LABELLE: ‘Pressure Cookin’’ (Reel Music)

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After two albums for Warner Bros failed to excite the public and ignite the charts (1970’s ‘Labelle’ and ’71’s ‘Moon Shadow’), Labelle took their unique brand of sassy femme funk-rock to RCA in 1973, and recorded ‘Pressure Cookin’,’ just reissued for the first time by Reel Music. It’s a superb punch-packing set, but inexplicably, it, too, didn’t yield any hits and it was only when the trio comprising Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash relocated to Epic in 1974, that Labelle hit the big time with the evergreen anthem, ‘Lady Marmalade.’

As with all Reel reissues, the accompanying liner notes to ‘Pressure Cookin’,’ are copious and include a fascinating interview with the band’s manager (and producer of  ‘Pressure Cookin”), Vicki Wickham, who explains that Patti LaBelle was initially extremely reluctant to embrace the funky rock and soul aesthetic that eventually defined the group in the ’70s – song-wise, she would have preferred to cling on to the safe, supper club repertoire established by Patti LaBelle & The Bluebelles in the ’60s and was afraid that a radical change of style would alienate the group’s fan base. Indeed, those who had followed Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles in the ’60s were probably shocked by the group’s startling metamorphosis in 1970 – even more so, perhaps, by the glam rock, space-themed costumes they had donned by the mid-’70s.

‘Pressure Cookin” was a significant album for the group because it established Nona Hendryx as their main songwriter and material-wise gave them a satisfying sense of self-sufficiency. In fact, Hendryx came into her own with this particular album, penning seven of ‘Pressure Cookin’s’ nine songs. The best of them is an incredibly soulful ballad called ‘(Can I Speak To You Before You Go To) Hollywood,’ featuring a show-stopping vocal performance from Patti LaBelle that became a template for the histrionic displays that would characterise her future solo work. The bubbling title track, plus a funked-up version of Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ and the propulsive ‘Mr Music Man’ are prime examples of the group’s fluid synthesis of funk, rock and soul. Stevie Wonder makes a telling cameo appearance – though at the time the album was released, he appeared anonymously in the guise of ‘a friend,’ in order to skate around record company politics. He contributes electric piano on ‘Goin’ On A Holiday’ and pens and produces the funky ‘Let Me Open Your Heart.’ Wonder knew he was on to a good thing – and so will you when you wrap your ears around this criminally-overlooked lost classic.

(CW) 4/5