What Patti LaBelle Incorrectly Thought ‘Lady Marmalade’ Was About

Patti LaBelle has given the world a lot of great music — not all of which she understood at first. LaBelle actually interpreted one “Lady Marmalade” incorrectly. However, she eventually understood the song — thanks to a nun.

Patti LaBelle with a microphone
Patti LaBelle | Paul Natkin/Getty Images

The risque line that brought a classic 1970s hit together

“Lady Marmalade” by LaBelle’s group, Labelle, is a bit of an odd song. It includes English lyrics, French lyrics, and gibberish lyrics. Interestingly, the French lyrics of the song are what brought it together.

According to The Billboard Book of Number 1 Hits, songwriter Kenny Nolan said “Lady Marmalade” was written in parts. Ultimately, he added the French phrase “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi (ce soir)?” which translates to “Do you want to sleep with me (tonight)?” After adding that lyric, Nolan said the song now fit together like a puzzle. “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi (ce soir)?” would become one of the most famous non-English language lines in 20th century American pop music.

“Lady Marmalade”

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The risque French line of “Lady Marmalade” fits perfectly with the rest of the song because “Lady Marmalade” is a track about a prostitute. Oddly enough, LaBelle told The Guardian she and the other women who sang the song had a different understanding of it.

What Patti LaBelle thought ‘Lady Marmalade’ was about

“[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.” LaBelle explained why she came to understand what the song is actually about. 

Labelle wearing flamboyant outfits
Labelle | CBS via Getty Images

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“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!”

How the public reacted to ‘Lady Marmalade’

LaBelle certainly has reason to be glad she sang the song. Regardless of how the members of LaBelle understood “Lady Marmalade,” the public embraced the song. LaBelle’s version of “Lady Marmalade” peaked at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Stunningly, this was not the only time the song reached the peak of the chart.

“Lady Marmalade”

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In 2001, Christina Aguilera, Pink, Lil’ Kim, and Mýa covered “Lady Marmalade” for the soundtrack of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! This version of the track added some of the flavor of early 2000s R&B. This version of the song became a No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 as well. The song resonates with the pubic in the hands of different singers — even if its intended meaning wasn’t initially clear to its singers.