A Conversation with Sarah Dash
Before Destiny’s Child and Beyoncé, there was Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles and LaBelle. Sarah Dash was a member of both of the latter two super groups. In 1975, LaBelle – Patti LaBelle, Nona Hendryx and Dash – were the first black, female artists to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. They were also the first to play the Metropolitan Opera House, as well as many other revered venues.
The story of Sarah Dash’s artistic career is all about breaking down barriers, and making the arts accessible to everyone – from keeping ticket prices affordable to working to ensure an arts education for all in her hometown of Trenton, New Jersey.
This Saturday at the Hopewell Theater, Sarah Dash will perform “Queen of Soul: A Tribute to Aretha Franklin” – another superstar, and a contemporary of Dash’s, who pushed boundaries and fought for progress during the civil rights movement. Franklin died last year at the age of 76. As Dash puts it, with this tribute, she wants to “bring Aretha Franklin’s light to Trenton”.
Jersey Arts: I was just watching a video of you performing a gospel song called “Walk around Heaven All Day” at Bright Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia last year. Is that something you do often? And do you enjoy performing at church?
Sarah Dash: I do. My father was a pastor at Trenton Church of Christ, which is right down the hill from Shiloh Baptist Church. I grew up in the church. I am very comfortable in a church. In fact, I have an album of spiritual music called “The Seventh Child” – because I am the seventh child of a seventh child. The church is where I started.
JA: You’re performing a tribute to Aretha Franklin this Saturday at the Hopewell Theatre. Please talk a little bit about your relationship with Aretha Franklin and her work.
SD: You know, Aretha was a pastor's kid too – we call each other PKs. Like, “Oh, here comes my PK buddy.” She grew up in the church. I first met her when she was a teenager. And I remember hearing her sing, and that was really something.
We weren’t close friends, but I always followed her work. We got reacquainted years later after we ran into each other at the Plaza Hotel and she invited me to her birthday party. And after that we stayed in touch all the time. Even if was just emailing about new shoes.
In addition to her career as an artist, she was a quiet force in the civil rights movement. She supported Martin Luther King. It’s just an honor to share her music. When people come to see this show, they will see and feel the love that I had, and still have, for Aretha Franklin.
JA: It’s not an exaggeration to say that your career is too big to cover in one interview – from your time with Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles to LaBelle to your solo work. When you think back on your career, what parts of it are the most important to you now?
SD: We wanted to show people in the industry, and society, that there should be no limitations regarding where we could play; there should be no limitations regarding who should be able to buy a ticket. As for being the first black, female group on the cover of Rolling Stone – it's not our greatest article in my opinion. However, it was a landmark event in the music industry, and it did make a difference. We performed where no black artists had ever performed. And we made the tickets affordable so that everyone could be a part of it. If you're going to be an artist, you know, make a difference.
JA: How did this Aretha Franklin project come together?
SD: I was part of a big tribute to Aretha at Carnegie Hall, when she was still living, and there were a lot of stars performing her work. I did “Dr. Feelgood”, and when I walked out on the stage people just went crazy. I got a standing ovation. That performance – with me in this long, furry, blue coat – is what led to me putting this tribute together.
JA: You grew up in Trenton. Several years ago, you purchased your parents’ home – the home you grew up in – and restored it. Could you tell me a little about your relationship to Trenton?
SD: Oh, I was determined to come back and secure that house, which my mother and father worked so hard to obtain. I left Trenton when I started singing professionally – I was 15 years old. I went on the road with the tutor. But I was always coming back – I was always living with my parents until I married. It’s been about 40 years since I lived here, but now I’m back. There's a lot of work to be done here, but Mayor Gusciora is making progress, and we're going to have an entertainment center in the city, which is going to be a great creative force for tourism – for bringing people to our city.
JA: You are the very first Music Ambassador of Trenton. You’re also the Grammy New Jersey Ambassador for the Advocacy Board of the Membership Committee, as well as a member of the Grammy Hall of Fame. You’re also on the Board of Trustees for the New Jersey Capital Philharmonic Orchestra, and you co-produce the Trenton Makes Music Project. You really care about your home state.
SD: I do, I do. And children, you know – the education part – fighting to have art in our schools. It's been a strong point with me. I’m fighting for the arts in Trenton, with many committed allies, and I know we will be successful. They haven't even seen one tenth of what I have in mind for this city.
JA: You’ve said about LaBelle: “We bridged the gap and brought people together. We supported everything and everybody – gay, straight, black, white, everybody. We all came from large families, there were 13 children in our family, Nona had a family of nine, Patti had a large family, plus she adopted a neighbor’s kids. So we were all people persons. We had no separation. My father – being a pastor – we always had different people in our house – homeless people, white people. You’ve got to be taught to hate.” There’s really a clear line between your career as an artist and your upbringing.
SD: There is no question about it. I was raised in the Pentecostal church. There are a lot of us who are in the music business – or, as they say, “secular music.” I get up every morning and read the Bible. I send out prayers. Music is the thing that connects me strongly to God because it is his gift that was bestowed upon me. And it doesn't matter who you call God as long as it's something that will help bring people together, fight hate and celebrate life. As an artist, I get up every day and do the work to create, to make people feel happy.
JA: What do you want people to know about Aretha Franklin?
SD: I want them to know what kind of woman she was. And that we were blessed to have her. We're still blessed that we can hear her. Her legacy lives on, and will always live on from generation to generation. I want to share this moment with the Trenton community. I want to bring Aretha Franklin’s light to Trenton.