It's the birthday today of the original "fierce rulin' diva", Miss Nona Hendryx - one third (with Patti LaBelle and Sarah Dash) of the faboo LaBelle, and the creative genius behind most of their songs. Her role in transforming the way women performed on stage was an abiding influence on many of those "ladies with an attitude" who followed - Grace Jones, Cyndi Lauper, Janelle Monáe, Chaka Khan among them - as well as male musicians such as Prince. But it's the phantasmagorical "Space Diva" look that Nona and the girls perfected in their '70s heyday that probably appeals the most...
Of LaBelle's ground-breaking appearance at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York in 1974, the LA Times said (in an article back in 2008):
The crowd watched as two women - wearing so many feathers they looked like birds - descended from the rafters to join a third onstage. The trio's harmonies were so close that their voices seemed to merge in a swirl of gospel, rock and soul.On reading more about the magnificently camp rise of LaBelle, however, one name seems pivotal - that of the man who created those avant-garde designs that made the group's stage appearances quite so startling: Mr Larry LeGaspi! A name that seems largely absent on the interwebs these days. I've had to dig deep to find more about the man...
This was Labelle in the mid-1970s. They were not just a pop group with one enormous hit, Lady Marmalade, but a phenomenon whose music helped change the very idea of what pop and the artists who made it - especially women singers previously confined to "girl groups" - could be.
"People were looking for three outrageous women who might sing and say anything," said Patti LaBelle.
After spending the 1960s as the vocal group Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles (who, among other accomplishments, toured with the Rolling Stones) the group, guided by manager Vicki Wickham, enacted one of pop's most remarkable transformations. They traded in their wigs and satin gloves for futuristic costumes by rock designer Larry LeGaspi, began recording Hendryx's politically forthright and erotically charged songs, and developed a stage show that was part gospel revival, part circus, part love-in... They supported The Who and the Rolling Stones, recorded an album with Laura Nyro and followed Bette Midler's famous engagement at New York's gay mecca the Continental Baths.
"It wasn't really accepted that black girls could sing these songs," said Wickham, who also managed Dusty Springfield. "A lot of Nona's songs had double entendres, it wasn't like radio was going to jump on it. The time really wasn't right, but I also think that we were so big on doing it live and having great audiences that nobody really said, 'Hang on a second, you need to have something that goes on radio.'"
The earliest mention I can find is in Cheap Chic: Hundreds of Money-Saving Hints to Create Your Own Great Look (by Caterine Milinaire and Carol Troy, 1975):
Larry LeGaspi works out of Moonstone, a small design studio in the Village. His influence, however, is far wider. The incredible, soulful LaBelle flashed his space clothes all over the world, from Soul Train to Paris, from the Continental Baths to the Metropolitan Opera. The sliver breasts which flashed off their costumes at the Met were made by Larry's partner, Richard Erker, who works with him on all their spacey silver jewellery. Some weeks, when a show is about to go on, Larry doesn't get to sleep until five or six in the morning.According to Disco Chic: All the Styles,Steps and Places to Go, Mr LeGaspi's store was "decorated like the surface of the moon, with a silvery moonscaped floor and twinkling stars overhead," so must have been a sight to behold. Unfortunately his retail business was not such a great success [Moonstone went bust], but the fashions he designed were [especially during the excesses of the Disco era] - and in addition to the Labelle girls, he also created iconic "looks" for KISS, Divine and Funkadelic.
"My design ideas come from my childhood fantasies. I dream of other planets. I'm always finding myself in very strange places in my imagination! ... Space seemed to me the only direction for me to go, because the Seventies just seem to be a repeat of the Thirties through the Sixties. I see my work as a kind of "Space Deco". I'm trying to get a lot of fluidity in the skirts and cutting the jersey on a bias, but I think the Deco look should have more of the future in it. ...
"Half my customers are entertainers. My clothes are mainly for performers, because people are going to turn around and look at you in these things. Last week I got stopped by the police for stopping traffic in my white leather and fur coat!"
Whatever became of Larry LeGaspi eludes me [one mention on a blog comments section says he died on 26th April 2001, but it's not verified] - but his (and Miss Hendryx's) influence lives on!
Sibling's Autumn/Winter 2016 show for London Fashion Week
Nona Hendryx (born 9th October 1944)
More LaBelle here, here and here