In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
It might be the first French phrase you ever learn: “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?” You already know the meaning: “Will you sleep with me tonight?” And if you don’t know it, you can probably patch it together, just by context. Because on a song as exuberantly raunchy as “Lady Marmalade,” you can safely assume that the unfamiliar French phrase is going to be something direct and sexual. The song leaves you plenty of clues to figure it out. And even if both of the song’s languages are unfamiliar — even if you exist in some kind of amniotic pre-language limbo — you can pretty much figure out what’s going on. Some things are universal.
Patti LaBelle likes to say that she didn’t know what the phrase meant when her group Labelle recorded the song. LaBelle, in a 1991 Jet interview: “I didn’t know what it was about. Nobody, I swear this is God’s truth, nobody told me what I’d just sung a song about.” But even though she didn’t have any French, LaBelle, a show-business survivor of the highest order, wasn’t stupid. And in that same interview, she affirmed that a song about sex work wasn’t a big deal, and that it shouldn’t be a big deal: “Hey, hookers are people, too. Love is what it’s all about, honey.”
Patti LaBelle knew that maxim well. She built a decades-long career singing songs that were, in one way or another, all about love, honey. As a teenager in Philadelphia, LaBelle, born Patricia Holte, won a high school talent competition. (Like practically every other great soul singer who has ever lived, LaBelle had learned how to use her voice in church.) Shortly thereafter, in 1960, LaBelle formed the Ordettes, her first singing group. The Ordettes went through a few lineup changes, and by 1962, they’d changed their name to the Blue Belles and picked up Cindy Birdsong, the future Supreme, and Nona Hendryx, the future bugged-out avant-funk cult star. 1962 was also when they started making records, climbing up to #15 with the adorable girl-group slapper “I Sold My Heart To The Junkman.”
Through the first few years of the ’60s, the Blue Belles kept recording, and they kept squeezing their way into the top 40. In 1963: the bluesy and gospel-infused matrimony anthem “Down The Aisle (The Wedding Song),” #37. In 1964: a version of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel ballad “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” #34. In 1966: backing vocals on Wilson Pickett’s pridefully sweaty “634-5789 (Soulsville, USA),” #13. They played black clubs up and down the East Coast constantly. They opened for the Rolling Stones and the Who on tour. They toured the UK, with a young Elton John as their pianist. In 1967, Birdsong left to join the Supremes, and they carried on as a trio.
In 1970, on the advice of a new manager, the Blue Bells moved to London, changed their name to Labelle, and started combining their own classic girl-group soul with psychedelic rock. With glam rock beginning to take over the UK, they took to wearing feather boas, sparkly makeup, shiny futuristic spangles, space-suit bikinis. And for their 1974 album Nightbirds, they went to work with the New Orleans R&B legend Allen Toussaint. Toussaint had been a part of a ton of classic records, though none of them had hit #1 since Ernie K-Doe’s “Mother-In-Law,” way back in 1961. Nona Hendryx wrote most of the songs on Nightbirds, but Toussaint was the one who brought them “Lady Marmalade.”
Bob Crewe, the longtime Four Seasons producer, co-wrote “Lady Marmalade” with his collaborator Kenny Nolan, and Crewe may have based those lyrics on some, um, experiences he’d had in New Orleans. And when Labelle’s version of “Lady Marmalade” hit #1, by some freak coincidence, it replaced another Crewe/Nolan collaboration, Frankie Valli’s “My Eyes Adored You.” So Crewe and Nolan became only the third songwriting team ever to score two consecutive #1s. The first two were Lennon/McCartney and Holland-Dozier-Holland.
The Eleventh Hour, a disco band comprised entirely of session musicians, recorded “Lady Marmalade” in 1974, with Nolan singing lead. It went nowhere, probably because the song, at least in that version, was terrible. But Crewe took the song to Toussaint, and Toussaint took it to Labelle.
Whether or not Patti LaBelle understood the words she was singing, the Labelle version of “Lady Marmalade” is an entirely different beast. With Toussaint’s production, “Lady Marmalade” transforms into a steamrolling monster. It’s full of sounds: busy boogie piano, riotous horn riffage, swamped-out organ, fuzz-drenched guitars, gasps, whoops, howled-out backing vocals. Patti LaBelle herself sounds exultant, belting out those nonsense sexytime syllables (“Gitchi gitchi ya ya ta ta!”) the same way she might’ve once belted out gospel songs in church. Those lines become vehicles for ecstasy.
“Lady Marmalade” has a reputation for being a disco song, but it’s not really that. Instead, it exists at some genre-free nether-realm where disco and soul and funk and rock all intersect. More than the kitschy-but-interesting lyrics, that combination of sounds represents the New Orleans that Toussaint always embodied — a cultural meeting ground where origins no longer have any meaning. The chorus is also an all-time earworm, catchy and maddening in equal measures. If I hadn’t suffered from overexposure to the 2001 Moulin Rouge version of “Lady Marmalade” — which will also end up in this column — I might’ve given the song an extra point or two.
Regarding those kitschy-but-interesting lyrics: “Lady Marmalade” is a rare example of a sex-work song that never inflicts any moral judgement on the people who make their livings doing it. Instead, the song is sung entirely from the point of view of a client, a john. Lady Marmalade herself never gets any actual character development. She’s just a projection of the unnamed guy’s fantasies: “Seeing her skin feeling silky smooth, color of cafe au lait.” And his night with her haunts him afterward, when he’s back at home doing nine to five and living his brave life of lies. So I guess he had fun. Both sides benefitted from the transaction.
Labelle would only last another year and a half after hitting #1. There were creative tensions within the group, and Hendryx had a freak flag that she desperately needed to fly. And she did it, launching a wild and underrated solo career that has come to include collaborations with Prince, Laurie Anderson, Yoko Ono, Afrika Bambaataa, the Bush Tetras, and Bounty Killer. Just two years ago, Hendryx made a single with the underground house duo Soul Clap and recorded a Captain Beefheart tribute album with way-out downtown-scene guitarist Gary Lucas. As for Patti LaBelle herself, she became a down-the-middle pop-soul star, and we will hear from her in this column again. And in 2008, Labelle reunited for another album and a tour.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Happy Mondays’ video for the “Lady Marmalade”-interpolating 1990 Madchester anthem “Kinky Afro,” a #5 hit in the UK:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Sheila E recorded a jazzed-up “Lady Marmalade” cover for her 1991 album Sex Cymbal. Here’s a video of her singing it on The Arsenio Hall Show:
(Sheila E’s highest-charting song is “The Glamorous Life,” which peaked at #7 in 1984. It’s a 9.)