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It was seen as the height of sophistication in the disco era to include a little French in your lyrics; after all, “discotheque” is French for “record library”. Grace Jones covered Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose”. Chic chanted “Le Freak” and produced French pop plodders Sheila & B Devotion, with Sheila’s Gallic accent to the fore.
However, the francophone floor-filling trend was started by a veteran Philadelphia soul trio, Labelle, and their breakthrough “Lady Marmalade” revealed the advantages of singing en français: many listeners and broadcasters didn’t realise how provocative the song was.
Unfortunately, neither did the group’s lead singer.
“Lady Marmalade” had been dreamt up by Bob Crewe, a human hit machine whose credits included The Four Seasons’ “Rag Doll” and The Walker Brothers’ “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore”. One of Crewe’s projects was a group called The Eleventh Hour, fronted by singer Kenny Nolan. In 1974 the pair wrote a gritty song called “Lady Marmalade”, its prowling groove reflecting a sleazy lyric.
Crewe’s Lady Marmalade was a Creole sex worker in New Orleans, approaching men with the sassy line, “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?” He supposedly heard the phrase on the lips of hookers while visiting the French Quarter, although more likely he remembered Blanche DuBois purring it in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. The Eleventh Hour’s version didn’t sell, so Crewe pitched it to Patti LaBelle. She told him: “I don’t know what that voulez-vous stuff means . . . but that’s a hit.”
Her group needed one: Labelle had been around for a decade in various guises, and despite the patronage of Dusty Springfield, the Rolling Stones and the young Elton John in the 1960s, stardom remained elusive.
In 1974, armed with Crewe and Nolan’s song, Labelle flew south to work with Allen Toussaint, the linchpin of the New Orleans studio scene throughout the 1960s and 1970s. He shredded “Lady Marmalade”, placing the streetwalker at the heart of the tale rather than objectifying her. The cream of New Orleans’ soul musicians played on the session, including three-quarters of The Meters, articled funk legends.
The result was a deeply funky tune dressed in disco glitter, and Labelle sang it like an empowering anthem. It went to number one in the US. Some critics assumed Toussaint had written it, a myth repeated in some of his obituaries when he died last year, but he composed little of Nightbirds, the album it graced.
The seductive nature of the song meant it was never short of cover-version customers. Québécoise singer Nanette Workman went the whole hog by singing it entirely in French in 1975. That year Latin bandleader Mongo Santamaria’s brassy instrumental interpretation sounded like a theme for a TV cop show. A former percussionist with Prince, Sheila E, gave “Marmalade” a highly arranged R&B twist in 1991.
Although Labelle’s single didn’t hit number one in the UK, All Saints rectified that in 1997, the female quartet singing it like a cross between Bananarama and Destiny’s Child in a sanded-down cover, complete with cheesy rap. The Camembert content climaxed with Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya and Pink’s update in 2002 for the soundtrack of the movie Moulin Rouge, making it the only song to top the charts twice in the US and the UK. With each subsequent version, the “sexiness” grew more overstated and the empowerment factor fell.
Patti LaBelle claimed she hadn’t understood the French come-on in “Lady Marmalade” at first. She told Jet magazine: “Nobody told me what I’d just sung about.” When she found out, she felt “I’d turned into some kind of bad girl”. Ironically, it wasn’t even the rudest song on Nightbirds. That dubious honour went to “You Turn Me On”, which details female pleasure in graphic terms.
Perhaps Ms LaBelle didn’t understand that, either.
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For more in the series, and podcasts with clips of songs, go to ft.com/life-of-a-song
Photograph: Rex Features