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A Dash of LaBelle
by Andrew Davis
2009-02-01

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In the 1960s and 1970s, the trio LaBelle ( consisting of Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Sarah Dash ) shook up the music world with its unique take on funk, rock and soul—most notably with its smash hit, Lady Marmalade. Now, more than three decades after breaking up, the group has reunited with an album ( Back to Now ) and a tour that will include a Jan. 10 stop in Chicago.

Windy City Times talked with the very affable Dash last month about reuniting, gay audiences and Dash's own life, which has had its share of drama.

Windy City Times: What spurred LaBelle's reunion?

Sarah Dash: It just seemed so right. Patti's manager had told her, "You all have to make time to do this." When Patti would say that LaBelle has come back together, people would yell and clap so much. And Nona said, "Pat, you can't play with people like that," and Patti would say, "I do plan on us [ reuniting ] ."

We had an opportunity to sing on a project that Nona brought to the table called Preaching to the Choir; it was a theme song to the film [ of the same name ] . When we were going to do that, Nona said, "I have this song called Dear Rosa [ on Back to Now ] that I think we should do as well." Then Pat called me and was like, "Girl, did you hear the playback on that song? We still have it." Dear Rosa really gets to my heart; Nona is such a good songwriter and singer—which is a rare thing in this industry.

WCT: And speaking of this album, I've listened to it quite a few times. The song System has this distinct '70s groove, and Truth Will Set You Free has me chair-dancing if I'm sitting down.

SD: [ Laughs ] Nona laid that lead out, didn't she?

WCT: So who made the first move to record a whole CD?

SD: Of course, we're dealing with Patti's schedule being so busy; she has a new cookbook that teaches people how to eat [ healthfully ] . Patti has really made a conscious effort to really get people to get well and to cook well. She's a fabulous cook—but when she found out she had diabetes, she made a conscious effort to put together a cookbook that would have food that tastes good and is good for you.

So, with everything she was doing, we had to plan around that. But when we did Preaching to the Choir and Dear Rosa, that's when we made a more conscious effort to put this CD together. Nona had run into Lenny Kravitz and she told him that we'd be in the studio making demos to see what sounded good, and he came by. We played [ the song ] Superlover, and he asked, "When did you all do that?" We said "Today," and he asked, "You all sound like that today?" [ Both laugh. ] And he said, "Count me in."

WCT: Do you have any other favorite songs on the CD besides Dear Rosa?

SD: One song I was kinda iffy about was How Long—but I now love it. I haven't put the CD on in a minute, but I also really like System. Shed a Tear for the World is powerful. We could go down the list.

When we got with [ songwriter/producer Kenneth ] Gamble, I saw Gamble and [ professional partner Leon ] Huff being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Patti sang If You Don't Know Me By Now. Then, Nona brought a song and I told Patti, "I feel that Gamble and Huff could do some justice to this song. Let's get them to produce it." Gamble was supposed to do one song and he did five.

The other thing is that we used live musicians—horns and strings; maybe we'll be able to incorporate some of that in our live shows as well. Then, Wyclef Jean did [ the song ] Roll Out. Some people comment that Patti uses a Vocoder on that song, but because she can sing, that makes it more interesting. It wasn't meant to hide her talent; when you have a singer as talented as her, you can do anything with it—and it's not an insult to her listeners.

Coming where I've come from: Doing jazz and blues; singing on The Rolling Stones' Steel Wheels CD; and [ currently ] recording an inspirational album... One guy said he wanted to hear more of my voice on the [ LaBelle ] CD, and I said, "We're unselfish women. We go for what works for the music; it's not based upon individual need, but upon LaBelle doing the best possible work for each song."

WCT: I was looking at the liner notes of the CD, and I read at one point that "Back to Now is about showing that love lives on." Could you talk about that?

SD: Well, love does live on. Some people may divorce or break up, and they can't be friends—but the moment you see that person, you remember the love. Even though we were divided and doing our own individual things, our love for each other lives on. We're like sisters.

WCT: People tend to know more about Patti or Nona—but what have you been doing since 1976 [ when LaBelle split ] ?

SD: I did three recordings for Kirshner Records [ Sinner Man, Ooh La La Too Soon and Leaving Again ] . Then, I did some work for Patrick Crowley and sang on a couple songs with [ gay disco icon ] Sylvester. Then, I went on the cabaret/jazz circuit.

I presented a biographical and theatrical piece, Crossroads. I did a lot of club work.

My organization, Dash Inc., started raising funds for homeless women with children. Mary Wilson [ of the Supremes ] and I did a couple of concerns on World AIDS Day, and I spoke with children at risk. All that came about when I was injured for four and a half years; I couldn't walk.

I started working on my inspirational CD even though I couldn't perform like I wanted to. I enhanced my speaking and used my testimony to uplift and help other people. I've only been off the cane for two and a half years. My manager was always encouraging me.

I had the surgery and went through different physical therapies; I had a torn ligament and meniscus. It took them almost a year before they found out what the problem was. Plus, I got divorced in the process. But out of all that came who I am today. When life deals you lemons, you make lemonade.

Also, the gay community has been incredibly supportive. It was very inspiring when I went to San Francisco last year and did [ the cabaret/comedy/cirque event ] Teatro Zinzanni; a large amount of the gay community came out and showed me so much love.

WCT: You're rehearsing for a performance at the Apollo. Are you nervous at all?

SD: You never feel too sure of yourself. I really want our music to be right, and this is our first major public show. I am a bit nervous but I'm hopeful. It's really important that it sounds right.

WCT: I think it's good to be a little nervous. Otherwise, you may not really care about some aspects of the show or be overconfident.

SD: I bet you're right about that. When I think about being nervous before the show, I'm going to think, "Andrew, I'm coming for you." [ Both laugh. ]

******


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