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

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

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.

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?

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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