This article was originally published in the August 2018 Trenton Downtowner.
On a hot day in the mid-afternoon, Trenton-born singer Sarah Dash walks into Trenton Social for lunch and a talk about her life and career. And what a career! From Patti Labelle and the Bluebells to The Rolling Stones to the Levitt Amp Music Series in Mill Hill Park — where she performs on Thursday, August 9 — Dash is poised for music ambassadorship in Trenton, while doing her best to improve the city she grew up in.
Clad in a lightweight black summer dress and chunky jewelry, with immaculate bright red fingernails, Dash calls herself a new Trentonian. Her family lived in South Trenton on Cooper Street when she was a young child. Then the family lived in a project apartment for a while, and then they moved to West Trenton, to the house she lives in now.
“I restored the house we lived in,” she says about moving back into her parents’ home. “I enclosed the porch and made it my little haven. I have my easels out there because I paint as well,” she says.
Her father was a scrap and metal man as well as a pastor at the Trenton Church of Christ, right down the road from Shiloh Baptist. With 13 children, Dash says, her dad needed to do a lot of things to make ends meet. She’s the seventh out of those 13 children.
“They can all sing, my brothers and sisters. I’m the only one with the spirit and nerve to do what I do in front of people,” she says. “I’m not passive. I’m not shy. I think shy is cute when you’re young, like at five or six. But if you’re grown, speak up. I think you look stupid being shy as an adult. I don’t know what the payoff of it is.”
Her first real singing performance was back in grade school, at a nightclub called the Crossing Inn, where she won a singing contest. She notes how venerable music teacher Tommy Grice at the old Junior Five School was a mentor before she moved on to Trenton High. She studied violin and was the only black girl in the orchestra. Her name wasn’t even in the yearbook for it. But she accepts that things were different then.
Dash, nearly 73, is comfortable discussing her life touring around the world, the places she has lived, and her long history in music. Her energy is infectious as she skips from subject to subject, always clear about her love of both music and the city of Trenton.
“I’ve been all over the world,” she says. “I think it’s one of the better educations you can have. I love traveling. You can’t really make good decisions unless you understand other people and different customs.”
Dash first began touring as a teen and had a tutor on the road. That didn’t go over well with her pastor dad. She had a chaperone too, no free-for-all situation. It was four young girls on the road. Her father, however, did not see her perform until she played the Metropolitan Opera House 16 years later.
“But that’s why I’m the person I am now,” she says. “I’m not nodding out. I can articulate my thoughts still. I’m glad I don’t look like what I’ve been through.”
That first tour was with Patti Labelle and the Bluebells. The group was at first called just the Bluebells, but there was another group in their union with the same name so their name had to be changed. It was a group of equals with Dash, Labelle, Cindy Birdsong — who later went on to sing with the Supremes — and fellow Trenton native Nona Hendrix.
Dash went on to sing on the Rolling Stones’ “Steel Wheels” album as the only female vocalist and toured with Keith Richards on his solo tour.
Dash has lived in Washington, D.C. and in Las Vegas and also lived for a long time on the Upper West Side in New York — where she easily sold her apartment back to the owners she bought it from when she moved back home.
“With the magnitude of success that I’ve had, coming back to Trenton leads people to assume I’m starving, or that I’m a failure, but I came back here — I didn’t know what the reason was at first. Now I’m here most of the time,” she says.
‘Music has been the thing that really heals my spirit. As music ambassador… I want to be able to represent this city with everything I do.’
Sarah is not the only famous Dash in the family: filmmaker Julie Dash is a cousin, as well as music mogul Damon Dash and actress Stacey Dash. But she calls herself the grandmother to everybody. She is also a vocal coach and a music business consultant.
“Sometimes I’m the chief bottle washer and the chef,” she says. “I always say I’m in this business called ‘show.’ The one thing I want to teach people is that there’s a protocol for talking to people. Speaking to promoters, to the audience, to your fans — the music business is something of its own. Be careful how you write your notes. If you can’t write, have someone write for you,” she says.
Dash believes the Trenton Downtown Association and the Levitt Amp Music Series are great steps towards making Trenton better and wants to teach children more about the “business called show.”
For her August 9 concert she has hired numerous Trenton musicians to perform alongside her, with area jazz legend Larry Hilton helping with the booking. She will have the Trenton Children’s Chorus perform and dance one of the numbers from “The Lion King” and be joined by locals Roy Richardson, Donald Golding, and her godson, Felton Rowe.
Last year then-Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson named Dash the Trenton Music Ambassador, and since then she has shared her time and perspective with students at the Gregory School graduation and is the spokeswoman for the Mercer Street Friends Send Hunger Packing (SHUP) program for Trenton kids.
“Music has been the thing that really heals my spirit,” she says. “As music ambassador, and with new leadership like Mayor Reed Gusciora and Governor Murphy, I want to be able to represent this city with everything I do. Reed is very serious about what he wants to do in Trenton. He’s not superficial. I really like his spirit. I went to the prayer breakfast for his inauguration and my stylist and I had to come up with the appropriate look and hat because I needed to go in there with the right attitude for the occasion. I wanted to come together with him as mayor. We have work to do.”
Dash, who says her strongest act is to vote and does so in every election, is also very happy about her new West Ward leader Robin Vaughn. U.S. Rep Bonnie Watson Coleman and Senator Shirley Turner also get high praise in part because they share a perspective and age. “I’m very serious about our town and our state,” she says.
Dash is also serious about music and what makes the wheels turn in her business is a whole team that works with her. That includes right-hand man Marvin Johns, who manages her photography and other public relations, the aforementioned stylist, and a makeup artist. They work together to come up with just the right themes, looks, and details for every performance and every appearance.
Dash, in addition to voting at the polls, is also a current voting Grammy member and sits on its advocacy board. She is also a trustee for the New Jersey Capital Philharmonic Orchestra, whose president, former opera singer Gloria Teti, is one of her favorite singers. Other Trenton favorites include Dewanna Richardson, Roy’s wife; singer Grace Little, a regular area performer who had been signed to Philadelphia International Records; and Trenton High orchestra leader Joseph Pucciatti, whom she nominated for an education Grammy.
Another topic is Patti Labelle. They talk and still own a music publishing company together.
“I spoke to Patti a few weeks ago. She’s just back from the music festival in St. Kitts. Nona and I are from the hometown so I also talk to her. Patti threatened to come to Trenton and cook for me while I had a cast on my ankle,” she says.
Dash loves the thought of song and music and how it brings people together. Like when working with Keith Richards, you never know what you’ll learn or how much we all have in common.
“Music bridges the gap between people. You can play in Japan and in Africa and here in the States. Isn’t it wonderful to be connected that way? With that comes a lot of responsibility,” she says. “I really want to make a difference.”
Sarah Dash and the Trenton Children’s Chorus, Levitt Concert Series, Mill Hill Park, South Broad and Front streets. Thursday, August 9, 5 to 8 p.m. Free.
The Levitt Series continues August 16, Kansas city alternative Latin group Making Movies; August 23, Trenton Central High School Orchestra and the Capital Philharmonic of New Jersey; and August 30, the Philadelphia funk band Swift Technique and the Brooklyn neo-funk group Ikebe Shakedown. Free parking in the Liberty Commons parking garage on Front Street.