Rock Solid In Her Seventies – Nona Hendryx

Nona Hendryx

In a perfect world, Nona Hendryx would be in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and on the cover of Essence.

She would be considered legendary not just by black rockers and NYC hipsters but by the general public (and certainly by women the world over). She would be signed to a major label, and you would be able to hear her songs on the radio. But if there’s anything we can be sure of—especially after last year’s election—it’s that we don’t live in a perfect world.

The basics: Hendryx was born in New Jersey, an artsy kid from the word go. By the early 1960s, she was one-quarter of the popular girl group Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles, and she stayed with them through their radical transformation in the ’70s. As Labelle, (now a trio: LaBelle, Hendryx, and Sarah Dash) the group became something of a funk-rock phenomenon, issuing several well-received albums and scoring a number-one single with the classic “Lady Marmalade.” After their breakup, Patti LaBelle obviously launched a very successful solo career. But there’s no question that the most interesting career—for 40 years and counting—has belonged to Hendryx. She was Labelle’s risk taker, renaissance woman, and space-age spirit. Her self-titled debut, released in 1977, was a critically acclaimed disc that leaned toward hard rock. But Hendryx has avoided categorization and  never made the same album twice- a commercial hazard, perhaps, but also a testament to her artistry. Over the years, she has dabbled in everything from dance rock to New Age music to straight up soul—and she has worked with artists as diverse as Keith Richards, Laurie Anderson, Billy (“At This Moment”) Vera, members of Chic, and Peter Baumann of Tangerine Dream.

Now 73, Hendryx shows no signs of slowing down; if anything, she is shifting into high gear! In late 2017, she and the seemingly ubiquitous guitarist Gary Lucas collaborated on The World of Captain Beefheart. This new album, recorded in lower Manhattan, finds Hendryx and Lucas covering a dozen songs by the legendary blues-rock experimentalist Don Van Vliet (AKA Captain Beefheart), who passed away in 2010. “I’ve been a fan since I saw him play in New York in the ’70s,” she remembers. “Other than Sonny Rollins or maybe [Frank] Zappa, I hadn’t heard anything like that before…. I couldn’t believe my ears, you know, because it was such a cacophony of sound. Not like anything else. And lyrically—because I love lyrics — it was like, ‘What?!? What are you singing about?’ There was just something there [and] I was hooked. Still am…. You know, I always liked Zappa, and I looked into John Cage [and] Wendy Carlos. I’m very interested in that kind of post-beatnik thing. I’m old enough to remember the beatniks. It was people who wore turtlenecks and berets and did poetry…I think I wanted to be that [even as a kid]. I’d grown out of wanting to be Annette Funicello, you know, and do Beach Blanket Bingo,” she says with a laugh.

But the Beefheart tribute is just one of the projects that keep Hendryx busy. She’s also readying an EP she did with the Boston-based electronic funk duo Soul Clap. But the biggest project she will be unveiling in 2018 is a residency at Joe’s Pub, one of the hippest and most diverse venues in NYC and an extension of the Public Theater. Hendryx has been named the first recipient of the venue’s Vanguard Residency— which means that she will basically have free rein (and the money) to stage monthly events of her choosing for a full year. “It was an honor to be the first person to be asked [to do this],” she tells me. And I guess what it means is that there is a community here in New York that I think a lot of people don’t feel, and [that] I think I missed for some time. [So] it was really nice to find out that it’s still there, and that it is an extension of what Joseph Papp started in the beginning. So to be given this honor, and the financial consideration that comes with it—and the support to present not only myself but other artists—you know, I really feel grateful.”

One of the events Hendryx will be staging at Joe’s (in the spring) is an evening called Rock Solid Women. “I’m always [placed] in the category of R&B or soul,” she says, explaining its genesis. “Other than Spotify, they don’t have funk as a category [anymore]. How long have we been doing funk music? And funk really is a hybrid of R&B and rock, in a way. Think of Funkadelic. I mean, how could you not have a category [with] George Clinton? Earth, Wind & Fire is not an R&B group. Labelle was not an R&B group….We were not allowed to be in rock [but] we didn’t really fit in R&B. [And] there are a lot of women who are funk rockers who don’t get noticed! Because there’s no category for them. So [often] they’re sort of cattle-prodded into being R&B…. That has always been an issue. And it’s not the artists who are saying it, it’s the industry that says ‘This is this and that is that.’

“So I’m going to do Rock Solid Women because there are many [women] in the NY area who nobody sees,” she continues. “They’re like the Invisible Woman. Not the Invisible Man but the Invisible Woman. So I wanna make them visible. You know, start at Joe’s Pub, maybe end up doing a tour….I have to keep creating a category for myself. Because I don’t do R&B; I think I do something much more akin to rock. So that’s what that is for. I’m planting this flag, saying these rock solid women are here and should be recognized.”

Amen, sister!