With a great chorus comes great responsibility. The chorus is the star of a song with the catchiest lines and most memorable melody. So, if you’re gonna have a hit, you probably need to know what the words mean, right? Especially if they’re in French. For Godmother of Soul Patti LaBelle and her group Labelle, they didn’t find out the true meaning of the 1975 hit “Lady Marmalade” until they were confronted by an angry nun.
The meaning behind the sultry soul hit.
Written by Bob Crewe and Kenny Nolan, the inspiration for the song came from the city of New Orleans. The writers marveled at the “ladies of the evening” in the city’s French Quarter. While originally intended for Nolan’s disco group, Labelle recorded the song at the suggestion of producer Allen Toussaint (Patti sang it better, let’s be honest). The rest is history, but it took a while for the song to solidify itself as a hit after facing backlash for the song’s meaning.
“Lady Marmalade” is an odd song at face value. Made up of English and French lyrics and catchy gibberish, it is a seemingly unlikely hit.
Gitchi gitchi ya-ya da-da
Gitchi gitchi ya-ya here
Mocca chocolata ya-ya
Creole Lady Marmalade
The scandalous French lyrics, however, are what made the song. The chorus of the song, “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?” translates to “Do you want to sleep with me tonight?”
Labelle delivered the lyrics with pride, knowing they had a hit on their hands. The group didn’t discover the true meaning, however, until the public reacted.
What did the listeners think?
The crowd reception to the sexy, sex-work-focused soul anthem was not very well received by some audiences. Religious leaders especially were concerned with the vulgar topic of the song’s material. A group of nuns, who were also unaware of the song’s bilingual lyrics at first, called the group “bad people” for releasing it.
LaBelle told The Guardian the news came as a shock to her. When she heard the true meaning from the nuns, she was floored.
“[The other members of Labelle and I] really didn’t know [what it meant] at first,” LaBelle revealed. “We thought it was a woman just walking down the street – it didn’t register that it might be about something else. We were very innocent, and I had no clue. I was very naive.
“Then we had some controversy about a nun being upset about the song, and we found out,” LaBelle said. “I felt stupid … no, not stupid but naive. I didn’t know we were singing about a lady of the evening. Young girls today are so well versed because of the internet, so they’d never not realize, but it was different then. Thank God we did the song, anyway!”
LaBelle’s acceptance of the song’s meaning
Though at first mortified, LaBelle said the song’s taboo meaning eventually settled with her. The singer had friends who were sex workers, and that didn’t make them any less her friends.
In a 1986 interview with NME, she said, “That song was taboo. I mean, why sing about a hooker? Why not? I had a good friend who was a hooker, and she died. She never took the mike out of my mouth, and I never took the mattress from under her. She was a friend, doing her thing. It’d be like discriminating because you’re white and I’m black, or you’re gay and someone’s straight. I don’t believe in separating people. If your job is as a hooker, more power to you.”
The 2001 Moulin Rouge remake
The song was such a wild success that it was revived again for the 2001 film Moulin Rouge. The pop remake featured the industry’s leading ladies at the time, including Missy Elliot, Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya, and Pink.
Mya, who used to sing the original version around the house when she was a child, said she never knew what the French chorus meant. Even her own mother wouldn’t tell her, who spoke fluent French.
The remake and accompanying music video elevated the Labelle original to new heights. Patti loved the new version and performed the new rendition with the group at the 2002 Grammy Awards. The song won a Grammy for Best Pop Collaboration With Vocals and eventually became RIAA Certified Gold.
Listen to the fabulous original of “Lady Marmalade” from girl-group Labelle below:
Sony Music Archive via Getty Images/Terry Lott)