Labelle: Quality Time with the Girls

Labelle: Quality Time with the Girls

Written by Ken Sander

In the rental car, the two Jims and I head down I-95 south to Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. It’s an afternoon Rolling Stones concert and we have backstage VIP passes. The Jim’s [Jim Kellem and Jim Veal] were big-time rock and roll agents from Creative Management Associates (CMA, later ICM Partners) and for them, this was all in a day’s work.

Labelle was the warm-up act and the reason for this reminiscing. Their big hit, which came later, was “Lady Marmalade,” known for its “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi (ce soir)?” chorus. They wore wild, outrageous glittery outfits and makeup. Even in street clothes, they stood out.

Labelle's first album. Their look would change...

The concert was great; 60,000 attendees enjoyed the show. We met the Stones (just a quick nice to meetcha) and then I hung around and had a beer in the massive dressing room (the Philadelphia Eagles and Phillies locker room) while the Jims chatted with other agents and the concert promoter.

Afterward, we drove over to Patti LaBelle’s house for a late lunch. She lived in the Germantown (nice neighborhood) section of Philadelphia. Patti gave us a warm welcome. She was expecting us; Jim Veal was her agent. Her manager Vicki Wickham was there and after some talking and laughing, we sat down to eat. What I did not know at the time was that this was an informal job interview.

Two weeks later Jim Veal calls me and asks if I can be the road manager for Labelle just for one week, for a club date in Toronto. He said Vicki could not go because she was waiting for her green card (she’s British) and if she left the US she wouldn’t be allowed back in. Vicki previously was the producer of the groundbreaking British television show Ready Steady Go! and she wrote for Melody Maker and other publications in the 1960s.

The next Wednesday Labelle – Patti, Sarah Dash, and Nona Hendryx – meet me and their band at LaGuardia airport for the flight to Toronto. After we pass through customs, I rent two station wagons from Avis and we drive into Toronto. On Yonge Street, The Royal Canadian Mounted Police pull us over. I’m one white guy with three outrageous-looking Black women and six Black band members, a strange-looking crew. I tell him that we are Labelle, a music group, and we’re playing the Troubadour, a big club on Yonge Street. Makes sense to them and off we go.

That night before Patti goes on stage, she tells me her throat is a little sore. I get her some hot tea with honey. They go on and do a great show. Next afternoon Nona comes to my room and says Patti’s throat is killing her and Vicki is on the phone and she is mad as hell at me. We go up to Patti’s room and Patti rasps at me, “I think I have nodes on my throat!” This is a serious condition for any singer and can take months to heal. She angrily points to the phone sitting on the table and says, “Pick it up! Vicki’s on it!” I bend over to pick up the phone and Patti sticks a pin in my butt. I jump! “Just kidding,” Nona says to me. That Patti is a practical joker.

Patti was the sweetest one, always nice to me. If anyone from outside the group tried to give me any grief Patti would jump on them. Sarah was elegant, sexy and she had plenty of stage door Johnnys. The men that came calling for her were usually successful and classy. Nona was tall, slim yet full-figured. She was one with the deep voice and willing to take a nip.

And here's Ken trying to compete in the looks department...

Back in New York Vicki offers me the job on a permanent basis. However, the pay is not that great. She explains that she and the girls get that same amount and that we all are equals dollar-wise. Okay, I like the girls and I am unemployed, so I give it a go.

A few weeks later we are playing a club just outside Boston and Laura Nyro shows up. She and Patti did an excellent album, Gonna Take a Miracle, together last year (check it out), so they are good friends. I had met Laura a few years back when my sister (a well-known rock critic and writer) and I visited her and her manager, David Geffen, at Laura’s penthouse apartment in a prewar building on West 79 Street. It was a Sunday afternoon of sunshine, Bloody Marys and snacks on her 20th-floor roof balcony. Nice view, good fun and Laura was so sweet. Laura stayed for the whole show and enjoyed the evening.

Laura Nyro's acclaimed Gonna Take a Miracle album with Labelle.

For the first few weeks we are the opening act for Al Green on an East Coast concert tour. Al and the girls were old friends, so everything was easygoing. The thing about Al that surprised me was when he sang it was almost a whisper. Really soft, but amazing.

One night we play Washington DC. After their set I go to collect the money. I walk into the box office and there is a loaded 38 caliber Smith & Wesson pistol laying on the table by the promoter’s right hand. He smiles knowingly at the other guy in the office and then smirks at me. “The gun bother you?” he asks. “No,” I say. I am not scared but I am not going to be a wise a*s either. “Well,” he says, “what would you say if I told you I am not going to pay you?” “Nothing,” I answer, “but you would never book a headline act again.” “Once this gets out no one, not CMA, William Morris or any of the big booking agencies will do business with you.” He laughs and smiles at me and says, “I was just kidding with you, you know that, right?” “Sure, no problem.” He hands me our $2,500. I should mention, this happens, but not very often. Rock and roll.

Labelle, Back to Now album.

Patti has been in the biz a long time and she tells me I would not believe what some of her managers have done to her and other acts. They got paid pocket cash only, stayed in run-down one-star hotels and sometimes had to do three or four shows a night for weeks on end. Vacation? What vacation?

This all started during Prohibition when the owners of speakeasies would book blues and jazz acts. The owners were tough street-smart connected guys. When they came across new talent they took the acts under their wing and became their managers and agents. That kept ’em working (which is what it is all about for the acts). However, the owners had a claw-hold on the talent. The performers had little input into what was going on or how they were treated No contracts were signed. The managers conducted their heavy-handed rein over the talent well into the 1950s when finally, they started dying out. Imagine what a pleasure having a caring manager was for a performer like Patti after all she went through.

We have a weeklong gig in Memphis and are staying at a Holiday Inn. This is a really nice hotel with a great view of the banks of the Mississippi River. Patti gets a message from the front desk that Cheech and Chong were doing a concert in Memphis and they were going to stop by after the show to meet and hang out with Patti. Patti is flattered and nervous. She drinks a little (Rock and Rye) but she does not smoke grass, which of course Cheech and Chong are known for. Around eleven-ish they knock on the door. They just love Patti. After a bit they say, “do you guys want to smoke?” Patti says, “not for me, but Kenny will join you.” We all get giggly and the laughter starts. They are very gracious, and quite humble considering their massive recent success. They are on a sellout headlining tour of forty-eight cities and enjoying the popularity of their movies. Genuinely nice, regular guys, but I was a little let down that they did not do any schtick for us. And to be fair I think they were disappointed that Patti did not partake.

Cheech and Chong, 1972.

The Continental Baths was a luxury gay bathhouse in the basement of a high-end hotel in Manhattan’s West Seventies. The Baths, as it was called, was made famous by Bette Midler, or rather, I should say the venue made Bette famous. A good number of Patti’s fans were also fans of Bette’s.

The girls are booked for Saturday night and I know this is gonna be a trip. The Baths were nice, upscale and around four pm we do a soundcheck. I must say it is really unusual to see men walking around with only towels wrapped around their waists. Not the usual gig situation! I certainly was not going in the back rooms. Later that night we do the gig and the place was packed with almost-naked men. They were polite and kept their towels on. They loved the girls.

As a road manager, you see everything from up close. It keeps you busy. For me, it was rewarding and satisfying. The money is generally good (the Labelle tour was an exception), not to mention the travel and experiences one has. When you move at that fast-pace the scenery and intensity are heightened. It’s a rarefied atmosphere that very few folks get to experience.

After a gig or anytime we were in Manhattan it’s part of my job take Patti to Penn Station and sit with her till she boarded her train home. At this point in time, Patti is four months pregnant and my mode of transportation in the city is my Honda 450cc motorcycle. No problem. Outside in the backstage alley after have their latest gig, Patti gets on the back of my bike and puts her hands around my waist. We drive off down Broadway and bear right onto Seventh Avenue through Times Square to 33rd street, the entrance to Pennsylvania Station. I can only imagine what a sight a pregnant Patti, decked out and glamorous as all hell, and big bushy-haired, bell-bottomed me must have looked like going through Times Square.

Ultimately, I had to leave Labelle. I could not make ends meet on the salary I was getting. I held on for almost a year. It was a lot of fun working with them – practical jokes aside, there was no BS, they really appreciated me and everything I did, and of course, I took good care of them.

Back to Copper home page

1 of 2