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Why Labelle Matters

Why Labelle Matters

Crafting a legacy all their own, the reinvented Labelle subverted the “girl group” aesthetic to invoke the act’s Afrofuturist spirit and make manifest their vision of Black womanhood.

Series: Music Matters

March 2021
Not yet published

Available for pre-order.
This book will be available in March 2021.
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184 pages | 5 x 7 |

Performing as the Bluebelles in the 1960s, Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx, and Sarah Dash wore bouffant wigs and chiffon dresses, and they harmonized vocals like many other girl groups of the era. After a decade on the Chitlin Circuit, however, they were ready to write their own material, change their name, and deliver—as Labelle—an electrifyingly celestial sound and styling that reached a crescendo with a legendary performance at the Metropolitan Opera House to celebrate the release of Nightbirds and its most well-known track, “Lady Marmalade.” In Why Labelle Matters, Adele Bertei tells the story of the group that sang the opening aria of Afrofuturism and proclaimed a new theology of musical liberation for women, people of color, and LGBTQ people across the globe.

With sumptuous and galactic costumes, genre-bending lyrics, and stratospheric vocals, Labelle’s out-of-this-world performances changed the course of pop music and made them the first Black group to grace the cover of Rolling Stone. Why Labelle Matters, informed by interviews with members of the group as well as Bertei’s own experience as a groundbreaking musician, is the first cultural assessment of this transformative act.

  • Preface
  • Chapter 1. Church: Aviary of the Girl-Child
  • Chapter 2. Regarding “Mr. Lee”
  • Chapter 3. Sweethearts of the Apollo
  • Chapter 4. Ready Steady Go!
  • Chapter 5. Pyrotechnic Gospel Punk
  • Chapter 6. Campanology: J’entends les cloches
  • Chapter 7. Revolution, Televised
  • Chapter 8. Afronauticfuturisticfunkadivalicious
  • Chapter 9. Mothers of Reinvention
  • Chapter 10. An Epic Triptych
  • Chapter 11. Apotheosis: Women Who Fly
  • Epilogue
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Sources

Adele Bertei’s music career began in Cleveland with Peter Laughner of Pere Ubu. She entered New York’s downtown scene of the late 1970s as an organist for the Contortions and went on to form the Bloods, the first out, queer, all women-rock band. Bertei has appeared in several indie films, most notably Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames and The Offenders. As a singer/songwriter, she has toured with, written songs for, and recorded as a backup vocalist for a diverse group of artists including Tears for Fears, Thomas Dolby, Sandra Bernhard, Culture Club, Scritti Politti, Whitney Houston, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Sheena Easton, Oleta Adams, Lydia Lunch, the Pointer Sisters, Matthew Sweet, and Sophie B. Hawkins. Bertei charted top twenty internationally with featured leads on Thomas Dolby’s “Hyperactive!” and Jellybean’s “Just a Mirage.” Bertei is the author of Peter and the Wolves, a short memoir of her rock and roll education.


“In this vivid prose marvel of a praise song to her lifesaving, teen-fangirl crushes, Adele Bertei deploys rock solid scholarship, granular musical analysis, and piquant, personal revelation to transcendent and inspirational effect for an array of readers—those equally long besmitten from a century past and the postmillennial virgin-eared alike. 

Sarah Dash, Nona Hendryx, and Empress Patti LaBelle (in tandem with far-sighted guiding light manager Vicki Wickham) emerged in the '70s as a trio of soulful warrior-queens whose legendary accomplishments now hold several pop pantheons on lock: that of the Great Black Music canon’s most spectacularly adorned space-funk fashion avatars, most hypersensual feminist icons, and most gender-radicalizing cohort of rock & roll hall of fame rebels. In Bertei, this audacious trifecta of harmonizing trailblazers has been gifted a trenchant, mythopoetic scribe worthy of writing fiercely about Labelle’s reverberant spiritual depth, omniversal cultural significance, and torch-bearing Black Futurist visionary status. All with a whole lotta love, wit, and witness-bearing illumination.”
Greg Tate

“Labelle changed how we look at women singers. No longer were they “girl groups.” They and we were grown up. Voulez-vous coucher avec moi? You bet. This is the book that tells us how and why.”
Nikki Giovanni, Poet

“The trio of Labelle—Patti, Nona, and Sarah—was my first experience of witnessing women as iconic and sonic rock stars. Finally, here's a book that pays tribute, revealing their journey from the Chitlin' Circuit to their breakthrough as the true mothers of Afrofuturism. Labelle's story more than matters, and Bertei brings the why of it all home, beautifully.”
Lenny Kravitz

“This is a marvelous scholarly account of the whole magnificent Labelle phenomenon by the multitalented Adele Bertei. This book registers the key place in pop culture of 'pyrotechnic gospel punk,' it encapsulates the excitement of the girl groups of the '60s and the glimmers of gay pop in Swinging London, and it most of all foregrounds the place of Labelle in queer Afrofuturism. Bertei makes a bigger feminist space in music history for Nona Hendryx, Sarah Dash and Patti LaBelle than has been accorded them while also drawing on all the riches of Black diasporic cultural formations. ”
Angela McRobbie, author of Feminism and the Politics of Resilience, Goldsmiths, University of London

“Few are better placed to explain why Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx, and Sarah Dash matter than is the self-confessed “glitterbug androgyne” Bertei, who fell for Labelle at a wild 1975 show in her native Cleveland and now brings us the trio’s thrilling Afrofuturist-feminist story these many years later. It’s a smart, shrewd, joyful read, as piercing as any top C shriek from the woman who gave Labelle their name.”
Barney Hoskyns