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In Labelle And Beyond, Sarah Dash Could Never Fade Into The Background

Left to right: Nona Hendryx, Sarah Dash and Patti LaBelle perform as Labelle in Los Angeles, circa 1975.
Left to right: Nona Hendryx, Sarah Dash and Patti LaBelle perform as Labelle in Los Angeles, circa 1975.

There is a moment in Labelle's 1975 performance on the music variety show Don Kirshner's Rock Concert that tells you all you need to know about the celebrated trio. Patti LaBelle introduces her bandmates, acknowledging Nona Hendryx as the group's main songwriter and Sarah Dash as, affectionately, "Miss Silver Throat." And then, the three perform "(Can I Speak to You Before You Go To) Hollywood" from the 1973 album Pressure Cookin', a song in which each woman takes a turn singing lead. Dash's solo lives up to her introduction: Soaring high, her voice is every bit the sound that New York Times critic Clayton Riley once described as "sensual human warmth, often fragile but never helpless, a voice that is clear at its center, cream at the edges." But as the performance continues, the women's sisterhood comes into relief. In the song's final moments, they each move from the different sections of the stage from which they have been performing and press close together in a tight circle, singing at full throttle, voices intertwined.

Sarah Dash died Sept. 20 at age 76, leaving fans to mourn not only her life and talents, but an irreplaceable chemistry. In its heady '70s heyday, Labelle became something the recording industry had rarely seen: a group of Black women vocalists who found success by outright refusing the conventional wisdom about how and what Black women should sing. Their eclectic repertoire included songs by The Who, The Rolling Stones, Carole King and Gil Scott-Heron — and many originals, which combined elements of rock, soul, pop and Latin music, and featured lyrics about political and sexual liberation. They played the Metropolitan Opera's first ever concert by an African American rock group, topped the pop and R&B singles charts with "Lady Marmalade," became early stars of disco, took their outrageous costumes and extraordinary singing to national television and the cover of Rolling Stone, and helped carry an underground sound with a predominantly Black and queer audience into the mainstream.

Because Patti LaBelle usually sang lead and Nona Hendryx wrote many of the group's songs, their contributions are often foregrounded in discussions of the group's impact. But attentive fans will tell you that the trio's explosive sound owes just as much to Sarah Dash's silver throat — and that to see and hear the members as anything but equals is to miss Labelle's most powerful innovation.

Sarah Dash was raised in New Jersey and grew up singing in the Trenton Church of Christ, where her father was a pastor. In high school she formed a doo-wop group, The Del Capris, that would set the course of her career. Though the group was short-lived, a round of musical chairs between its members and nearby peers The Ordettes led to the formation of Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles, with the lineup of Dash, LaBelle, Hendryx and Cindy Birdsong. The quartet became one of the many girl groups heard on the radio in the early 1960s, charting with "I Sold My Heart to the Junkman" in 1962 and touring the U.S. alongside rhythm and blues luminaries such as Jackie Wilson and James Brown.

By the end of the decade, the demand for girl groups had subsided and Birdsong had left the group to join The Supremes. Dash, LaBelle and Hendryx realized they needed to change in order to stay relevant, and enlisted the help of Vicki Wickham, a white English music industry professional who had befriended the group when she booked the Bluebelles on the British pop music television program Ready, Steady, Go! in 1966. Wickham agreed to be their manager, and together the four women devised a new concept, one that tapped into the energy of late '60s counterculture and pushed beyond the romance themes that dominated pop music. Breaking with the girl-group tropes of identical costumes and indistinguishable personalities, each of the women of Labelle would choose a stage costume that conveyed her individuality: There was the fiery earth mother LaBelle, the cool androgyny of Hendryx and Dash's sleek and flirtatious femininity.

Crucially, those attitudes and energies carried into their vocal sound as well. After more than a decade of singing together, the women of Labelle knew each other's voices and understood how to create parts that displayed their individual gifts while remaining tightly connected. In an interview I conducted with Dash in 2014, I learned that this had been a key part of Wickham's guidance: "She wanted everyone to be a lead singer," Dash said. "She was encouraging that we would all use our voices to sing background like we were singing lead. To be a forceful part and not go 'wooo oooo,' and just be the lead singer's answer group." In striking this balance, they successfully transferred the musical discipline they had learned as teens on the Chitlin' Circuit to the more laid-back context of '70s rock and funk — and created a level platform to perform from, where a voice as skilled as Dash's wouldn't and couldn't fade into the background.

"Sarah would be the one who would get the beautiful high lines across the top of the chords," explains Judith Casselberry, an associate professor of Africana Studies at Bowdoin College and a singer-songwriter herself, not to mention an attendee of many Labelle concerts. "Her vocal sound created the outer edges of the whole sound. Because there was so much combustion going on — Patti was like fire — Sarah would move between doubling vocals with Nona in the lower registers and flipping back up to the high line, creating a kind of veil over the top that helped to make the sound coherent. Her high lines and the pure, clear sound of her voice on top created an upper space that framed things."

The artist Toshi Reagon, whose career has tested the boundaries of Black roots music over several decades, sounds awestruck when describing Dash; the two met when Reagon invited Dash to participate in a Nona Hendryx tribute show in 2015. "Sarah Dash's range is really wide — she could execute in the ether beyond everyone else in a powerful, full-bodied way," Reagon says. "When you listen to their sound and they hit those places, it's Sarah Dash who ignites the highest level. She is the one who translated the intensity and then lifted it to a place that made you think, 'How did she get up there? How is she hitting those notes?' "

And yet, Reagon notes, the virtuosity heard in Dash's performance on songs such as "Chameleon," "Nightbird" and "Who's Watching the Watcher" is inextricable from the group's egalitarian approach. "[Labelle is] three voices," she says. "And each one of them is so important and so brilliant at executing complexity."

After Labelle disbanded in 1976, Dash continued to sing professionally. Her 1978 single "Sinner Man" was a Top 10 disco chart hit that filled gay club dance floors in the era just before the HIV/AIDS crisis, and the designer jean company Sasson used her song "Oo-La-La, Too Soon" in a television ad campaign. In the late '80s, a call from Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards — whom she had met in the '60s when their respective groups toured the U.S. together — brought her onto his project The X-pensive Winos. She appears on his solo albums Talk Is Cheap and Main Offender and joined him on tour, sometimes taking a solo turn, as in an effortless performance of "Time Is on My Side" in Boston in 1993.

Labelle would have its day again, too. Along with Hendryx, Dash appeared on Patti LaBelle's 1991 solo album Burnin,' and in 2008 the trio reunited, releasing the album Back to Now and launching a successful national tour. In 2013, Dash developed Sarah Dash: One Woman, a performance piece in which she told stories and sang songs that traced her musical journey, from her beginnings through upending the girl group model and presenting a new vision of Black womanhood in one of pop music's most original vocal groups. As Reagon says of Labelle, "They broke all of the rules." And as they broke those rules, Dash, Hendryx and LaBelle braided their voices together to produce an electrifying sound of independence, of interdependence and, above all, of sisterhood.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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