One of the foundational voices of one of the most innovative female vocal groups of all time has died. Singer, songwriter and actress Sarah Dash, co-founder of Labelle and one-third of the trio’s iconic No. 1 hit “Lady Marmalade,” was 76. No cause of death has been given.
Dash was born the seventh of 13 children in 1945 in Trenton, N.J. Her mother was a nurse and her father a pastor at the Trenton Church of Christ, where Dash grew up singing gospel before forming her own teen singing group, the Del Capris. Relocating to Philadelphia in the 1960s, she connected with fellow Trenton native Nona Hendryx, Philadelphian Patricia Louise Holte—and singer Sundray Tucker; together, the four young women formed “The Ordettes.”
By 1962, Tucker had been replaced by future Supreme Cindy Birdsong, and the group rebranded as Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles, as lead singer Holte had also personally rebranded as Patti LaBelle. Together, the group recorded a string of doo-wop and R&B hits including the Top 20 debut single “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman,” followed by “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” “Danny Boy,” and “Down the Aisle (The Wedding Song),” which reached the Top 40. Also well known is the quartet’s rendition of “Over the Rainbow,” which remains one of Patti LaBelle’s signature songs.
When Birdsong departed the group in 1967 to replace Florence Ballard in The Supremes, the remaining trio underwent another rebrand. Now simply known as Labelle and under the management of British TV producer Vicki Wickham (“She was an eye-opener to us,” Dash told SFGate in 2007), the group also changed their sound and look, adopting a more psychedelic, Afro-futurist image and sexier rock-funk sound that retained their rich R&B harmonies. Both the look and sound reflected the radically changing times and set Labelle apart from their girl group contemporaries.
“We were the first female group to stop wearing the identical dresses,” Dash told SFGate. “What Beyoncé and all the others don’t know is that we opened the door for them to have their own looks. We took the Supremes’ look off.”
The era also introduced the trio to a new audience outside of traditional R&B, as they opened for late singer-songwriter Laura Nyro, with whom the group also recorded the 1971 covers album Gonna Take a Miracle, produced by “Philadelphia Sound” pioneers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.
Labelle released three albums between 1971 to 1973, but the group’s biggest commercial triumph came with the 1974 release of the album Nightbirds, which featured the Allen Toussaint-produced “Lady Marmalade.” The hit single would prove to be so iconic that both the original and its 2001 remake by Christina Aguilera, P!nk, Lil’ Kim and Mya reached number one on the charts, while a 1998 remake by British girl group All Saints also topped the UK Singles chart.
“It’s a total surprise to have ‘Lady Marmalade’ take care of us all these years,” Dash mused in 2007. “It definitely opened the door to long-term business for us.”
Coupled with their incredible live performances, Labelle was an in-demand act, selling out shows from Oakland’s Paramount Theatre to New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House, where they were the first contemporary pop group and first Black pop group to perform. Notably, Labelle was also the first Black vocal group to cover Rolling Stone, appearing atop the July 3, 1975 issue.
The cover promoted Labelle’s fifth album, Phoenix, which was swiftly followed by 1976's Chameleon. The group had just wrapped a reportedly tumultuous tour and was working their seventh, unfinished album Shaman when they split over creative differences in 1977, each member embarking on a solo career.
Dash told SFGate the conditions of the group’s split were “not to be discussed.” Nevertheless, “I never stopped talking to Nona or Pat,” she added.
In 1978, Dash released her self-titled solo debut which included the Top 10 disco hit single “Sinner Man,” and the lesser hit “(Come and Take) This Candy from Your Baby.” She also flexed her skills as a songwriter, penning and singing the theme song for the 1980s PBS show Watch Your Mouth, on which she also guest-starred as a character.
Her 1980 album Ooh La La, Sarah Dash included the disco track “Ooh La La, Too Soon,” which was reworked as “Ooh La La, Sassoon” for the jingle of the popular ‘80 denim brand. In 1983, Dash’s single “Lucky Tonight” (featuring background vocals by Sylvester) hit the #5 spot on Billboard’s Dance Chart. Dash’s final album, 1988's You’re All I Need, featured a duet with Patti LaBelle on the title track.
In the mid-’80s, Dash pivoted to session work, providing vocals for The O’Jays, Nile Rodgers, and many more. Longtime friend and Rolling Stones co-founder Keith Richards invited Dash on tour, the Bluebelles having opened for Stones in the 1960s. Their reunion led to a longstanding professional relationship which included appearances on two of his solo albums, as well as on the Stones’ 1989 Steel Wheels album. On tour with the Stones, Dash took over the famed Merry Clayton vocal on on “Gimme Shelter.” She is also remembered by many of Richards’ fans as the featured vocalist on his 1989 single “Make No Mistake.”
In the early 1990s, Dash reflected on her own career, producing a one-woman show, Dash of Diva, which was produced at the Crossroads Theater in New Brunswick, N.J. She penned an autobiography of the same name and produced a second show, Sarah: One Woman, during the same era, according to Variety. In 1995, Dash, Hendryx and LaBelle reunited for “Turn It Out,” featured on the soundtrack for the film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar; the single became a number one dance hit.
The trio reunited again in the early aughts, recording a 2006 tribute single to Rosa Parks and releasing the critically acclaimed 2008 album Back to Now, which included production by Lenny Kravitz, Wyclef Jean, and Gamble and Huff. Nicknamed “silver throat” by LaBelle (h/t Daily News), Dash was the lead vocalist on the album’s single “System.”
Dash and LaBelle reunited for the last time just last Saturday night, when LaBelle pulled her friend and former bandmate on stage during a tour stop. “We were just on-stage together on Saturday and it was such a powerful and special moment!,” LaBelle wrote on Monday in response to news of Dash’s passing, posting a thread of tributes and footage of the two singing together.
“[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,” LaBelle continued. “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 was a true giver…always serving, always sharing her talent and her time.”
Hendryx also paid tribute to her departed friend and collaborator, posting a Nightbird-era video of Dash to Instagram with the caption:
🕊💔🎶😢 Sarah, Nightbird, I rarely used your last name, seems out of place. Words are inadequate so I will use few. We spoke a musical language, music says it best. Singing brought us together, You, Me and then You, Me, Cindy and Pat; Bluebelles. You and Pat were singing so joyfully the other night, we talked & texted on Saturday, now you’re gone, I can’t believe it 💔 Nightbird, why not let heaven be your home 🕊💔
As tributes to the singer continue to pour in, the mayor of Dash’s native Trenton, N.J., Reed Guscoria, lauded her legacy on his Facebook page, writing:
Our resident legend and Trenton’s very first music ambassador, Sarah Dash, has passed away… Our motto, ‘Trenton Makes, the World Takes’ was alive and well with Sarah. What Sarah made was beautiful music refined by a lifetime of experience and numerous contributions to the arts and the community. What the world takes is a timeless inspiration of a woman who touched the highest peaks of stardom and never forgot where she came from.
Rest in Power, Sarah Dash.