The chorus of "Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir" is French for "Do you want to sleep with me tonight?" When Labelle performed this on television, broadcast standards of the day prohibited them from singing the chorus as written. It was changed to "Voulez-vous danser avec moi ce soir" (do you want to dance with me).
This was inspired by New Orleans prostitutes. The French Quarter is near the city's red-light district.
Bob Crewe wrote this with Kenny Nolan. Crewe is a producer who worked on many songs in the '60s, including hits by The Four Seasons. This was not typical of Crewe's work, but it was the biggest and last hit he worked on. It became the biggest hit for songwriting/production team of Crewe and Nolan, and strangely, it replaced another one of their songs, "My Eyes Adored You
" by Frankie Valli, as US #1 in March 1975.
This was originally recorded by the disco group The Eleventh Hour, which was made up of studio musicians and featured Kenny Nolan's vocals. Labelle recorded the song at the suggestion of their producer Allen Toussaint
, who recorded it with the group in New Orleans at his Sea-Saint studios (he also did the arrangements and played the piano). Toussaint was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998.
Labelle turned this song into an outrageous party anthem which went along with their glamorous look and sexual persona, earning them a huge following in the gay community. To anyone paying attention, the song was highly suggestive and it did ruffle some feathers, partly because it seemed to glamorize prostitution. In a 1986 interview with NME Patti LaBelle explained: "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."
In the same NME interview, LaBelle claims she didn't know the real meaning of the song until much later. Said Patti: "I thought people would boo us because we'd gone too far. I was afraid of change. But when we went out and did it, I said 'good!' Three outrageous black women who wore and said anything onstage... Although with 'Lady Marmalade' I swear I had no idea for a while what it meant, until I asked Bob Crewe, who recorded it, 'what's voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?' He told me, 'Oh gosh', I said, 'what will my mother think?'"
This is the only hit credited to Labelle. Patti LaBelle, the lead singer of the trio, recorded in the '60s as Patti LaBelle And The Blue Belles, and in the '80s as a solo artist.
The female British pop group All Saints covered this in 1998.
In 2001, Missy Elliott produced a new version with Christina Aguilera, Lil' Kim, Mya, and Pink that was used in the Nicole Kidman movie Moulin Rouge. This remake was wildly successful, connecting with a new audience and winning the 2001 Grammy for Best Pop Collaboration With Vocals. It also got the approval of Patti LaBelle, who said that she loved it. Mya said that she used to sing the original version around the house when she was a kid. She never knew what the French part meant, and her mom, who spoke French, didn't tell her.
The Missy Elliott version won Video of the Year at the 2001 MTV Video Music Awards. The video featured the singers dressed as prostitutes, which is how they performed it on the show. That MTV performance is included as an extra on the Moulin Rouge DVD.
Producer Timbaland did a remix of this song for the Dr. Dolittle Soundtrack.
In the UK, both the All Saints and Missy Elliott cover versions went to #1. This was the first time a song topped the UK charts twice but didn't in its original version. In 2005 this happened again when Steve Brookstein hit the top of the UK charts with "Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now)" 4 years after Westlife featuring Mariah Carey did the same. Phil Collins' original version reached #2.
Patti LaBelle performed this with Aguilera, Lil' Kim, Pink, and Mya at the 2002 Grammy awards.
This is the only song to top both the UK and US charts twice: UK- All Saints and Missy Elliott, US - Labelle and Missy Elliott.
When the Missy Elliott version hit #1, Lil' Kim became the first female rap artist to appear on a #1 single.
Sheila E. did a cover of this song on her 1991 set Sex Cymbal
. She originally wanted to cover Tower of Power's "What Is Hip?
" but the horn section was unavailable, so she "settled" for this number instead.