In the 1970s, the members of Labelle were the doyennes of everything that was cutting edge, sexy, and soulful about New York City. Styled in space-age couture, Patti LaBelle, Sarah Dash, and Nona Hendryx threw down high octane funk and rock with a sound that struck awe in listeners. Their stage shows were steeped in the unlikely intersection of glam rock and gospel while their music fueled dancers through the early morning hours at the city’s underground clubs.
The trio parted ways in 1977, the same year that Studio 54 opened its doors in Manhattan. Though Labelle never performed at 54, the voices of its individual members occasionally set the soundtrack, especially when Sarah Dash released her self-titled solo debut in 1978. To celebrate the singer’s birthday, many of her longtime fans and friends produced a “disco brunch” at 54 Below, the cabaret housed in the club’s infamous basement. It was a unique way to reflect Dash’s impact as both a solo artist and member of a trailblazing trio whose sensibilities in music and fashion have influenced popular culture for the last four decades.
Renowned WBLS disc jockey G. Keith Alexander hosted the proceedings and set the tone with an effortlessly cool comportment. Just one word — “legend” — could easily define the first act he introduced, Melba Moore. “I know Sarah as a New Yorker when she used to live on West End Ave,” she said. “We are dear dear friends. We really are family. We are still here and ain’t going nowhere!” The Tony Award-winning vocalist then toasted Dash with her rendition of Van McCoy’s “Lean on Me”. Whenever and wherever Ms. Moore sings that particular ballad, she summons a life force that is truly divine. Her performance at 54 Below was no exception. Shifting into dance mode, her energetic take on “You Stepped Into My Life” evidenced why disco aficionados consider her 1978 recording of the Bee Gees classic to be the definitive version.
The quotient of dance hits only increased when original CHIC lead vocalists Alfa Anderson, Luci Martin, and Norma Jean Wright took the stage. In their current incarnation as vocal trio Next Step, the three singers infused their modernized take on CHIC anthems like “Good Times” and “Le Freak” with a strong and seamless vocal blend while each vocalist worked the room with her own individualized combination of sass and style. Their new single “Get on Up”, which they recorded with Kathy Sledge and Ibiza-based production team Aristofreeks, prompted an even more fervent response from the audience, especially when the trio sang the song’s infectious scat. They hardly needed to say the words “everybody get on up” — they’d already brought the audience to their feet as soon as the the beat kicked in.
Arriving directly from the airport, Nona Hendryx paid tribute to Sarah Dash through a loving reflection about how they first started singing together as teenagers, only to travel a lifelong journey together through music. “I have to say that this was not what I wanted to do with my life but Sarah intervened and set me off on this path that I had no idea was going to be the ongoing path of my life,” she said. “I was going to be a schoolteacher and Sarah came to my church — the only Sunday I think that I ever sang lead — and I just happened to be filling in. She asked me to join this group.” Indeed, Dash and Hendryx first sang together in the Del Capris before forming the Bluebelles with Patti LaBelle and Cindy Birdsong. When Birdsong replaced Florence Ballard in the Supremes, the quartet became a trio and soon embarked on their adventure as Labelle. “We had an exceptional life,” Hendryx continued. “I have to say, Sarah, without you intervening that day at Grant Chapel AME Church in Trenton, NJ I would not have had this exceptional life. There are those who suffer so much in this world. When I think about the people that we extend, through music, our spirit and our ability to heal and we’re able to give them some relief, I’m really grateful that you brought me with you.”
R&B veteran James “D-Train” Williams added a bit of spontaneity to the mix during his set. He sparked a firestorm of soul with “Keep On” and the hit title track to his debut album You’re the One For Me (1982). Photographers flocked towards Sarah Dash’s table when Williams ventured into the crowd and began serenading the singer on the latter tune. Flanked by guests like Lisa Fischer and Broadway icon Vivian Reed, Dash and Williams commenced a thrilling call and response during the song’s vamp before the singer exclaimed, “Is this a New York crowd or what?”
A wave of applause greeted Sarah Dash when she stepped onstage to thank all of the artists and guests. “I’m just going to start with my testimony right now,” she said before singing “I’m Still Here”. Originally considered for Labelle’s reunion album Back to Now (2008), the song offered a glimpse inside Dash’s strength and resolve: “I survived the worst of times. Take a look at me now cause I’m still here.” The slow-burning groove of the track gave the singer room to savor each word and convey the indefatigable spirit of the lyrics. However, “Sinner Man” is what catapulted Sarah Dash to solo success. “It’s the reason why we’re here today because it became an international hit,” she said. It’s also the song that, along with hits by Melba Moore and CHIC, helped make Studio 54 the epicenter of New York nightlife in the 1970s. At 54 Below, the singer rendered all the spunk that made the original recording so memorable.
The finale of Dash’s afternoon soirée is likely to be remembered for the sheer star power gathered on one stage. Melba Moore, Alfa Anderson, Luci Martin, Norma Jean Wright, James “D-Train” Williams, Lisa Fischer, and Vivian Reed all joined Sarah Dash for “Lady Marmalade”, the blockbuster hit that kindled Labelle’s breakthrough to the mainstream back in 1974. With eight powerhouse singers behind three microphones, “Lady Marmalade” rocked with a force seldom witnessed beyond Dash, Hendryx, and LaBelle’s thunderous performances of the song during the mid-’70s.
As she looks towards a future lined with several projects, including guest vocals on Keith Richards’ Crosseyed Heart (2015), Sarah Dash has a lot to celebrate. 54 Below furnished the perfect launch for what promises to be an exciting new chapter in the singer’s illustrious career.