Sarah Dash: Lady Marmalade singer and Labelle co-founder

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Dash at the The Jazz Foundation of America in 2015  (Getty)
Dash at the The Jazz Foundation of America in 2015 (Getty)

Sarah Dash was the singer best known for being part of popular funk-rock vocal trio Labelle during the Seventies.

Dash, who has died aged 76, rose to fame with her co-singers, Patti LaBelle and Nona Hendryx, on hits such as “Lady Marmalade”. Her own sound was once described by Clayton Riley of The New York Times as having a “sensual human warmth, often fragile but never helpless, a voice that is clear at its centre, cream at the edges”.

Sarah Dash was born in Trenton, New Jersey, in 1945 to Mary Elizabeth Dash, a nurse, and Abraham Dash, a pastor. As a young girl she would sing in the Trenton Church of Christ Choir and loved listening to music on the radio from artists such as Gladys Knight and Tina Turner.

Their band began life as the Del-Capris, including Nona Hendryx – also a Trenton native – together with Philadelphia-born Patricia Holte (Patti LaBelle) and Cindy Birdsong. The Del-Capris found some success with their own R&B compositions as well as performing emotionally charged live versions of other songs, including “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and “Danny Boy”. Renaming as the Bluebelles in around 1962, the group was later known as Patti LaBelle & the Bluebelles.

Terry Jones, Sarah Dash and Helen Burner in 2015 (EPA)
Terry Jones, Sarah Dash and Helen Burner in 2015 (EPA)

But their breakthrough came in 1971 when their British-born talent manager, Vicki Wickham, advised them to change the group’s name once more, becoming simply Labelle. Simultaneously they morphed from an R&B outfit into an Afro-futuristic glam funk-rock group, embracing the space craze of the time and singing tracks including “Lady Marmalade” (1974). With its suggestive and catchy lyric “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi (ce soir)?”, the single became an instant hit, propelling Labelle into the UK Top 20, giving them a US No 1, and making the album, Nightbirds, their most successful.

Interviewed later, Dash recalled her naivety about the song’s chorus: “Being as inquisitive as I am, I had to ask. Vicki was fluent in French and so I asked her. I think Patti was out of earshot. I knew some Italian so I could make out ‘Will you...’ and then Vicki gave me the full translation and... wow! But it was great; it was the surprise of the element of the song, I felt.”

And further asked why their rendition of the song was so enduring, Dash quipped “Well, it’s three black women singing French about the world’s oldest profession. It won’t be swept under the table. And it’s the quality of the music – the way it was produced, the voices.”

Wickham, who had previously produced the Ready, Steady, Go! teen music television programme, would soon become Nona Hendryx’s long-term partner.

Labelle performing at the Apollo Theatre, New York City, in 2008 (Getty)
Labelle performing at the Apollo Theatre, New York City, in 2008 (Getty)

While their 1973 album Pressure Cookin’ was not an instant commercial success, it grew into something of a cult classic, also being notable for its coverage of political and social issues. The medley “Something in the Air/The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, covering tracks by Thunderclap Newman and Gil Scott-Heron, demonstrated that Labelle was not only about entertainment but also about bringing a political message from a group of empowered black women musicians.

Following a farewell tour in 1976, Nona Hendryx and Patti LaBelle found successful solo careers, whilst Dash continued as a session musician, working together with Rolling Stones guitarist on his Keith Richards and the X-Pensive Winos project.

She was rediscovered two years later by Don Kirshner, releasing her first eponymous solo album, along with a disco single, “Sinner Man” (1978), a massive favourite at the time on the dance floors of gay clubs.

Labelle had reunited in 2008 for a tour across the US and the release of a new album, Back to Now, their first in 32 years. Dash last performed in Atlantic City, just two days before her unexpected death.

Patti Labelle said in tribute: “Sarah Dash was an awesomely talented, beautiful and loving soul who blessed my life and the lives of so many others in more ways than I can say. And I could always count on her to have my back. That’s who Sarah was ... a loyal friend and a voice for those who didn't have one.”

She married Sam Reed, a saxophonist, in 1967, they divorced shortly afterwards.

Sarah Dash, musician, born 18 August 1945, died 20 September 2021

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