Finding Labelle’s Pressure Cookin’ CD reissue was like finding the HOLY GRAIL for my music collection. In the early ‘90s, when record companies were transferring a lot of their catalogue to CDs, I was just discovering Labelle’s music, knowing little more than their iconic pop hit “Lady Marmalade.” However, while on vacation in New Orleans, from New York City, I happened upon a dusty little record store in the tourist area, the French Quarter, off of Canal Street, across from the now-defunct, Tower Records. I scored in this little store with two important soul albums I, until then, was unfamiliar with: Dee Dee Sharp’s Happy ‘Bout The Whole Thing and Labelle’s Pressure Cookin’. Up to that point, Labelle’s Chameleon CD never left my CD player, and I was already in possession of the Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash solo projects.
I thought the material on Chameleon was fantastic and that music didn’t get any better than the songwriting there, but boy, was I wrong. Pressure Cookin’, which pre-dates Chameleon, blew me away. Not only was the music production funky and tight, but also the songwriting spoke to my soul. Who knew that years later I’d be working with the gifted Nona Hendryx, as her music publishing manager, pitching more of her incredible songs to other major label singers who were searching for songs for their next albums. She and I chatted for over an hour about Pressure Cookin’s material, before the conversation turned to our discussing her new body of work. Major labels, how about a Nona Hendryx songbook collection, recorded by your top stars and Nona?
Pressure Cookin’ offers music lovers something new with each spin of the grooves. One nugget, for me, was my discovery that Patti was not always singing the lead. For example, “(Can I Speak To You Before You Go To) Hollywood” begins with several haunting and subtle strokes of the electric piano keys, using a delay, which sets the stage for Nona’s sweet and sultry vocals, opening the song. This leads into Sarah’s power vocals, rivaling Patti’s here, waking us up to the call of the women’s bewitching magic. Nona’s and Sarah’s back and forth was like a vocal sparring, while they awaited Patti’s push into the song with her lyrics “I Believe In You…” “(Can I Speak To You Before You Go To) Hollywood” is a longtime favorite of fans because of its gospel-influenced chorus, vamped out, with the ladies singing “I…I Believe In You.” After reading the reissued CD liner notes by A. Scott Galloway, it was a trip, for me, to find out the song was about someone ego trippin’, going all “Hollywood”.
Another gem on the CD, “Goin’ On A Holiday”, displays Patti’s funky delivery, which sets us up for wanting to join them on another vocal extravaganza. This tune makes you want to sing along with them, like you did on “Lady Marmalade.” “Goin’ on a holiday, gonna’ make a sign, hang it on the doorknob of my mind…” The feel-good emotion created by the group is perfectly matched by musicians clearly having fun here too. On “Let Me See You In The Light”, the musical and vocal approach is so different from the rest of this album, but it provides a wonderful departure from the vocal workout we’ve gotten so far, ‘cause these girls would wear you out if they continued going full throttle on a whole album. On this track, their vocal blending qualifies as an instrument of its own, much like Chaka Khan’s vocals did on her “And The Melody Still Lingers On (Night in Tunisia)” track from What Cha’ Gonna Do For Me. Patti here flirts with the guitar toward the end of the song, showing her softer vocal side, which opened my eyes to her incredible talent, all over again.
“Last Dance”, a track with an eerie atmospheric electric piano opening, again using the haunting delay, showcases Patti whispering her lyrics as if auditioning for a part in a movie, only to heat up the performance, making the other actor rise to the occasion so they both land the part. This break-up song perfectly echoes the sentiments you’ve rehearsed over and over in your head with someone you’ve held unrequited love for who won’t act right. Nona Hendryx’s lyrics nail that moment you’ve encountered many times with a lover who won’t go any further…”His eyes hold, what his lips won’t say…” Patti’s voice melts your heart when she whispers her monologue…”I see you over there, and you’re sho’ lookin’ good to me, I just gotta ask you one thing, do you really wanna dance with me? Huh…You do? Mmmm baby, that’s all I wanted to hear.” From that moment on, you hear the group singing into oblivion, as you imagine Patti pulling that lover onto that dance floor or out of the club…super fast, to handle her business. Now Patti has turned the tables on her suspected breakup.
In a conversation about Pressure Cookin’ with my friend Byron Stingily, formerly of Ten City, and house music royalty, he said, “this CD release holds something for ol’ school fans and the younger hip hop generation of producers. The music alone holds vamps with grooves that can be full-on sections in hip hop tunes today.” I totally agree with Byron. The mood the entire album sets, fits perfectly with other classics from the day, like Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul and anything Eddie Kendricks put out, which pre-dated black music moving into disco and house music. House music producers already know the value of music like this and so will you when you investigate this rediscovered treasure. Aside from the excellent musical talent accompanying these ladies, listening to Pressure Cookin’ holds pure pleasure for the sheer vocal arrangement in the music, with many intricate sections and parts to every song, proving these girls are superbad!
Rating: a solid 10!!!
Dwayne E. Alexander is a veteran music executive, having worked for major labels, in promotions, A&R and music publishing. He has created his own entertainment company called Gentle Giant Entertainment, adding feature film, television and theatre productions to his résumé as a writer, director and producer.