Overnight fame can be a bruising experience — but Kim Sledge has nothing but good memories of her days as international chart-topper.
“I’ll never forget the first time we heard ‘We Are Family’ on the radio,” says the Sister Sledge singer of her group’s defining smash.
That was such an exciting moment. If you’re in the music industry it’s what you want. For your music to come out of the radio — it’s so thrilling.
Before Destiny’s Child, Little Mix etc Sister Sledge were one of the original girl groups. Siblings Kim, Debbie, Kathy and Joni started out singing in church and at family gatherings in their native Philadelphia, encouraged by their grandmother, a former soprano. But it was hits such as ‘Lost in Music’ and ‘We are Family’ that elevated them to pop royalty in the late 70s.
“It’s quite a legacy,” says Kim.
“We see it as a blessing. You look out at our audiences and you see that the fanbase spans the generations. You’ve got mothers and daughters. I’m just so grateful. It could have been anybody’s music. But it was ours that [the public] chose.” She’s being modest. At the height of disco, Sister Sledge were always a cut above. Their music was supremely funky, the intertwined harmonies shiver-inducingly perfect. They also had a sibling chemistry that gave the grooves a welcome warmth. This was party music your grandparents could get down to.
There was, Kim acknowledges, a dark side. With success came pressure to do even better. After ‘We Are Family’ topped the charts in April 1979 and they followed through with ‘He’s The Greatest Dancer’ and ‘Lost In Music’ the sisters went on tour and, for a while, it seemed they might never come back.
“There were times we got tired,” Kim acknowledges. “I remember with, ‘We Are Family’, working for 22 months straight.
“It was crazy. We finally got a break because we demanded it.”
But though sacrifices were required, the sisters were happy to give their all. They were young and the world was falling in love with their music. It was hard to say “no”.
“And remember we really were a family when we toured. We had friends, grandparents — everyone. It was us taking this big party of loved ones with us. So we had the support we needed out on tour, as we visited all these new countries.”
Like all families, the sisters had their differences but bitter disagreements were rare. In 1989 however, Kathy decided to focus on a solo career and though she would perform with her siblings — Sister Sledge sang for Bill Clinton in the White House in 2000 — there was a gradual parting. Today she plays as a stand-alone artist, as Kim and Debbie keep the Sister Sledge brand alive.
Far harder to deal with was the death of Joni, who passed away in March of last year aged 60. To honour her memory, Kim and Debbie tour with her son Thaddeus, who reprises her famous vocals on ‘Lost In Music’.
“There’s so much of her personality in ‘Lost In Music’,” says Kim. “Thaddeus is travelling with us and sings that song. You can feel her spirits throughout. It’s like her memory is there — as if we’re inviting her, in the midst of all of us, to share what she did on that song. It is really wonderful.”
‘Lost In Music’, ‘We are Family’ and their other hits were written in conjunction with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic.
Sister Sledge are understandably a bit chippy about the idea that they owe everything to Rodgers and Edwards.
They were certainly valued collaborators — but by the time they struck up an alliance, Sister Sledge had been touring to enthusiastic audiences for 10 years and already had a substantial fanbase in Germany (they had also been flown, in 1974, to Kinshasa to promote the Rumble In the Jungle boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman).
“Recording the track ‘We Are Family’ was like a one-take party — we were just dancing and playing around and hanging out in the studio when we did it — but ‘Lost in Music’ was totally different,” is how Joni remembered the sessions, in 2016.
“It was like being in a trance. Even when we play it today, it’s different every time we do it. We have brilliant musicians, and we just say, ‘Take us somewhere. Go deep,’ and we let the audience know, ‘You know what? Come along if you want to, but they’re really going to take us somewhere!’ And they do.”
“We Are Family’ was really really good,” said Rogers, for his part, recalling that phase of his career. “I thought the Sister Sledge album was the best work I’ve ever done in my life and I still believe that. Pound for pound it’s the best pop record I’ve ever made.”
“A lot of people say Nile started our career,” says Kim. “No, it was our grandma who started our career. We’d been doing it for a long time before ‘We Are Family’ came along. The magnitude of that song was enormous and we were grateful they wrote about us.”
“Bernard and my sister Debbie were both musical geniuses when it comes to harmony, chording, things like that, and in the studio, they were like, ‘Grrr,” recalled Joni in a 2016 interview with a UK newspaper. “Nile was the mediator. One day in the studio they both walked out, and Nile was like,’All right, OK, everybody take a break. I’m going to talk to Debbie.’ They would bicker and he was the vicar!”
Kim’s father Edwin danced on Broadway and her mother, Florez, was an actress. However, as she says, it was grandmother Viola, who truly imbued in them a love of music. She was an opera singer who took her grandkids on tours of churches in Pennsylvania.
Kim was reminded of her heritage when watching the recent royal wedding on television. By way of introducing Etta James’ ‘This Little Light’ at the end of the ceremony, the choir plunged into ‘Amen’ — an old hymnal penned by their great-uncle, and Viola’s brother, Jester Hairson.
Music was our family’s recreation. We always sang — at dinners, events....whatever. We were always asked to sing and we always wanted to sing. When we got serious about it and had to rehearse, it could be tiring. We couldn’t hang out after school — we had to go and practice.
If anything Kim and Debbie enjoy life on road now more than they were started out. There is no longer any pressure to clock up hits or win new fans. They have their audience and it’s a joy playing to them.
“It’s just fun now,” says Kim. “We go out and sing and just have such a blast.”