“In the hands of LaBelle, the song became an anthem of sexual assertion and empowerment rather than a camp story about prostitution.” wrote African American Music in 2014.
“Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?” was being bleated out by lovers of disco no matter their age in that long-gone era. Schoolgirls were yelping the tune at spring dances while the chaperones looked askance at their young charges.
AMC Gremlins with aftermarket Pioneer stereos had 8 Track tapes booming out of their lime green fenders. America was all on the same page. We loved LaBelle and we were all learning to speak French. Truly, we were all in it together.
In 1967 Bob Crewe was at loose ends. He’d penned or been given credit for penning big hits like “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” and “Tallahassee Lassie” but he hadn’t managed to take center stage himself. That changed when “Music to Watch Girls By,” by the Bob Crewe Generation came out and quickly became mainstream radio fodder. Crewe should’ve cut Herb Alpert a check on the spot.
The song stalled at no.15 on the Billboard pop chart but has found a permanent home in America’s eardrums via multiple licensing deals. You’ve heard it whether you realize it or not.
1974 comes calling and Bob Crewe is in a songwriting alliance with Kenny Nolan of 11th Hour semi-fame. The two woodshed and come up with ‘Lady Marmalade’, a tale of a Creole prostitute in New Orleans who approaches her marks with “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?”
Of course it takes a Patti LaBelle with her titanium vocal prowess to blast the song into outer space. Later, LaBelle and side girls Nona Hendryx and Sara Dash would claim they had no idea what the English translation of the song meant with LaBelle saying “I don’t know what that voulez-vous stuff means . . . but that’s a hit.”
The song could’ve been little more than a footnote had Allen Toussaint not been assigned to produce it. In 1974 Epic Records flies the ladies in LaBelle to New Orleans to record their LP ‘Nightbirds’ at Sea Saint Studios in Gentilly with the Meters (minus Zigaboo Modeliste) as the backing band.
Look up a Midnight Special episode from that era with the ladies wearing radical, Larry LeGaspi-designed Funkadelic-ish outfits, and strutting their stuff to the bemusement of Wolfman Jack.
Bear in mind that LaBelle in one iteration or another had been a band since 1961 before they broke out in ’74. Credit must be given to manager Vicki Wickham who took the reigns of the group at the dawn of the decade with a much needed makeover of the ladies’ shopworn ‘girl group’ look.
With a hot new single, a crazily futuristic aesthete, and Wickham making the phone calls the band found themselves booked at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House where a local wag mentions their “extravaganza before an adoring audience, that arrived in satin, bouclé, lamé, sequins and Christmas tinsel was triumphant.”
Lady Marmalade would be the group’s only no.1 single as ‘Nightbirds’ achieved platinum status.
LaBelle would put out two more full lengths before disbanding in 1976.
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