Over The Rainbow – Patti Labelle & The Bluebelles (Spy 2002)
There are four distinct phases in the recording career of this legendary R&B girl group. The first phase was their earliest recordings which appeared on labels such as Newtown and Parkway, singles releases backed up by a growing reputation as a blistering live act. There were two Top 40 US pop singles during this time “Down The Aisle”(#37 in 1963) and a drama laden version of the standard from the musical “Carousel”, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (#34 in 1964). In fact there was an earlier, even bigger hit credited to the group, the Bluebelles when the marvellously titled “I Sold My Heart To The Junkman” reached #15 in 1962. In true exploitative 60’s girl-group fashion this was reputedly recorded by a group called The Starlets, who also recorded for the Newtown label. The Bluebelles added this song to their repertoire and actually re-recorded it, but apparently it was not them on the hit single, whatever it said on the label.
The second phase is launched by this particular CD when the quartet of Patricia Holt (later Patti Labelle), Cindy Birdsong, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash signed to Atlantic amongst a very strong feeling that this label would be a perfect match for the group and would lead to great commercial success. It didn’t. Despite some great recordings of which this is a representation the hits didn’t come and the ascendancy of the Motown girl groups made the group fade into the background- recording wise, but certainly not in live performances where Patti and the girls could still blow most other groups off the stage. In fact, to add salt to the wounds the group lost Cindy Birdsong when she hurried off to become a Supreme when original member Florence Ballard was sacked. This was something which was always seen as unforgiveable theft by Patti Labelle.
The unrealised potential had to wait for the third phase when Dusty Springfield’s manager Vicki Wickham took control and re-imagined the group as a space-age, futuristic funk/rock group with theatrical tin-foil influenced costumes and feathers and furs and the group became Labelle, scoring a worldwide hit and all-time classic early on with “Lady Marmalade” (US#1, UK#17 1975). It looked like Labelle were going to become superstars with their strong image and even stronger vocals but continued commercial success eluded them and they were never as big as they should have been. Solo careers eventually beckoned . The fourth stage was when Patti, Nona and Sarah reunited for 2008’s worthwhile “Back To Now” album. This contained their greatest ever recording as a bonus track. Originally recorded in London in 1970 and produced by Kit Lambert some years before their “Nightbirds” reincarnation their version of Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets” is perhaps one of the greatest soul tracks recorded in the UK.
Labelle in 1975 and 2008
But we rewind back five years to 1965 and this debut Atlantic album, full of promise and potential hits. Detractors say it was clear from this point that Atlantic did not really know what to do with them. The tracks that had attracted most attention in their pre-Atlantic days were cover versions of standards such as the aforementioned “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and the schmaltzy “Danny Boy”. In Labelle’s hands these songs were “Patti-fied” to turn them into big, dramatic sounds dominated by the extraordinary Labelle voice. Although the songs chosen for “Over The Rainbow” would have felt slightly more relevant to the contemporary audience cover versions dominated.
This was fairly standard practice in the mid 60’s, to put a couple of originals which would be the tracks chosen as singles amongst cover versions. Atlantic was certainly doing this around the same time with another of their signings, the greatly talented Esther Phillips. Although neither Phillips nor Labelle got the commercial acclaim due to them at the time the classic nature of these songs means that we can still value them as great song stylists and the tracks have lasted longer than the original songs produced for them. After a couple of years of trying to break both Labelle and Phillips into the pop charts Atlantic legendary producer and executive , Jerry Wexler decided to approach a different tactic with his later signing, Aretha Franklin. She had been on Columbia records where the same approach was being used as she was recording tracks such as “Rock A Bye Your Baby (With A Dixie Melody)” and “Ac-Cent-tchu-ate The Positive”. By the time Wexler began recording with Franklin the mood of America had changed and these recordings began to embrace this and the civil rights movement with classic effect. I may be in the minority here but I actually prefer Patti Labelle’s voice to Aretha Franklin’s.
The twelve tracks that make up this album were produced by experienced Atlantic producer Bert Berns and the album first saw the light of day in 1966. An attempt to crack the singles charts had been made with “All Or Nothing” an original song co-written by Pam Sawyer, born in Romford, Essex, who as a Motown staffer would go on to write such classic songs as “Love Child” for The Supremes and “Love Hangover” for Diana Ross. Wexler had high hopes for this track which is a good commercial girl group sound made that little bit more special by Patti’s vocal performance but it did not chart. It did make it onto the album. The second single was another original, but probably most people hearing this today would put it down as a cover. Carole Bayer Sager alongside Toni Wine wrote “Groovy Kind Of Love” which is a strong, melodic, playful track which has hit written all over it. It wasn’t. With the British Invasion of UK music stars dominating charts the world over it was covered by Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders who took it to number 2 in the UK in early 1966 and was the number 2 US follow-up to their American chart-topper “Game Of Love”. Phil Collins, of course, went one place better on both sides of the Atlantic some 22 years later, but make no mistake, the original and best version is by Patti Labelle & The Bluebelles.
This 2002 issue of the 1966 album kicks off with a song which has been associated with the act through all of its incarnations. “Over The Rainbow” was always a staple of live shows and here in this early version Patti is dragging every ounce of emotion from it, ably backed by the other three. As a solo artist it became compulsory for Labelle to finish shows with it and it was a track she re-recorded. Her best version is from a live performance. I found it on the soundtrack of the film “Too Wong Foo” and it is an absolute showstopper. I remember seeing Patti doing this as an encore for a concert on TV and it was one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen as the vocals soared, she rolled around on the floor and produced one of the ultimate musically dramatic performances. Another great version of this song was performed on X Factor in 2005 by eventual winner Shayne Ward, whose arrangement is certainly inspired by Patti’s. This 1965 version is a great opener to the album.
Other tracks which are Patti-fied here include “Ebb Tide”, “More” (I think the best version of this song is by Martha Reeves & Vandellas), the Beatles’ “Yesterday” and the Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse show-tune “Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)”. Patti-fying a song means upping the drama level and wringing every ounce of emotion from it, there’s an almost drenching of gospel but the song doesn’t lose its original meaning. The phrasing is unique as Patti bends and soars with the lyrics in a way which is totally unpredictable. Every time I listen I’m amazed as to where Patti decides to pitch or hold a note, you think she’s going to do something and she does something else entirely which is probably more extraordinary and technically difficult than what you had imagined. A track like “People” is evidence of this. The song would be well known for introducing another technically gifted singer, Barbra Streisand, so could be considered a brave move. This seems almost like a challenge Patti relishes, she holds notes where Barbra breathes and seems so accomplished with her version. At the time of this release Patti was 21 years old and yet seems like a vocal veteran. Her influence on other performers cannot be understated. In fact, around this time the Patti Labelle and the Bluebelles Fan Club was set up by a superfan who was so enamoured of what Patti could do. This young lad was called Luther Vandross, who was certainly no slouch in the vocal department and no doubt learned a lot by listening to Patti.
Another original track “Patti’s Prayer” confirms the gospel expertise of this group as does a version of the song “He” which has been a mid 50’s hit for Al Hibbler. Another track associated with Hibbler is “Unchained Melody” and the group give this a good go too. This isn’t one of the stand-out tracks. At the start Patti sounds quite far back in the mix, rather than steaming out of the blocks from her first note, which makes it seem a little understated compared to some of the other tracks available here. We round things off with a lovely version of “Try To Remember”.
The girls as postage stamps
So, commercially unsuccessful but a real treat and the one Labelle the group CD I listen to the most often and it was a great move for Spy records to lease the original master recording as part of their Ambassador Soul Classics releases from Atlantic who would have probably left it languishing in a vault. Anyone keen on the girl group sound, on blistering versions of familiar songs or on the powerhouse vocal of Patti Labelle should certainly seek this out. For me, it’s an Essential CD.
Over The Rainbow is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £6.95, and used from £3.30 and as a download for £5.95. An album which features these tracks alongside those from the follow-up album was released in 2014 and would be a worthwhile, if considerably more expensive choice. In the US it is currently $13.74 new $4.98 used and downloadable for $8.99.