Hendryx is known for her work as a solo artist as well as for being one-third of the trio Labelle, who had a hit with "Lady Marmalade." Her music has ranged from soul, funk, dance, and rhythm and blues to hard rock, art rock, and World Music.
Born in Trenton, New Jersey in 1944, Hendryx's family moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the mid-1950s where Hendryx first got in contact with fellow New Jersey native Sarah Dash and Philadelphia-based singers Patricia "Patsy" Holte and Sandra Tucker. After the short-lived tenure as member of rival group the Del-Capris, Hendryx and Dash formed a singing group with Holte and Tucker that year calling themselves The Ordettes. In 1961, Tucker was replaced by 18-year-old Cindy Birdsong, who was born in Philadelphia and had lived in New Jersey before moving back to Philadelphia where she was trying to be a nurse. In 1962, the Ordettes changed their name to the Bluebelles after signing their first deal with Newtown Records while Holte changed her stage name to Patti LaBelle.
After the release of their debut hit, 1962's "I Sold My Heart to the Junkman", their name altered again to Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles. Hendryx's sharp contralto differed from Dash's alto, LaBelle's soprano and Birdsong's mezzo-soprano. During this tenure, the group became known for their emotional live performances and their doo-wop renditions of classic standards such as "You'll Never Walk Alone" and "Danny Boy". The group often found themselves competing against girl groups such as The Chantels and The Supremes, with whom had a deep rivalry thanks to group member Diana Ross often snooping in on where the Bluebelles bought their dresses, according to LaBelle years later. In 1967, in the middle of a tour, Hendryx, LaBelle and Dash were shocked to discover that Birdsong, who had secretly been acting as a stand-in for Supremes member Florence Ballard, had officially joined the group after Ballard was ousted by the group by Motown CEO Berry Gordy.
Though LaBelle still had a semi-rapport with Birdsong, Nona Hendryx struggled with Birdsong's move and called it betrayal on Birdsong's part. Birdsong's relationships with the Bluebelles healed after the group won an R&B Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999.
For the next three years, the group struggled to compete against the changing musical landscape for which their girl group sound had fallen out of favor with popular audiences. In 1971, they moved to England, where they had a cult fan base, and on the advice of Vicki Wickham, changed their name to Labelle and ditched the dresses and bouffant wigs for jeans and Afros. Releasing transitional albums including 1971's Labelle and 1972's Moon Shadow, the group recorded material unheard of for an black, all-female group included matters of sexual and political affair. The transition was hard for lead singer LaBelle, who was a fan of the group's early-era ballads, but she eventually gave in. Member Dash remained neutral throughout the tenure of the group.
After the release of Moon Shadow, Hendryx began the chief songwriter for most of the group's records while LaBelle and Dash occasionally wrote their own material. After successfully opening for The Who during the group's American tour in 1973, the group released Pressure Cookin', where they once again adopted a new look as "glam rock, space-age divas". As a songwriter Hendrix subsequently wrote powerful ballads ("You Turn Me On" and "Nightbird" from Nightbirds, "Going Down Makes Me Shiver" from Labelle's final album, Chameleon), and a wealth of more uptempo numbers ("Space Children," "Messin' With My Mind," "Gypsy Moths," and "Who's Watching the Watcher"). Her themes were unconventional, diverse, and often experimental. Her composition "A Man In A Trenchcoat (Voodoo)" from Chameleon also marked Hendryx's first time singing lead vocal on an album. In 1974, the group hit gold with the release of Nightbirds following the release of the smash hit, "Lady Marmalade". In her memoir Don't Block The Blessings, Labelle frontwoman Patti LaBelle attributed the band's 1976 breakup in part to Hendryx's mental breakdown, which came following the tensions within the group. Labelle, Dash, and Hendryx all embarked on solo careers; Wickham stayed on with Hendryx to manage her solo career.
In 1977, Hendryx released her first solo album – a self-titled collection. A blend of soul and hard rock, it contained notable standout tracks such as "Winning" – later recorded by Santana – and the haunting ballad "Leaving Here Today". It quickly disappeared from the shelves, and Hendryx was dropped from Epic. Subsequently, she recorded four singles for Arista (London), which also escaped chart success. She did find success doing session work during this period, most notably providing background vocals for the Talking Heads and touring with them, appearing first at the major Heatwave festival in August 1980. She contributed to the song "Checkmate" on Dusty Springfield's, It Begins Again album (the first of Springfield's comeback attempts) in 1978.
In the early 80's, Hendryx fronted her own progressive art-rock group, Zero Cool, which included guitarist Naux (China Shop, Richard Hell), Bassist Michael Allison (Darshan Ambient), guitarist Kevin Fullen and drummer Jimmy Allington. Simultaneously, she sang with experimental funk group Material, achieving a giant club hit with "Busting Out." She had two other major club hits soon after: a dance remake of The Supremes' "Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart," and – in a lead vocal guest spot for the Cage – "Do What You Wanna Do." Material also produced her second album, Nona, in 1983. The hip, contemporary dance sound of this album proved to be more charts-compatible, with the single "Keep It Confidential" becoming a modest R'n'B-hit, and a remix of "B-boys" finding major success on the dance charts. "Transformation" became a Hendryx staple, and was later covered by Fierce Ruling Diva. Another particularly noteworthy track on the album is the ballad "Design For Living," which featured guests Laurie Anderson, Gina Shock of The Go-Go's, Valerie Simpson of Ashford & Simpson, Tina Weymouth of Tom Tom Club and Talking Heads, Nancy Wilson of Heart, and former bandmate Patti LaBelle.
In the mid-1980s, Hendryx was recruited by RCA to record songs for various soundtracks, including: the theme for Moving Violations; "I Sweat (Going Through the Motions)," a commercial hit for Hendryx from the Jamie Lee Curtis film Perfect; and "Transparent" from the Eddie Murphy vehicle, Coming To America. Her album The Art Of Defense was released in 1984.
In 1985, Hendryx wrote and recorded "Rock This House" with Keith Richards, from her album The Heat. The song was nominated for a Grammy award. The same year, the MTV broadcast of the video "I Need Love" stirred some controversy for featuring drag queens, and it was quickly removed from MTV's playlist as a result.
Her biggest commercial success came with 1987's single "Why Should I Cry?", a top 5 R'n'B hit (also reaching #58 on the Billboard 100). The accompanying album, Female Trouble, boasted an impressive list of contributors, including Peter Gabriel and Prince ("Baby A Go Go"). Around this time, she became a member of the Black Rock Coalition, founded by Vernon Reid of Living Colour.
Hendryx took a detour from commercial music with Skin Diver, a new age record produced with long-time Tangerine Dream member Peter Baumann. The album was generally greeted with positive feedback from critics, but was commercially unsuccessful. The title track did attract some attention, as did "Women Who Fly", which was later covered by Jefferson Starship.
In addition to the duet-album with Billy Vera (You Have to Cry Sometime) and a couple of compilation-only tracks, Hendryx has recorded more than five albums worth of music, but has been unable to release any of it due to lack of interest from major and independent record labels. Her Epic, RCA and EMI albums have long been out of print and have yet to attract the attention of specialist reissue labels, but a Best Of album titled Transformation was released in 1999 by Razor & Tie.
Hendryx has also dabbled in acting. She wrote and performed the theme for Landlord Blues (1987), while also having a small part in the film as attorney Sally Viscuso. She played herself in the late-90's Pam Grier series Linc's, and at the end of the show accompanied herself on the piano for "Lift Every Voice." Most recently, she appeared in the third season of The L Word, which closed with Grier, Hendryx, and the trio BETTY singing a cover of the Hendryx track "Transformation."
She remains in high demand for musical collaborations, both for her vocals and her songwriting. One of her early collaborations was with Jerry Harrison's (Talking Heads) The Red and The Black album 1981. In 1992, she recorded a duet with Billy Crawford, "Urgently In Love," which was considered by many to be a strong single that was not promoted properly. In 1998, she recorded the huge rap hit "It's a Party" with Bounty Killer. She has also written songs for Dusty Springfield and Ultra Nate, and produced albums for Lisa Lisa and The Bush Tetras. Other artists with whom she has recorded with over the years include: David Johansen, Yoko Ono, Cameo, Talking Heads (3 albums), 80's band Our Daughter's Wedding, Garland Jeffreys, Dan Hartman, Afrika Bambaata (performing a duet of "Giving Him Something He Can Feel" with Boy George), Canadian band Rough Trade, Curtis Hairston, and Graham Parker on the hit single, "Soul Christmas."
In the beginning of the current decade, Hendryx was asked to appear on two of Paul Haslinger's albums; two tracks for which she sang lead vocals – "Higher Purpose" and "Beginning to End" -were featured on the soundtrack for the Showtime series Sleeper Cell.
Currently, Hendryx is still touring and has written plays, including Blue. Recently, Sandra St.Victor (The Family Stand) recruited daughters of famous African American soul/blues icons – including Lalah Hathaway, Simone, Indira Khan, and Leah McCrae – together with "spiritual daughters" Joyce Kennedy, Caron Wheeler, and Nona, to form the group Daughters Of Soul, which has enjoyed much success, especially on the European tour circuit.
She also formed her own record label with Bobby Banks, Rhythm Bank, in 2005, and has released a gospel CD by protege Najiyah.
Since the breakup of Labelle, Patti, Sarah, and Nona have reunited on occasion. These reunions include Patti LaBelle's "Live In New York" video, the dance hit "Turn It Out" from the soundtrack To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995), and two television specials. In January 2006, Labelle again reunited to record "Dear Rosa," a tribute to civil rights leader Rosa Parks. Labelle also performed the theme song for the soundtrack for the film Preaching to the Choir, with Nona being the composer of the film's soundtrack. In late 2008, Labelle released their comeback album, Back to Now, and went on a successful concert tour that carried through the spring of 2009.
Hendryx has also authored a children's book, called The Brownies.
In 2001 she discussed her bisexuality in an interview with The Advocate magazine and has become a gay-rights activist over the years. In summer 2008, she joined Cyndi Lauper on her True Colors tour, raising awareness of discrimination and the LGBT community.