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Melba Moore and Sarah Dash (all photos courtesy of Flying Perfect Media)

From Broadway to Labelle: A Roundtable With Disco and R&B Legends

Six R&B and disco icons reflect on life, success, and the G.E.M.A. Foundation's role in celebrating classic music.

It’s 9 October 2015. Sarah Dash is relaxing in her hotel room. Just three hours earlier, she and more than a dozen other artists and industry personalities each received the Golden Mic Award from the Global Entertainment Media Arts Foundation (G.E.M.A.). The award honors individuals who’ve made a substantial contribution to music and the arts. “

We’re all trailblazers and we’re blazing the trail,” says Dash, who broke ground as one-third of space age funk-rock trio Labelle. It’s a true statement. Among those who joined Dash at the dais were Tony Award winner Melba Moore and one of the last vocalists to sing with Duke Ellington, Jean Carn. Each artist who received the Golden Mic Award is a survivor, someone who’s achieved considerable success over the last 40 years, has navigated all the changes in the music industry, and is still performing for audiences across the globe.

The following night, G.E.M.A. held A Night of Beautiful Voices at Philadelphia’s historic Prince Theater (formerly the Midtown Theater). With music direction by DeVerne Williams and 2015 G.E.M.A. Ambassador Norman Connors, each Golden Mic honoree performed a ten-minute set that offered a glimpse of their multi-faceted career. “I’m just so happy and honored to be amongst these other ladies,” said Scherrie Payne, who fronted Holland-Dozier-Holland’s Glass House in the late-’60s and shared lead vocals in the Supremes from 1974-1977 before embarking on her own solo projects. The evening marked a rare occurrence where artists who’ve long been contemporaries of one another stood on the same stage and applauded each other’s achievements.

Throughout the festivities, PopMatters conducted a series of interviews with 2015 G.E.M.A. honorees Jean Carn, Sarah Dash, Melba Moore, and Scherrie Payne, who reflected on their many triumphs as well as the challenges they’ve faced in their career. G.E.M.A. Chairwoman Carol Williams and Co-Chairwoman Anita Ward, who both received Golden Mic Awards in 2014, also joined the conversation about how the music industry’s changed and why the G.E.M.A. Foundation is an important force in spotlighting the legacies of veteran recording artists.

What inspires you to sing?

Scherrie Payne: Singing’s like a second part of me. I’ve been singing all my life. My mother said I was singing before I was talking. When I was younger, people like Billie Holiday or Gloria Lynne would inspire me to sing. I would buy their albums back when I was in high school. I’d go down to our recreation room. I’d put on either one of their albums. I would sing every song that was on the album. I would emulate them. They were my idols.

As I got older, if I was really happy or joyous over something, I would go sit at the piano and I would sing or maybe I would write. Sometimes when I was really down, that would inspire me to sing a different kind of song.

Jean Carn: You know, maybe it’s something unidentifiable because I’ve been singing since I was three, since before I can remember. My mother used to tell me about the concerts I would give to anybody who came to the house. She told me how I would stand and do a plié. I had on my ballerina shoes and I’d give them a concert.

I started singing solos in the church choir at four. The pastor built a box for me to stand on because otherwise you couldn’t see me. Then I started taking piano lessons at five. I started training church choirs because I played piano and organ. In high school, I was in the band and in the chorus and the orchestra. I majored in music in college.

Melba Moore: I guess it’s something you do so often, you don’t think about what inspires you. It’s probably hearing other people sing and thinking, Oh I can do that. I want to do that! There’s a certain feeling you get when you watch TV or you go see a live show. You’re so excited. Then, when you find out that you can carry a tune, you think I want to sing like … whoever you saw. Maybe you think, I can do it better than that. That actually is inspiration, but I just never thought of it that way.

Sarah Dash: It’s a spirit inside of me and I just let it out. It’s an inner gift that I’ve always had since my life started and I was aware of sound. I remember as a child, before I even went to school, that I would sit at the piano. I didn’t play but I would make up songs.

Anita Ward: I think just having a love and a passion for singing. To hear that I’m making other people happy and to see them responding to it so positively, is good.

My late grandmother would tell the story of when she took me to see my father who was in Arizona. I was on the train. I was only two years old and I sang all the way. They called me their little mockingbird.

Carol Williams: I just think it’s the love of the music: chords, harmony, violins, guitars, congas … all of the different instruments. I always wanted to be a singer. I just love music. I like melodic things. I like a lot of the standards. Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Patti Page, Doris Day … these are people that I listened to.

As you began finding your way through music, who were some of the artists that imparted wisdom to you, whether it was through a direct conversation or through the example of their career?

Sarah Dash: I learned from Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, and Ella Fitzgerald. They paved a certain path for us and then we had to take the wand and carve another niche for those who came after us. Those women at that time would have never dreamed of doing what we (Labelle) did. The information that was imparted to me was always find ways to recreate yourself because what was available to them wasn’t available to me by the time I became their age.

The re-creation came through Labelle. If it wasn’t for Labelle, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Scherrie Payne: Like I mentioned before, Billie Holiday and Gloria Lynne. They were of my mother’s era. I loved Nat “King” Cole. I loved Tony Bennett. I liked Eydie Gormé and Steve Lawrence.

In my generation, Marvin Gaye was the man for me. I loved Marvin Gaye. He could have sung the phonebook and that would have been cool for me. Another singer I admire is Aretha Franklin. Who could not admire Aretha? I love Shirley Bassey and the way she emotes.

Jean Carn: There are different artists that influenced me at different periods in my life and career. I started collecting records at five. Early on, I loved Mahalia Jackson. My mother had some Caruso records, some 78s. I loved those records in particular, that rich tenor. I went through a horn period where I loved John Coltrane. Before ‘Trane, I remember Yardbird, Charlie Parker. That might have helped my agility when you imitate a horn.

I went through a keyboard period with McCoy Tyner and a guitar period with Joe Pass. In fact, the last time I saw Ella Fitzgerald, she was performing with Joe Pass. It was on a Pablo Records tour. Then I started liking the girl groups like the Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas. Martha Reeves is a dear friend of mine.

There were obscure singers like Esther Satterfield. She did this suite that Chuck Mangione wrote called “The Land of Make Believe” (1973). I get goosebumps! She should have been iconic. I think she should have stayed with Chuck maybe four or five more years and she would have been where she deserved to be. I still can’t believe that amazing voice.

Anita Ward: I can’t think of one artist in particular because they probably all said it to me: you need to know your business. You need to learn the business so that you’re not going to be taken advantage of.

I really admired what Ray Charles did. He actually was able to live very well. I didn’t get to meet him but I think we should learn from artists like that because prior to him, a lot of artists didn’t get anything but the joy of singing. Ray Charles knew the business very well, just like he knew his music.

Melba Moore: I think I’ve learned the work ethic. Are you going to stay with it when things are really bad for a really long time? I’ve learned that from artists around me that have longevity. You know some of their backstories and you wonder how did they even get through that? How did they continue? How do they still perform so beautifully?

You have to be heroically committed to what you want to do. You can’t help but have the drive and the love of being famous and adored but all the other stuff that goes with it, it tells whether or not you have a passion for it.

Carol Williams: I’ve always admired Melba as a singer. Even before I was “Carol Williams”, I knew who she was and I liked what she did. I had a girlfriend that idolized her and wanted to wear her hair like her, dress like her, do everything just like her. I never dreamed that I would meet her or know her as well as I do and be friends with her. To have been at Sarah Dash’s birthday party and know her on a first-name basis is mind-boggling. These people are legends. To be in the presence of them, to be on the same show as them … I feel very blessed.

You’ve each performed on so many legendary stages around the world. Which stage has inspired the most awe in you?

Sarah Dash: The Olympia in Paris. There’s another Parisian place where I played with Keith Richards when I was part of the X-Pensive Winos. Singing in Brazil to a crowd of 60,000 people. That was a great moment. I couldn’t believe I was there.

Melba Moore: Maybe the Metropolitan Opera House because of what it means. First of all, they don’t let R&B music in there (laughs).

I was married to my then-husband. We’ve been through so many horrendous situations but I have to look back and say that crazy man was a genius, to pull all that off and to take what it is I had accomplished and make it accumulate into something that would allow me to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House. There have been many but that’s one memory that I have of an incredible venue. Of course, Carnegie Hall and all the others!

Jean Carn: Near Denver, there’s this amphitheater that’s hewed out of a rock, Red Rocks. A tunnel is dug out to get to the dressing rooms. I’d never seen anything like it. I remember telling my band members, “When God comes to Earth, this is where he lives”. The acoustics are wonderful. The sky is filled with stars because there are no city lights to interfere.

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Carol Williams and Anita Ward

Anita Ward: I think Roseland in New York. There were so many entertainers there that night. It’s where I got to meet Charlie Wilson. He’s such a nice person. That was probably one of the most memorable venues.

Carol Williams: When I did the USO Tour, it was outside for soldiers. It looked like there were millions of them! When you do a USO Tour, you fly GS-15 as an officer. I learned so much about the military from doing that USO Tour. We stayed at officers quarters.

That was in Korea, Japan, the Philippines … we did five different countries. You don’t realize it when you’re that young but you look back and think, That was something big. At the time, you’re just in the moment doing it.

Scherrie Payne: When Lynda Laurence and I did that opening show with Diana Ross in Philadelphia (2000), we came down through the orchestra. That was momentous.

When we did that same show in Detroit, it was momentous for me because my father was in the audience and got to see me sing with Diana. My mother had long been deceased but she and my godmother got to see Mary Wilson, Cindy Birdsong, and me do our first Supremes show in Vegas at the Rivera. The first time I performed with Mary and Cindy in Japan in 1974, that was also momentous. A little girl from Detroit going all the way over to Japan was just an exception. Who would have thought?

A Morale Booster

How has the music industry changed since you first started recording?

Jean Carn: (laughs) It’s almost unrecognizable! I remember analog. 64 tracks were state of the art. I’ve always loved those Neumann mics. They’re tube mics. I still like those. I remember when they had an echo chamber where you’d go into this room to get your echo. Now, it’s just an app!

Of course, you have that tuning thing which makes everybody sound like a pro but then when you go to the concert it’s like, What have we here? Not much!

Sarah Dash: It’s changed about 500 times. To pinpoint one area of music would be what we’re going through now with the copyright situation. We have money sitting in Europe and it’s not coming through because America has not respected us enough as artists to give us what we deserve, and yet there are some countries who are saying we want to bypass this law, we don’t want to hurt you.

Melba Moore: The power is not just in a few hands. Artists can get directly to their audiences. You might not know you have an audience, but it’s your job to get out there and find them, and not just leave that to someone else. As an artist, the ball is in your court. Everybody has an iPhone. Everybody’s on Facebook and Twitter so the playing field is even but not everybody is equipped to do that because you still have to figure out how to use it, regardless of how accessible it is.

Anita Ward: When I got started, you had to put some songs on a tape and you’d take it to the producer or the owner of the company and hope that someone would pick you up. That’s what happened with me. Now, with all these shows like America’s Got Talent, American Idol, which was the first one, and The Voice, which I love, all a company has to do is see you on one of those shows and they’ll make their decision.

It kind of takes away the mystique. If anything, it makes the record companies lazier: “I like that one” even if they didn’t win. There’s a roster of entertainers that’s going to be known just by being on that show.

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Scherrie Payne

Scherrie Payne: I really miss melodies that you can hum along to. Back in our era, you could hum a melody and somebody right away could say oh that’s so and so. Nowadays it seems like all the songs are just on one level. You can’t distinguish one from the other. You can’t distinguish one artist from the other.

Carol Williams: It’s always good to see progress. When we were coming up, we just had to sing. It’s so completely different now. It’s more visual. When we were doing our songs, we didn’t have videos. I don’t even have a video of myself!

I don’t know if it’s harder because you have to be a singer, you have to have the dancing ability, and then you almost have to have the acting ability. In a way it’s good because when Judy Garland and them were young, they were dancing and singing and acting, so it’s kind of come back to where it was before.

What’s one of the most significant challenges you’ve overcome in your career?

Anita Ward: When “Ring My Bell” first came out I, like so many other people, was not making any money, even doing shows. I had a management company that took. That was really challenging.

The record came out one year after I graduated from college. I had been a substitute teacher before the record and then I went back to teaching when the phone wasn’t ringing as much. I eventually became a regular teacher, as well. I had a degree in Psychology. I had that to look back on, thank God, just being able to get over the times when I couldn’t pay my rent or a simple car note.

Those days are over with. Now it’s so wonderful because I do receive royalties. I’ve been receiving royalties as of eight to ten years ago. I never thought that one song would provide “happiness”! (laughs)

Carol Williams: One of the challenges was when I first had to deal with Salsoul. I’m a writer and it was so hard for me to get my writing onto my first album. I had to give up the publishing.

I vowed when I did my second album, after I wasn’t with Salsoul, that I wasn’t going that way anymore. I was going to do it my way … and I did. I wanted half my publishing and I wanted to write every song. I wanted to use my musicians, because my musicians were good enough to play with me when we did a gig so then they’re good enough to be in the studio.

Scherrie Payne: Beyond breast cancer, I’ve been having challenges with my voice. I don’t know if it’s because of the cancer or the medication I’m on, which I’ll soon be through with — the end of five years will be next May. It attacks the muscles. It breaks them down. The vocal cords are a muscle, which I found out from Eloise Laws who went through the same thing.

Melba Moore: My husband was my manager and when he decided that I wasn’t worth anything he not only threw me away, he threw my life away, he threw our daughter away, and he threw my career away. He smashed any bridges that I had for me to go out and do this.

I learned so much by not having my ex-husband there. I could learn some of the (business) things, whereas he could never learn to carry a tune in a paper bag.

Jean Carn: (laughs) One of the challenges is probably not spoiling my kids when I come back home. My mother would say. “You’re spoiling them.” I’d say, “I’m trying to catch up. I’ve been gone for weeks!” That was my biggest challenge, to make her satisfied that I wasn’t really overindulging them but we’re still getting in the fun that we needed to.

Sarah Dash: If I were to be honest, you wouldn’t want to hear that answer. One of the things that I have to overcome is the fact that I have to be more visual and more vocal about who I am and where I am. There’s one more step I need to take so that the perception of who I am and where I am won’t have to come through others. It will be more direct.

Looking back over your individual careers, which are all still going, what’s one of the moments you treasure the most?

Carol Williams: There have been moments I treasure, but not one more than the other. I treasure the fact that Loleatta Holloway asked me to do the Apollo with her, to set up the band and the background singers. That was just an honor for me to do because she was just a great, powerful singer.

There was also a moment before I was “Carol Williams” when I was with the Geminis on RCA. We did a show at the Waldorf Astoria. It was a show for Lena Horne. They were honoring her and we were asked to do a song. I think we did Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight”.

Melba Moore: There are probably a lot of moments that are personally important to me but what I know people can relate to is winning the Tony Award. In not knowing what the Tony Award was, it wasn’t a surprise, it was shocking, and the way that winning it immediately changed my life from A to Z, overnight.

I have a newspaper clipping where we’re all standing there holding the Tony Award. I’m in between Lauren Bacall and Helen Hayes. When I look at it, I can kind of imagine what it must have been like because to be there is so exciting, and so otherworldly. I don’t think you can really know what’s happening to you. I don’t ever remember meeting Lauren Bacall because it was too exciting.

Jean Carn: I’m thinking maybe the high point that hasn’t been surpassed was meeting and performing with Duke Ellington. That was in ’74. He was looking for a singer to sing what became his last spiritual concert. His percussionist and his road manager were both from Atlanta. They had heard me sing when I was coming up. Duke mentioned to I don’t know how many band members that he needed a high soprano.

I was in New York at the time. In fact I was performing with Norman Connors. They called my mother in Atlanta and she made them aware that I was in New York. The rehearsal was at the church. My audition, you could call it that, was in the church. I’m walking down the nave. Duke was sitting at the grand piano. When I got to him, my knees were shaking and my voice was trembling. He said, “Ah, Miss Carn. I’m a big fan”. I felt so much better.

All I had then were three albums with Doug Carn, the two that I had done with Earth, Wind & Fire, and the two I’d done with Norman Connors, so there was a small body of work — one that I never expected him to be aware of! It was an event I wouldn’t take a billion dollars for.

Scherrie Payne: There are several moments. Maybe the most momentous was when I sang with Diana Ross. That might have been the mountain top for me.

Anita Ward: Years ago, I got to meet Julia Iglesias. I thought, Oh my goodness, I can’t believe the people that I’m actually getting a chance to meet. When I was in Paris once, I was in a vehicle and who did I see walking along the street going into the same store that I was going into — Christian Dior — but Sophia Loren. Hello!

Things like that made me think, Okay maybe there’s something to this singing business! That was really enjoyable because I’d been such a fan of Sophia Loren.

Sarah Dash: I’m still looking for that moment. I remember getting a high feeling when singing but I’ve yet to have that space where it’s like a spiritual tunnel that you just fly through. I’ve had it through other things, like a writing situation or achieving a goal for somebody, but I’m waiting for that moment.

I think that’s why I keep reaching and keep singing. I can’t imagine what I would do without reaching for that moment.

What does it mean to be honored by the G.E.M.A. Foundation?

Anita Ward: It means the opportunity to be recognized. That’s an honor. I’ve been called a one-hit wonder but I’m the one who did the song. It’s not just singers that G.E.M.A. recognizes, it’s also DJs who get the songs out there for us.

Scherrie Payne: I was so humbled when I got the call. “Me? Moi?” It’s a prestigious organization. I think it’s wonderful what they’re doing for the entertainment industry, especially for us older artists. They’re passing it on to help those who are younger, to lend a helping hand.

Sarah Dash: It’s an honor. It’s a humbling experience to know that they would reach out to female artists who have been in the business for a long time, who made a mark. It’s not an everyday thing that anyone wants to give you anything. If anything they’re asking you for something. In this case, they have been totally giving.

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Christian John Wikane and Jean Carn

Jean Carn: I’m very proud of this one because Dee Wellmon has given several events that I’ve participated in. I was an honoree a few years ago at one of her events. I just feel good that she honored all my friends.

I love the other honorees. It’s just such a privilege and an opportunity for us to commune and break bread together because we don’t get to do that too often. Everybody’s doing their own thing. When we can all come to one place at one time with a positive purpose, it just brings me a lot of joy. That makes this very special.

Melba Moore: It seems like I’m in an era of award and rewards for all the time put in. To be with my colleagues like Norman Connors, Jean Carn, Sarah Dash, Scherrie Payne — this was the first time I met her, I’ve always been with her sister Freda — it’s meant something. For us all to be in one room and to have a camaraderie because we never worked together, it’s been wonderful. You realize that God has put you in a very special type of family. You look at each other’s talent and each of us is very different. Each one of us has our own unique sound or voice.

Carol Williams: I was just thinking about that when I was up in my room. It’s such a beautiful suite.

I thought, Dee and Maria (Lozada) really make you feel so important. They really make you feel honored because they’re giving you the best and they’re showing you that you do deserve this. You’re getting the award, the citation, the recognition, and you’re being treated like a star. I think it boosts our morale. It makes us realize that we have a place in this business and people recognize it. It’s a wonderful award. It’s a great honor that they’ve bestowed on all of us.

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