nona hendryx, the “wild one,” launches a festival

May 7, 2019
644 Picks

Nona Hendryx has been “the wild one” ever since she was a member of the legendary soul group, Labelle. Standing next to her sisters in song — a trio of voices that also included Patti LaBelle and Sarah Dash, and which writer Theo Kogan once described as “[sliding] with perfection from belts and howls into precision harmonized vibrato” — Nona was always the one who seemed just a little more rock and roll. Through her work as a lyricist on the group’s 1970s albums Moon Shadow, Nightbirds and Chameleon, Hendryx began pushing the once-traditional girl group towards more sonic experimentation.

As heard in the dusty grooves “Space Children” and “You Turn Me On,” just two of the songs she contributed to Labelle’s extensive discography, Hendryx wasn’t shy about revealing that wild side of her persona. However, after almost two decades of hits (including the 1974 Number One smash, “Lady Marmalade”), the ladies would go their separate ways in 1976. Twelve months later, when Hendryx released her self-titled solo debut album, she was determined to bust out completely.

“As you can hear, it’s different,” Hendryx told British journalist David Nathan in 1977. “After I started working on the album, I soon began to realize that it wasn’t going to  necessarily appeal to R&B and pop fans. It’s probably going to get to the 16-year-olds who are into rock — and electronic rock. And to me that’s very exciting because I’ll be dealing with a whole new area, another dimension. I have to say that the album represents what I feel deep down inside and I’ve finally got a chance to say and do what I wanted.”

Over 40 years later, Hendryx is still doing what she wants to. This includes producing new music, working on an upcoming Broadway show and, this week, spearheading the second annual Rock Solid Women’s Festival: Celebrating Women in Art & Music, at New York’s Gramercy Theatre. The event will present a radically inclusive lineup of poets, singers, songwriters and comediennes. Besides Hendryx, the festival lineup includes Ultra Naté, Liza Colby, Be Steadwell, Divinity Roxx, Judy Gold, Kiki Hawkins, Kimberly Nichole, Sarah Jaffe, Vivian Sessoms and Sophia Ramos.

Inspired by her friend Toshi Reagon’s annual Word*Rock*Sword fall event, Hendryx wanted to contribute to the cultural conversation in her own way. “Each woman has their own lane,” Hendryx said in a telephone interview from her apartment in Manhattan. “I define Rock Solid as someone who is focused, very much their own woman with their own ideas on society and politics. These are women who speak their minds, speak for themselves and don’t take no shit.”  

South Bronx-born rocker Sophia Ramos, who participated in last year’s program, met Hendryx a few years ago, but has been inspired by the elder musician since she was a kid. “I grew-up listening to all kinds of music on the radio, but it wasn’t until seeing Labelle on television that I realized that rock music wasn’t just a white boy’s game,” Ramos says. “They were onstage dressed like Ziggy Stardust, but looking more fly. Believe me, when I finally saw them my mind was blown.”

Years later, Ramos led her own band Sophia’s Toy, which became one of the shining lights of New York’s Black Rock scene in the 1990s. (“Imagine Chaka Khan morphing into Ozzy Osbourne mid-wail and you got the flavor,” was how cultural critic Greg Tate described her in a Vibe review.) “I hadn’t met Hendryx at that point, but I was friends with her drummer Trevor Gale who told me that Nona used to jump off of his bass drum during shows, so I started doing the same thing.”

Although her group was signed to Epic Records in the ‘90s, they were dropped before an album was released. Currently Ramos is a member of Screaming Headless Torsos. “I performed at last year’s Rock Solid Women’s Festival and people were on their feet cheering the entire night. It’s wonderful to have that female empowerment on stage, but the night itself was also empowering for the audience. It’s good medicine and Nona is a true queen.”

After Labelle’s break-up, Hendryx fully explored her rock side in solo albums and collaborations with the Talking Heads, Yoko Ono, New York experimentalist Bill Laswell (Material), and Prince, who contributed the booming “Baby Go Go” to her 1987 album Female Trouble. “I had met him years before in Minneapolis, while I was performing,” she says. “He was shy and didn’t say a lot, but he told how much he loved Labelle and how much we had influenced him and his music, and, maybe one day we could work together. Well, it took awhile for that to happen, but when I called him, he sent ‘Baby Go Go,’ which I got my friend Mavis Staples to sing background on, which was how the two of them met.”

While Hendryx was signed as a singer in 1961 — when her group was still known as The Bluebelles (they didn’t become Labelle until the 1972 album Moon Shadow) — she was already writing lyrics. “When I was a youngster in school, my first writing mentor was my English teacher Mrs. Dinkins, who encouraged me to read and write poetry,” she says. Living in her native Trenton, New Jersey back then, her teacher also introduced Hendryx to the theater. “Later our manager Vicki Wickham and producer Kit Lambert thought Labelle should have their own voice, instead of using men to write songs for us.” Hendryx cites Joni Mitchell and Curtis Mayfield, and the music of Miles Davis, as inspirations. “I know [Miles] never wrote lyrics, but there is something about his music that gets into my words.”

In 2008, Labelle reunited for the Back to Now disc, which featured contributions from Lenny Kravitz and Wyclef Jean. “What LaBelle was doing [in the 1970s] was a precursor to Madonna, Beyonce or Lady GaGa,” Vicki Wickham, the group’s former manager, explained. “Nona was writing more of the group’s songs and her stuff could be out there — whether talking about space, revolution or social issues. Their sound became more adventurous and extremely rock-influenced.”

Currently Hendryx is working on a variety of projects, that includes a Broadway musical play called Blue, written by Charles Randolph-Wright and to be directed by Phylicia Rashad next spring. “This will be my first theater project as a composer and I’m quite excited,” Hendryx says. “Phylicia is a brilliant, talented and loving artist. I love working with her.”

In the meantime, Hendryx has been working on new material for her next solo project as well as meeting with sponsors in hopes of taking the Rock Solid Women’s Festival on the road. “I’m talking to people, but we’re going to need some real duckets so our artists can earn something and not just be out there entertaining for nothing.” As usual, her eyes are on the prize.

”Rock Solid Women’s Festival: Celebrating Women in Art & Music,” at New York’s Gramercy Theatre on Thursday, May 9th.