Nona Hendryx Biography
Since her teens, Nona Hendryx has written and performed pop songs that span a range of genres. She attained stardom in the 1970s as a member of the soul trio Labelle, and then went on to build a solo career that included guest performances with a variety of rock and soul bands as well as solo recordings.
Hendryx has also had a distinguished career as a songwriter. She wrote many of Labelle's hit songs, and continued writing her own material after the group split up in 1976. In addition to pop songs, she has written for the theater. Also active in the business segment of the music industry, Hendryx is co-founder and director of RhythmBank Entertainment, an independent record label, music publishing, and film production company.
Hendryx was born on October 9, 1944, in Trenton, New Jersey, and by the time she was 18 she had joined the Del Capris, a "girl group" based in Philadelphia. Soon after, she joined the Ordettes, where she met Patricia Holt, who became known as Patti Labelle, and Cindy Birdsong, who later became a member of The Supremes. With Sara Dash, who had sung with the Del Capris, the new group called themselves the BlueBelles. Their first single was "I Sold My Heart to the Junkman," which they followed in 1963 with a bigger hit, "Down the Aisle." But the BlueBelles failed to sell as many records as their label had initially hoped, and in 1969 they were dropped. Now a trio after the 1967 departure of Birdsong, the group decided in 1970 to hire British television producer Vicki Wickham as their new manager.
Renaming the group Labelle, Wickham gave them a new image. Instead of the sentimental songs they had covered in earlier records, they started covering rock hits by such stars as the Rolling Stones, Carole King, and the Who. In 1971 the group put out the album Labelle, followed by 1972's Moon Shadow. While Hendryx contributed only a few songs to this album, she wrote most of the original material for Pressure Cookin', which was released in 1973. According to a writer in Contemporary Musicians, the album contained no "standouts." With Nightbirds, however, released in 1974, Labelle had a major hit: "Lady Marmalade," written by Bob Crewe and Kenny Nolan, helped push the album to number one status.
With Nightbirds's success came star status for Labelle, and the group went on to record two subsequent albums, Phoenix and Chameleon, for which Hendryx wrote most of the songs. The material was becoming more experimental, however, and Patti Labelle felt that Hendryx's songs, though brilliant, were not right for the group. In 1976 Labelle disbanded. "It was heaven and hell," Hendryx told Advocate interviewer Carol Pope in 2001, describing her years with Labelle. "We were like sisters. We'd fight, love, and laugh. After 17 years, breaking up was like a divorce. [But] by separating, you get to see your strengths and limitations."
Hendryx recorded her first solo album, Nona Hendryx, a year after Labelle's split, but her solo career grew slowly, in large part because her record company, at a loss for how to market a black rock singer, failed to promote her effectively. As she told Pope, "Rock and roll is not considered black music. It's been co-opted by the white audience, and it's difficult to reclaim as our own." Through the late 1970s and early 1980s she sang back-up vocals for several groups, including the Talking Heads and Defunkt, and provided occasional lead vocals and writing for Material, a jazz-funk group. She had a hit, "Do What You Wanna Do," with the English group The Cage, and worked with members of the group Propaganda. In 1983 she put out her second album, Nona, which included guest musicians Nile Rogers, Tina Weymouth, and Laurie Anderson.
While Boston Globe reviewer Jim Sullivan gave the album a mixed review, he raved about Hendryx as a live performer, calling her appearance at the Channel, a Boston club, "a sassy, strong, funk rock delight." Sullivan admired her songs' tough spirit and funky grooves, and wrote that her vocals "cascade over the instrumentation like a rip tide." A People review of the album quoted in Contemporary Musicians noted that though Hendryx's voice is not particularly distinctive, "she uses it to great advantage."
In 1984 Hendryx put out a third album, The Art of Defense, followed by Heat in 1985 and Female Trouble in 1987. According to Contemporary Musicians, none of these albums produced any Top 40 hits "but each made a respectable dent in the R&B album charts." In 1989 Hendryx formed her own label, Private Music, which produced her sixth solo album, Skin Diver. In 1992 she collaborated with soul singer Billy Vera on You Have to Cry Sometime, a compilation of vintage R&B covers.
In 2001, Hendryx accepted writer and director Charles Randolph-Wright's invitation to compose the music for his off-Broadway play Blue (Three Things). Reviewing the off-Broadway production in the New York Times, Bruce Weber noted that Hendryx's original music provided an "enlivening feature" in the play and added that her "lush and melodic original songs are layered onto the narrative seamlessly."
Interested in producing music as well as creating it, Hendryx founded RhythmBank Entertainment with her partner Bobby Banks in early 2004. The first musician they signed was Najiyah, a young gospel singer who was only in the fourth grade when Hendryx first heard her sing in 2003. Though RhythmBank is not a gospel label, Banks and Hendryx signed Najiyah because they believed so strongly that she deserved an audience. As Hendryx noted in material quoted in GospelCity, "We started out just wanting to sign music that we love and artists that we love. That's why we have a roster that includes someone like Najiyah, someone like [Los Angeles alternative rock band] Anubian Lights and the upcoming UK sensation, Stoner."
Such generosity has also extended beyond Hendryx's involvement in the music business. Openly bisexual, Hendryx has often done benefit performances for AIDS organizations such as Gay Men's Health Crisis. In addition, she made a trip to Africa in the early 2000s to witness the effects of AIDS on that continent. In 1999 Hendryx was inducted into the Rhythm and Blues Foundation Hall of Fame for her work as a member of Labelle.
Albums (with Patti Labelle and the BlueBelles)
Sweethearts of the Apollo, 1963.
The BlueBelles on Stage, 1965.
Over the Rainbow, 1966.
Albums (with Labelle)
Moon Shadow, 1972.
Pressure Cookin', 1973.
Nona Hendryx, 1977.
The Art of Defense, 1984.
The Heat, 1985.
Female Trouble, 1987.
Skin Diver, 1989.
(With Billy Vera) You Have to Cry Sometime, 1992.
Contemporary Musicians, volume 52, Gale Group, 2005.
The Advocate, September 25, 2001.
Boston Globe, June 6, 1983.
New York Times, June 29, 2001; January 19, 2003.
"Legendary Performer Nona Hendryx Produces CD for Gospel Phenom," GospelCity, www.gospelcity.com (November 28, 2005).
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