by Michael P. Coleman
“I had to learn to let go of being afraid.”
Veteran singer-songwriter Sarah Dash is perhaps best known as one-third of the groundbreaking 1970s group Labelle. Along with Patti LaBelle and Nona Hendryx, Dash cemented her place is music history with the multi-format 1974 smash “Lady Marmalade”. Over the course of just a few years, the trio almost single-handedly redefined the term “girl group” for a new generation, paving the way for acts like The Pointer Sisters, Sister Sledge, En Vogue, SWV, and Destiny’s Child.
After Labelle disbanded in 1977, the ladies pursued solo projects and Dash continued to record and perform all over the world. Recently, she’s surprised some fans by releasing The Seventh Child, her first gospel album. It’s a church-steeped extravaganza that plays like a holy ghost-filled revival.
I caught up with Dash, 69, at her home in New Jersey. We were just minutes into our hour together when her faith in God came shining through. She shared behind-the-scenes stories from her group’s pre-Labelle incarnation, Patti LaBelle & The Bluebells, losing Cindy Birdsong to Diana Ross & the Supremes in the 60s, and her solo career & working with everyone from Keith Richards to Sylvester! She also spoke powerfully about the injury that nearly derailed her career, and her journey home to God and her fans. If you’ve ever felt like you were in the wilderness, check out my conversation with Dash.
The following interview has been edited.
You’re the seventh of 13 children. Do you think that being the middle child helped drive you into the performance industry?
I was a precocious child. It leant itself to attention grabbing moments in my family. My father was a pastor, and my mother a nurse, My father attended the Philadelphia Bible College and my mother educated herself so she could be a nurse, even with 13 children.
Your dad objected early on to you singing with The Bluebelles. What was the foundation for that objection? Was it his religious background?
Well, for one he was pentecostal-based, so yes. Secondly, for a little girl of my age to want to be in the music industry was unheard of at that time, at least for the kind of parents that I had. After I started singing professionally, I travelled with a chaperone and a tutor at all times, since I was younger than Nona and Pat. Thirdly, all based on rumor about people being in the music industry, both of my parents were fearful of letting me travel and participate in an industry that they hadn’t been a part of. I didn’t come from a show business family, so the music industry was new to them. My mother was always there along with Patti’s mother and Nona’s mother, be it at the Apollo or the Uptown Theatre. The first time my dad came to see me was when we played the Metropolitan Opera House, and we often laughed about that, saying that my dad didn’t want to come to any place that was beneath him!
In Patti LaBelle’s autobiography, Don’t Block The Blessings, she wrote of the four of you coming together: “It was perfect harmony, the way we sounded together, the way we fit together, the way we moved together. It was seamless, it was smooth…they were my best buddies. We were sisters in spirit, soulmates…” It seems like the four of you avoided some of the drama that came with other groups re-branding themselves as a lead singer and group. From your perspective, what was it like coming together with the Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx, and Cindy Birdsong?
I would agree that it was seamless at first, but “The Bluebells” name was in place for only a few months. The name change had to come about because there was already a group in the union that was named The Bluebells. In order for us to be members of the union, we had to change the name to a unique one. The head of the record label decided to name Pat “Patti LaBelle” and bill us as “Patti LaBelle & the Bluebells”, but we were basically the same group. We were the first female group to put a soloist in front of the group in our name, but there was no drama involved.
You had some success with Patti LaBelle & The Bluebells, and then Cindy Birdsong left the group to join Diana Ross & the Supremes. What was it like to lose Birdsong to Ross’ group?
We are all human, and we’re all affected by any change that doesn’t seem normal or correct. Of course, it affected us as human beings, as individuals and as a group. Looking back, I can truthfully say that it didn’t feel good. But it happened, and Diana Ross & the Supremes were the top group. We worked through it. We always stayed in touch with Cindy, but I can’t say there wasn’t an elephant in the room when we all got back together! But it was fine. And look at us now! We’re all thriving and doing what we’re doing.
I know you and Cindy are still in touch with each other. How is she? I’ve heard that she’s facing some health challenges.
She does have some challenges. People around her are helping her work through them right now. That’s what we all should do with each other.
After Cindy left the group you, Patti and Nona took a trip overseas and retooled your group. Was the subsequent retooling by design, or did it happen more organically?
It wasn’t organic. It was absolutely by design. After Cindy left, the three of us continued to work, although we tried to audition other people to take her place. We met Vicki Wickham when we went to London for the first time. We were the first black group to appear on UK television. Vicki was the producer of a show called “Ready…Steady…Go!”. So we met her a few years before we partnered with her professionally. Vicki stayed in touch with us, and we discussed what we could do to stay in the business while doing something different. Vicki brought The Who’s management to see us at the Apollo, and it was decided at that time that we would go to London, regroup, and return differently — not in the same gowns and the same wigs. All of that was planned out.
In Patti’s book, she writes that Vicki and Nona had a vision for the group, that Patti was 100% opposed to that vision, and that you were stuck in the middle. She really didn’t elaborate on that, so I want to ask you whether it felt like you helped the group come to a consensus about the new direction?
Well, obviously none of that worked, did it? [Laughs] That’s the one thing I love about life. Changes will come, people grow, and the vision becomes dispersed in a sense. With all that’s happened, we’ve gone off and done our separate projects and come back together to do soundtracks like To Wong Fu, we came back and did Patti’s Grammy-winning album, we’ve come back to do a number of projects. So in spite of all that’s happened, there’s still a connection between us. Even though we’re not together every day, we all come together when necessary, we still support one another individually, we have not forgotten our past or the struggle it took to get us where we are. In spite of the different viewpoints about what we wanted to do, the connection between us is as strong as ever.
What did it feel like to being touring with rock groups, and to be so outspoken musically about political and sexual themes when not many groups, let alone female groups, were doing that?
It felt good. It changed our careers. We had a huge impact on the industry. We had a stage show that was emulated by other rock and R & B acts. So that felt good. While we were making those changes, we weren’t aware at the moment about what impact we were going to have. We played different opera houses and concert halls that hadn’t been played before, and we opened doors for other musicians and artists.
Let’s talk about the really huge single, “Lady Marmalade”. My mom loved it until she found out what the lyrics meant (“Would you go to bed with me tonight?”), although they seem tame by today’s standards. I’m wondering what your dad, as a pastor, had to say about that in 1974.
I don’t think my father paid any attention to that. His main concern was how was I living, how was I surviving? He was making sure I was putting my eggs in the right basket, that my parents’ teachings were having an impact on how I lived my life when I left the stage. That always seemed to be his concern. My upbringing obviously served me well. They never had to get me out of rehab nor jail. Did my father know about the lyrics? We never discussed it. He was interested in my wellbeing.
Labelle had a great run and disbanded in 1977 so you could pursue solo projects. They’re been a variety of reports about how the group came to an end. Will you set the record straight on that, and tell us about how your solo career got started?
Well, it was a party that came to an end [laughs] and…we’re still here. When it’s time for change to come, it has to come. Experiencing a change of that magnitude really gives you time to regroup, to think about what you’re going to do. I was the last of the three of us to be signed as a solo artist. Epic kept Nona and they kept Patti, but the label didn’t see any potential in me. But I was OK with that. Did I worry about being signed? No, I did not. I thought about what to do for a minute, because I had to physically and mentally make the spiritual connection to be grounded. I looked at different producers, I even did some demos. I started writing, I established my own publishing company. My income changed, but because I’d listened to my father, I was able to get through it. I started performing as a solo artist before I was signed [to a record label]. I did some cabaret rooms in New York and other places in different cities. One day [record executive] Don Kirshner called me and said “Listen, kid. We wanna sign you!”, and we worked on my first solo album for seven or eight months. By the time I got in the studio, “Sinner Man” was the first single I recorded, and I did it in one take. That’s how well they groomed me vocally for my first solo album. It was really a big hit in some clubs, and it was the first international hit from any of us from Labelle. Today, it’s still being played, and I still get calls to come out and sing “Sinner Man”. It’s been one of those pieces of music that’s still very much alive.
A few years later, you recorded a song called “Lucky Tonight” with Sylvester on background vocals. What was he like to work with?
He was WONDERFUL! Oh, he was such a wonderful human being. He had such insight, because he was raised in the church as well. And we would talk about the bible. I would go to his house. Very few people know that I had a relationship with Sylvester, because there was a period of time where he and I didn’t speak, because my mother was ill and subsequently passed. By the time I got to Sylvester, he was so sick that he couldn’t even talk to me on the phone. But he heard my voice… Losing my mother, and losing him a short time later, it took a spin on me. It took a spin. But he was wonderful.
I understand Sylvester gave you fashion tips…
Sylvester was the first person that I ever saw with a net front wig! I asked him “How do you get it to look like real hair?” He showed me how to work the wigs, told me about how he had his wigs made by people from the opera houses in San Francisco. He gave me all of these tips about how he did things. I’m looking at his picture now. I keep it on my desk, in a leopard print frame!
You’ve worked with so many people, from Sylvester to Laura Nyro to Wilson Pickett. Can you name a favorite collaborator, other than Patti and Nona?
As a solo artist, my greatest collaboration was with Keith Richards and to be on one of The Rolling Stones’ CDs, Steel Wheels, and to be a part of Keith’s solo projects. Keith chose me to be a part of those albums. That is a great achievement. We crossed genres with those. Another was the duet that I did with Nile Rogers of Chic. Nile is so brilliant in his writing.
The reunion album that you did with Labelle was delayed because you were recovering from an injury. I’ve heard your knees were affected in a couple of different spots. How did you overcome that?
Well, I managed that through the prayers of people who surrounded me. Having that accident changed so much for me. I was on steroids, my body was acting up. It took them a minute because one doctor had one prognosis while another doctor had another. And yet I kept saying there was still something wrong. I was in a cast from my ankle up to my hip. I couldn’t walk for almost four years without a body apparatus or a cane. I had to drop out of the industry…my leg would be so swollen. It turned my life around. I then began to trust in God. I started thinking about all the teaching and all the prayers, and all the bible scriptures about strength and healing I learned growing up. I had to rely on my faith, and some days that wasn’t easy because I would run into other people in the music industry who laughed at me because I had gotten heavier than I’d ever been. I learned that it’s not about your body, but about your mind and your spirit. I had to come to the fact that the Lord is my shepherd, and I shall not want! I listened to my father’s last sermon that was based on that. And I also looked at Matthew 6:31 and 33 – – I relied on that scripture. I had to look at a whole wipeout of income. I had to look at the total restructuring of a lifestyle. I didn’t always have support, because I didn’t even let a lot of people know what happened to me.
Then, things began to turn around. Talk about that.
I got a call to sing at a funeral of a very good friend. I didn’t want to go because I didn’t want to be seen with that cane, but something inside of me said “Go. Do the song.” I had to go up to the front of the church with that cane. I took that cane and I took God’s spirit with me. God was working with me. I went up there, and I sang “His Eye Is On The Sparrow”. Then I got another call to sing at another funeral. I wondered “What is the Lord showing me?” It was humbling time USA! The scripture says “I will humble you before those who bow down to you.” And I took that time to heal myself. I realized I could use that cane as an encouragement because what my life was saying to me was that I was still on the path. I realized somebody still needed me. Somebody’s still calling for me. It wasn’t easy, but I had to realize that there is nothing on this earth — not a person or an exercise or a gap in time — that can take you away from what God has planned for you and what God wants you to have. So I had to exercise self-control, and to know that even though this leg wasn’t working, I still had the gift of song. Sometimes we think that certain things — looks, clothes — give us power. Things like that don’t give us power. You take those things off and you have to be with you. I had to get rid of the anger, and I had to accept the fact that I didn’t make these rules. But, if there was one rule to adhere to it was to do what I was called to do.
Tell me about your new full-length gospel album, The Seventh Child.
The album was the result of my having to come to terms with letting go of being afraid. When you’re bold, nothing else matters. I co-produced that with a local producer in Trenton, New Jersey. I needed to come back to the place where I started. People say “Oh she’s into God now.” I say “Nope. God gave me life so He’s with me ALWAYS!” One time a person said to me “Wow, you write about God on Facebook too much.” Richard Smallwood told me “You give those people no mind because you know that only God is keeping you and HAS kept you.”
In addition to the new album, what are you up to these days?
I’m a motivational speaker now. I give lectures at colleges. I touch on my faith, my music background, the history of music, women in music, where it’s taking us now. I’m not on everybody’s [TV or radio] show, but I’m doing work that makes me feel good. I feel so honored that people still remember me and have an interest in what I do, and that people want to hear my music, and hopefully be encouraged.
More information on Sarah Dash is available at www.sarahdash.net.
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