Labelle, the most innovative and original female group of the 1970s, was formed in 1971. Until the formation of Labelle, Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx, and Sarah Dash (along with Cindy Birdsong) had been together since 1961 as Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles. The Bluebelles had some minor R&B hits in the 1960s, including "You'll Never Walk Alone" and "Danny Boy", and one million seller, "I Sold My Heart to the Junkman." Although the group never achieved the acclaim that the Supremes did, to many, their talent far exceeded that group. Certainly, their gospel-flavored electrifying act was considered one of the very best in the business. In New York City, their performances earned them the title the Sweethearts of the Apollo.
At the end of the 1960s, however, after Cindy Birdsong left to join the rival Supremes, and The Beatles and The Rolling Stones had taken the US music scene by storm, Patti, Nona, and Sarah realized that 60s girl groups were no longer in demand. Wisely, the three decided to accept the advice of a British television producer, Vicki Wickham, after appearing on her show, Ready, Steady, Go. Wickham saw the potential for the group to be a sort of female Rolling Stones, singing original rock and soul songs and having a unique look and sound. At that time, she encouraged Nona Hendryx to begin writing material for the group. Hendryx had written a couple of love ballads for the Bluebelles, but Wickham encouraged her to write more "from her gut" about the problems facing the world at that time. As a result, Labelle's material began to include songs of political and social consciousness, sex, racism, self-awareness, and human rights. Wickham also recognized the powerful uniqueness of all three voices and suggested dividing the singing among the women, another innovation. Their performances were a unique fusion of rock, soul, and funk, a sound that was new to the music industry. Unfortunately, it was their uniqueness that also held them back, as the record executives and radio found it difficult to categorize and promote them. Labelle had basically no air play from their first three albums until 1974, when they recorded the number one classic soul funk hit "Lady Marmalade" for their Nightbirds album. The song catapulted the group's status from New York City and gay audience cult favorite to national and even international fame. At the same time, Hendryx and Wickham decided to change the group's look by making it one of the very first acts to incorporate the newly popular glam-rock look. Dressed in silver and feathers and descending from the ceilings of theaters to perform their outrageously theatrical concerts, Labelle became one of the most notable acts of the 70s. For their Phoenix album tour, they even opened their show wearing shrouds C certainly no one could accuse them of being a typical girl group! They were the first popular act to play the Metropolitan Opera House: at their request, New York City turned out in shimmering silver droves to catch the show. Popularity took its toll, however, and in 1976, after another unique and widely acclaimed album, Chameleon, Labelle had rocked and rolled out. Patti longed to return to her R&B roots, while Nona wanted to further explore her rock and roll side. Sarah was also interested in pursuing a solo career, but like Nona, did not want to disband the group. The group's final concert was given in December of 1976 in Cincinnati.
Although Labelle had only one top ten hit, their importance to popular music transcends that detail. Labelle was far ahead of its time. Labelle was the first African American female group to write and sing about real social issues, and thus paved the way for acts like En Vogue and Lauryn Hill.
Since disbanding, the members of Labelle have remained friends. In 1991, they reassembled to record a song written by Nona ("Release Yourself") on Patti LaBelle's Burnin' album. Later that year, they performed "Release Yourself" at a Patti LaBelle concert