Like a cat, Nona Hendryx (b. 1944, Trenton, New Jersey) has had many lives. But she deserves much - much! - better. Nona Hendryx got her start while still in her teens as part of the vocal group the Del-Capris. That group eventually merged with Patricia “Patsy” Holte, who changed her name to Patti LaBelle and gathered initial acclaim as part of Patti LaBelle & The Bluebells with their first hit, “I Sold My Heart To The Junkman,” in 1962.
The group found middling success during the 1960s as a Motown-styled “girl group,” performing doo-wop numbers and typically “girl group” sorts of songs. But none of this was enough to warrant any sort of notice. Eventually, the trio of Patti Labelle, Sarah Dash and Nona Hendryx went to England and discovered rock. They then backed Laura Nyro on the singer/songwriter’s 1971 album Gonna Take A Miracle and, eventually, Alice Cooper on his 1973 album Muscle of Love.
Upon the advice of the group’s manager, Vicki Wickham, they remade the “girl group” concept into a “women power” groove. They changed their name to Labelle and started doing things on their own terms. They issued the albums Labelle (Warner Bros., 1971) and Moon Shadow (Warner Bros., 1972) to sadly little avail.
The group moved to RCA very briefly in 1973 and recorded the excellent Pressure Cookin’ (which was recently reissued on CD). Here, Nona Hendryx came into her own. She began to assert her strong songwriting abilities – and, indeed, the remainder of the Labelle albums are dominated by her music and Labelle came to be dominated by her compositions. Hendryx wrote seven of the nine tunes on Pressure Cookin’, including the great title track, “Sunshine” and “Goin’ on a Holiday” (which featured Stevie Wonder, who also wrote, produced and played on one of the album’s other great odes, “Open Up Your Heart” – though it’s hard to ignore Labelle’s excellent take on “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”).
It was the trio’s next album, the Allen Toussaint produced Nightbirds (Epic, 1974), backed by The Meters, which yielded the group’s greatest hit “Lady Marmalade,” a justified funk classic written by Bob Crewe (The Four Seasons) and Kenny Nolan (“I Like Dreamin’”). While “Lady Marmalade” was hard to top, Nona Hendryx contributed half of the album’s songs, making it one of the more notable albums of the year, especially Hendryx's terrific title track and the funky “Are You Lonely.”
The Nightbirds follow-up, Phoenix (Epic, 1975), seemed to bring Nona Hendryx forward more in the group, particularly as a vocalist. Much of the album is due to Hendryx’s contributions. There are, inevitably, more than a few tips of the space cap to “Lady Marmalade” to no particularly useful avail. But the record is either lacking some of the magic of Nona Hendryx’s God-given sincerity or attempts to embellish her talents too much with unnecessary funky/soulful clichés. Still, “Messin’ With My Mind” sticks in the memory.
The last Labelle album, Chameleon (Epic, 1976), has a very different musical vibe than previous Labelle albums and one not unlike producer David Rubinson’s earlier productions for The Pointer Sisters, particularly noticeable on the album’s best tracks: “Who’s Watching The Watcher?” and “A Man In A Trench Coat (Voodoo),” Nona’s first solo feature in Labelle. Both, of course, are Nona Hendryx compositions.
When Labelle disbanded (due, among other things, according to Patti Labelle, Nona Hendryx’s emotional breakdown at the time), Nona Hendryx finally debuted with her own eponymous solo debut on Epic in 1977. The edgy rockish sister doing it for herself must certainly have confounded any number of potential listeners. Nothing like the soulful Labelle albums she made, Nona Hendryx is a pop album that very few women would have ever even have been allowed to make. While it’s not as out there or as remarkable as most descriptions – including mine – would have you believe, it was easy enough to do what just about everyone did with it: disregard it completely. It does boast Nona’s gripping “Problem” and a cover of Russ Ballard’s less-than-wondrous “Winning,” captured here four years before Santana made the song a hit (Nona Hendryx and Carlos Santana performed the song together several years later).
Following her solo album’s ridiculous lack of promotion and, ultimately, its terrible lack of success, Nona Hendryx issued several 45s on the British Arista label including “You’re The Only One I Ever Needed”/”Casanova” (1979), “Love It”/”King of Hearts” (1979) and a remake of The Supremes’ “Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart” b/w “X-Ray.” She also provided vocals as a studio musician in New York (David Johansen, Cameo) and ended up as part of the Talking Heads aggregate (Remain in Light, Speaking in Tongues and the tour which resulted in Stop Making Sense) and as part of the Material crew (“It’s A Holiday,” “Busting Out,” “Take A Chance” and the brilliant cover of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Let Me Have It All”), some of the most happening music coming out of New York at the time.
She issued a single called “Do What You Wanna Do,” as by The Cage featuring Nona Hendryx, in 1982 (also featured on the 1982 Summer Lovers soundtrack album) before she released what remains her single best slice of wax ever. Nona (RCA, 1983) is a beautiful mix of soul, new wave and rock that perfects everything the singer/songwriter unleashed before and, to date, has not been bested by this talented musical artist since.
Nona is one of the earliest starry Material (Bill Laswell) pop productions that predates Herbie Hancock’s Future Shock (“Rockit”), Yoko Ono’s Star Peace or even Mick Jagger’s She’s The Boss. The groups change out from song to song, as is typical on a Bill Laswell production, but each features some exceptionally talented musicians plying their trade for an effective and satisfying end – another typical trait of a Bill Laswell production.
Hendryx co-writes most of the material here, but it has her absolutely unique stamp all over it. She partners perfectly with B.J. Nelson (from Material) and Dolette McDonald (from Talking Heads) on background vocals and conceives a well-written, well-arranged program of great staples – among the best in her voluminous catalog.
The danceworthy “B-Boys,” is a made-to-order hit for 80s dancefloors, with the uber-talented Kashif (who more or less made Whitney Houston, an early Material discovery, a star) on the signature bass synthesizer. It’s not the best number on the album. But it’s a clever way to entice interest in what follows.
One of Hendryx’s very best confessional anthems, “Keep it Confidential,” which also appears on the recent CD compilation Disco Discharge – Disco Ladies, features a number of great performances – including one of Hendryx’s best vocal performances on the album – and above average support from Nile Rodgers on guitar, Kenni Hairston on keyboards, Kashif on synthesizers and Jamaaladeen Tacuma on bass.
“Design for Living” was originally written for a Labelle album that didn’t get issued because the group disbanded before the song could be released. Here, Nona Hendryx reconfigures the song into a “women power” anthem featuring a gaggle of great women musicians including Laurie Anderson, inspired on violin, Heart’s Nancy Wilson on guitar, the brilliant Valerie Simpson of Ashford & Simpson on piano, Talking Heads’ Tina Weymouth and Defunkt’s Kim Clarke on bass, The Go Go’s Gina Schock on drums, Carole Steel on percussion and Patti Labelle on background vocals.
The album’s best song comes at the beginning of side two with “Transformation,” a great track that mixes new wave with soul better than almost anything else that ever came out of the early 80s dance movement at the time. The song features Sly Dunbar on drums, “Wizard” on synthesizer and Steve Scales on percussion (who was also with the Talking Heads at the time that Hendryx was). Interestingly, “Transformation” was re-recorded recently as something of an anthem by Nona Hendryx with Pam Grier (Foxy Brown, Jackie Brown) and BETTY for The L Word: The Third Season soundtrack.
The remainder of the album features one of my favorites, the great and very One Down sounding “Run for Cover,” featuring Material-ists Bill Laswell on bass and Michael Beinhorn on synthesizer, the Reggae-esque “Steady Action,” featuring Olu Dara on “horns” and the very Talking Heads-like “Dummy Up,” prominently featuring Bernie Worrell, who also appears on “Living on the Border” and who also prominently featured at the time as part of the Talking Heads (a shame that David Byrne and company never asked Nona Hendryx to contribute material to their already wonderful program…she would have made some sparkling additions to be sure). So who is “The Headless Horseman” who sounds so wonderful on guitar?
Three singles were issued from Nona: “Keep it Confidential” b/w “Dummy Up” (the 45, RCA PB-13437, contains a 3:48 edit of “Keep It Confidential” while the 12-inch, RCA PD-13438, contains the album-length versions of both songs); “Transformation” b/w “Design for Living” (the 45 on RCA PB-13559 and the 12-inch on RCA PD-13560); and “B-Boys” b/w “Steady Up” (the 45, RCA PB-13643, contains a 4:04 edit of “B-Boys” while the 12-inch, PD-13644, has a longer take of “B-Boys” at 6:35 backed by a 6:52 instrumental version of the song). And while Nona has yet to be issued on CD – which, in my book, is something of a criminal offense – four of the albums songs (“Transformation,” “Keep it Confidential,” “B-Boys” and “Design for Living”) were issued on a Razor & Tie compilation CD in 1999 that has also been long out of print. Wrong, wrong. Wrong.
Nona Hendryx went onto record two more rather lackluster albums for RCA, The Art of Defense (1984 - also produced with Material) and The Heat (1985), then waxed the indifferent Female Trouble (EMI, 1987) and the new-agey Skindiver (Private Music, 1989). The singer, who never got the big hit she deserved, sort of faded back into session work thereafter for some reason. But Nona Hendryx has come back in a big way recently with her own musical stage play Blue, starring The Cosby Show’s Phylicia Rashad, and the recent Labelle reunion album Back To Now (Verve, 2008), for which she contributed the bulk of material (the notable tracks include “Roll Out” with Wycleff Jean, “The Truth Will Set You Free” and “Tears for the World”).
Since so much of Nona Hendryx’s music is now held by SonyBMG, it seems something of her work deserves some consideration. I would be glad to volunteer my services in recognition of this beautiful and talented lady. She is one of music’s greatest unheralded artists.