Sister Sledge lost one of their members earlier in the year, but the beat goes on for the disco-era heroines who play in Ireland this week, writes Ed Power
On a cold, New York night in 1978, Kim Sledge and her sisters stood huddled at the stage door outside a Diana Ross concert. They were hoping for a few words with the goddess of disco and perhaps even an autograph. Finally the door opened. But instead of Ross, it was one of her managers popping out for a cigarette.
“We told him we were in a band but that we were thinking of quitting,” Kim recalls. “We’d been doing it for a number of years by that point. It was a wonderful career. We really liked it. Now it was perhaps time to move onto other things.”
Ross’s manager thought they should persist. Success didn’t always come overnight. Why not hold onto their dreams just a little longer? “He changed our minds,” says Kim. ‘I’ll never forget: he said to us, ‘don’t stop – give it one more year’. A few months later we had our first hit. We owe it all to Diana Ross’s manager.
That hit was ‘We Are Family’, one of disco’s smartest anthems. It announced the arrival of Sister Sledge as disco proselytisers with a twist: four Philadelphia siblings whose facility for a groove was enhanced by a deep soulfulness. They were disco but never gaudy or throwaway.
With the chart flood-gates opened smash after smash would follow: ‘He’s The Greatest Dancer’, ‘Frankie’ and the epic ‘Lost In Music’. In hindsight, theirs’s was a winning streak few groups from that era could emulate. “We had sung together since we were all kids,” remembers Kim. “Fame was never something we chased. Nobody ever said, ‘let’s make a group and become stars’. That conversation never happened. We sang because our grandmother had taught us to. Then one day someone came and offered us an opportunity.”
Sister Sledge’s music wasn’t just incredibly catchy. It communicated a world view — arguing that people were better together than apart and that prejudice had no place on the dance floor or anywhere else for that matter.
“Disco is a genre that ultimately brought people of different creeds and colours together. It’s about the freedom to express who you are without any excuses and to forget the stresses and strains of the day,” Joni Sledge commented 2015.
“This music is uplifting and euphoric and we’re living in an ever chaotic age when release is essential in recapturing what’s good in the world. A lot of old school music has a simple message. It’s about the freedom to enjoy the simple things in life. Music, dancing, love and togetherness.”
As with many overnight success stories, their biggest hit was largely a matter of happenstance. ‘We Are Family’, written especially for Sister Sledge by the Chic duo of Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards had started as a b-side.
“It was supposed to be on the other side of ‘He’s The Greatest Dancer’,” Kim recalls. “We love singing it — but we never thought it would be a huge song for us. We were absolutely stunned.”
The Sledge siblings were born into show business. Father Edwin was a broadway tap dancer, their mother, Florez, an actress. Their love for soul music was meanwhile passed on by maternal grandmother Viola Williams, a soprano opera singer and early civil rights activist. As “Mrs Williams Grandchildren” they performed at church ceremonies across Philadelphia and were convinced to turn professional.
Initially, their success was outside the United States. A 1973 single went top 20 in the UK and they had a number one in Japan. Surreally, in 1974 they were invited to sing with James Brown in Kinshasa at the Zaire 74 concert intended to promote the Rumble in the Jungle fight, in the same city, between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.
However, sustained stardom only arrived when their record label Atlantic put them in contact with Rodgers and Edwards ( later to sprinkle some of their stardust on Diana Ross herself with 1980’s ‘I’m Coming Out’).
“The head of the record company … suggested we work with The Rolling Stones. that was terrifying to us,” Rodgers said in 2011.
“We pretended to be overly confident and told him, ‘if we did a record with The Rolling Stones, people would think it was another Rolling Stones hit. Instead of giving us the biggest act on the label, why don’t you give us the smallest act on the label? He said, ‘We have this group called Sister Sledge.
‘Whenever they come to the label everyone thinks they’re wonderful. They stick together like birds of a feather, they’re like family to us.’ We went home and he had basically dictated the lyrics to We Are Family.”
But fame also brought melodrama. At the peak of their popularity, the sisters spent virtually every waking moment together.
Soon the lyrics to ‘We are Family’ acquired a bittersweet ring. Tensions came to a head in 1989 when Kathy Sledge released a solo album. Lawsuits followed and Kathy was expunged from the ranks.
“They went out as a group on their own, and they had a photo shoot and didn’t invite me,” she once recalled. “And that hurt… They tried to make it so that I wasn’t allowed to say I’m of Sister Sledge or from Sister Sledge. They thought it was a conflict.
“One of the challenges that I had with my own sisters was it got to a place where they told me I couldn’t be the lead singer anymore. It got to a place where I decided to collect some of the most amazing female artists that I knew to perform with.”
The bad blood continued to boil over as recently as 2015 when gossip website TMZ reported that Kathy was told she wasn’t welcome to perform with her sisters when they sang for Pope Francis during his visit to Philadelphia.
The feud was eventually resolved, albeit in the most wrenching possible fashion. Last March sister Joni lost her fight against cancer. At the funeral the surviving siblings kissed and hugged and wept. When Kim and Debbie go on the road this summer, their late sibling will be watching over, they believe.
“It’s very bittersweet,” says Kim. “We feel her presence with us. This tour is our tribute to her. We miss her very much. Obviously we have our moments. But the whole family is together and we share our memories of her.”
There is a lot to share. Unprompted Kim mentions a show at the White House, at which they were personally requested by Bill Clinton.
“It was the end of his presidency so they had this final big bash. Bill had his saxophone and suddenly Hillary and Chelsea were up singing ‘We Are Family’. Memories like that never leave you.”
Sister Sledge play Live at Leopardstown Dublin, on Thursday
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