The Return of Nona Hendryx
The singer unveils her first album in 20 years.
Most people remember Nona Hendryx as one-third of the groundbreaking group LaBelle. During the girl group era of the early ’60s, that trio began as a quartet, Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles, and included LaBelle, Hendryx, Sarah Dash, and Cindy Birdsong. The fact that they were largely unsuccessful was no indication of what their next phase would be like. By the dawn of the 1970s, Cindy Birdsong was one of the Supremes, and the remaining trio had undergone a serious makeover, both in sound and style. In their new incarnation—as LaBelle—the tame lyrics and matching dresses were out, replaced by a musical mix of glam rock and R&B, and outfits that featured everything from wild feathers to space suits, à la George Clinton. They released half a dozen albums and scored a No. 1 hit in 1974 with the classic “Lady Marmalade,” about a New Orleans prostitute.
After LaBelle broke up, the three members of the group quickly embarked on solo careers. Of course, we all know what happened to Patti LaBelle. With her soaring voice and her mainstream inclinations, it was no great shock that she became a star. Sarah Dash scored a disco hit with “Sinner Man” and sang with other artists as well. But without a doubt Hendryx has had the most interesting career. She was the space-age spirit of LaBelle, writing many of their later songs and strongly influencing their fashion sense. And if she’s never become a star on the level of Patti LaBelle, her solo career has proven her to be a true artist, a risk taker and a renaissance woman.
Hendryx released her self-titled solo debut in 1977. An excellent and eclectic album, Nona Hendryx opens with the upbeat song “Winning,” which later became a hit for Santana. The album touches on rock, reggae, and dance music, and also includes the lovely ballad “Tout de Suite Mam’selle,” written for a female friend who had disappeared. The album received critical acclaim, but got no airplay and pretty well vanished without a trace. Hendryx didn’t release her sophomore set, Nona, for another five years. That disc was more dance-oriented and provided her with a big R&B hit, “Keep It Confidential.” Her solo output over the last three decades has been sporadic but fascinating. In 1989, Hendryx released a New Age album called Skin Diver, which was produced by Peter Baumann of Tangerine Dream. Three years later, she returned with You Have to Cry Sometime, a disc of duets with Billy Vera of “At This Moment” fame. Other artists she has collaborated with over the years range from Keith Richards to Laurie Anderson, and from Bounty Killer to Peter Gabriel.
Hendryx’s new album, Mutatis Mutandis, is her first solo offering in two decades and her first release for Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records. Mutatis Mutandis—which is Latin for “making the necessary changes”—is very much of its time. Over 10 songs, Hendryx takes aim at some of the issues that have been bothering her recently. These range from intracultural crime and violence (“Black on Black”) to environmental disasters (“Oil on the Water”). But her biggest gripe is with conservatives. The album’s first track, “Tea Party,” finds Hendryx speak-singing about the movement’s far-right agenda to a James Brown–style accompaniment. “I think the impetus for the original Tea Party was that they were fighting the British, or the peers-that-be at that time,” Hendryx explains. “But the form it has taken since the campaign of Barack Obama [has involved] such insane behavior that I was incensed. How I deal with my feelings about powerful things like that is to write about them. And I wanted to put it in a form that’s sort of an homage to James Brown. If I just made an angry piece of music, I would be them. Because where they’re coming from is anger—and you don’t get anywhere with that. So [I did] it in a way that people feel empowered by it.” Later on in the album, she delivers a slower song aimed not at an entire group but at one individual. “The Ballad of Rush Limbaugh” is a long-overdue attack on one of the most divisive and arrogant figures in the media. In particular, the lines “You point your finger saying what you’d do / Blind to the fingers pointing back at you / In your houses made of glass / In your limo carrying your ass / You think you’re the law” are music to this writer’s ears!
As for “Black on Black,” Hendryx says, “Going through the period that I grew up in, it was all about the civil rights movement saying that you were equal. To then become the violent community that we have become toward each other…We’ve gone backwards. [But] I understand that if you cannot strike out at someone who is striking out at you, you’ll strike out at yourself. So that’s what I’m addressing. It’s stuff I’ve been thinking about for quite a few years.”
Hendryx has never been one to shy away from addressing controversial topics. Indeed, she’s had to overcome more obstacles than most people during her four-plus decades in music. Not many black women (let alone openly bisexual, Buddhist black women) were making rock ’n’ roll in the 1970s. “There were very few people,” she confirms. “Betty Davis was a contemporary. She was a little more into the funk side, and she was married to Miles. She was very interesting. But I’m trying to think of who else there was at the time. Chaka [Khan]—but she wasn’t doing more of the political [stuff], and she was the female singer in a male band. It was difficult. But that’s one of the things about youth. When you’re younger, you almost have blinders on.
“Record company promoters took the money to promote my records, pocketed it, and only did enough to… keep their jobs,” Hendryx adds. “I overheard a promotion person from Arista [at] a showcase for my album Female Trouble saying, ‘I don’t understand why she does this fucking music. Nobody wants to hear black singers doing this shit. But I’m getting paid to promote it, so that’s what I do!’ It hurt at the time, but it also made me more determined. And there was a lot of encouragement [from certain people]. You know, I had a band and I was doing shows, opening for Peter Gabriel, spending a lot of time in Europe and other countries. So I didn’t feel that restriction, except from the label.”
In addition to her solo career, Hendryx has been involved in lots of other projects over the last few years, ranging from the 2008 LaBelle reunion, to working in theater, to being part of Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors tour a few years back. Of these recent collaborations she says, “It was great to be able to spend time with these artists I admire, and some I count as friends. Cyndi and I did a song together and it was a very supportive [atmosphere]—not only for us but for the audience. [For] people who feel like outsiders and feel ostracized, for lots of different reasons, to come together makes for a very joyful experience.” (nonahendryx.com)