, and an instructional cooking DVD arrive in stores in November.

"The DVD is to show everybody how easy it is to cook," LaBelle says. "Everybody can do it. I didn't mind cooking with the crew in the kitchen. But if I'm in there cooking for Christmas or Thanksgiving, I don't want your butt in my kitchen. I'm cooking everything for everybody. No restaurant food brought in. I'm doing it from the heart. It's a love fest."

And that's an adequate description of her concerts, where LaBelle is known to kick off her shoes and roll around on the stage while singing at the top of her lungs. She's usually very chatty and personable with the audience - often inviting folks on stage to sing and sometimes giving away "pieces of Patti": an article of clothing, her false eyelashes.

"Everything I do has got to be quality, or I won't do it," she says. "That's how I operate with anything I do. It was like that with this new Labelle record. If it wasn't gonna be good and make me and my girls look good, I wasn't doing it."

Soon after the October release of the reunion album, the trio will play a string of European dates before headlining U.S. venues at the beginning of next year. But don't expect LaBelle, Dash and Hendryx to dress in the eye-popping gear they rocked in back in the day.

"You sure won't see us come out in feathers or anything we were wearing 30 years ago," LaBelle says. "Whatever we wear, it'll be modified but very fashion-forward - always looking ahead, honey."

IF YOU GO

See Patti LaBelle at Pier Six Concert Pavilion, 731 Eastern Ave., at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $55-$175 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-7328 or going to ticketmaster.com.

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