When Nona Hendryx appears at The Old Mill Inn in Mattituck on July 21, she won’t be dressed as a space alien. She will, however, deliver a booty-shakin’ rendition of “Lady Marmalade.”
Hendryx is, of course, one of that legendary trio Labelle, who rose to fame in the 70s on the strength of their futuristic, Flash Gordon – inspired costumes and their soulful singing, including the platinum-selling “Lady Marmalade” with its racy “voulez vous coucher avec moi” chorus. Looking back, Hendryx notes that Labelle’s fantastical costumes were at the time perhaps more influential than their music.
“We were the first to adopt the ‘space’ motif,” she recalls of the early 70s. “George (Clinton, of Parliament Funkadelic) came up to see us at the Apollo, and he decided to order his costumes from the same designer.” Larry Legaspi, whose store, Moonstone, on Christopher Street in the West Village was decorated as a kind of fantasy moonscape, designed the costumes. Eventually Parliament Funkadelic, Earth, Wind and Fire, The Commodores and, of course, KISS were all taking to the stage dressed as spacemen, competing with each other for sheer outrageousness.
These days, Hendryx is more interested in making waves with her music. Her latest album, entitled Mutatis Mutandis, contains songs dealing with Hendryx’s feelings about the Tea Party, Rush Limbaugh, and the Gulf Oil Spill, among others. I asked her about the album’s title.
“Mutatis Mutandis is a Latin catch-phrase, meaning ‘changing those things that need to be changed.’ I heard it somewhere, and when I was looking for an album title it seemed to fit.” And while some of the songs on Mutatis Mutandis are political, and her lyrics focus on primarily right-wing hypocrisies, Hendryx considers herself a political centrist.
“I’m reacting more to verbiage. Limbaugh’s abusiveness, cloaked racism and bigotry. Everything in the song (“Ballad of Rush Limbaugh”) is from his bio.” Hendryx feels that rather than complaining and wringing hands over the likes of Limbaugh; she needed to “put something out there.” She notes the hypocrisy of a man, born to privilege, who pretends to speak for the common people. A man who has failed at marriage three times who would insist that same-sex marriage imperils the institution.
Likewise with the Tea Party. “They’ve got a private club,” says Hendryx of the movement’s funders and architects. “They’re not about the 99%. That’s why I call it the ‘Me’ Party.”
Hendryx is first and foremost a performer – after all, she’s been on stage since the early 60s when Labelle first came together as Patti Labelle and the Bluebelles. But she is thoughtful about what she does, and she has an encyclopedic, first-hand knowledge of performers in popular music. Recently, she had the chance to share what she has learned when she was tapped by New York University to teach a class in performance.
“I wanted to get the student performers to analyze and figure out what it is that they can do that nobody else can do. I used examples like the Rolling Stones to show how successful performers use that thing to make a connection with the audience.” This doesn’t always involve flamboyant, extroverted Mick Jagger moves. “Look at Laura Nyro. She sat at the piano, very still, almost motionless. But that’s how she reached an audience. I told my students it’s like finding David in the stone.”
Asked what audiences should expect from her show at The Old Mill Inn, Hendryx doesn’t hesitate. “They should expect to feed their head and feed their booty.” I guess that’s the thing that Hendryx does that nobody else can do.
Nona Hendryx, appearing at The Old Mill Inn in Mattituck, July 21 at 8 p.m. For tickets, visit www.theoldmillinn.net, or call 631-298-8080.