Sister Sledge’s Kathy Sledge on her November UK tour, working with Chic and teaming up with Jam & Lewis on her forthcoming studio project.
In 1978, just as the flames from the disco inferno were intensifying and setting the mainstream music charts ablaze, a family vocal quartet from Philadelphia called Sister Sledge were struggling to light up the dance music world. They had released a clutch of singles and two albums for Cotillion, their Atlantic-distributed record label, but weren’t able to make any significant inroads into the US charts. They posed a conundrum for their label executives, who knew the sisters possessed bags of talent as well as personality but were at a loss as to what to do with them. They had tried various producers and experimented with different types of songs but nothing seemed to work. But just as the label was beginning to lose faith in the teenage group, a stroke of good luck changed the course of their career: Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, the creative masterminds behind the mega-successful disco group Chic, elected to produce them over internationally renowned bigger name acts. In so doing, they conjured a hit album that quickly became a global phenomenon and a bonafide disco classic: We Are Family.
We Are Family – both the album and the title song – turned out to be a gift that kept on giving. Its huge success and enduring popularity have succeeded in keeping Sister Sledge alive well beyond the disco era, giving them plenty of live work and, via various remixes, chart action through the succeeding decades. In celebration of the iconic group’s musical legacy, the youngest Sledge sister, Kathy – whose husky soulful lead voice helped define the inimitable Sister Sledge sound – comes to the UK in November for a nineteen-date tour dubbed Sister Sledge Live Featuring Kathy Sledge, which will see her criss-cross the land, taking her from the English south coast right up to Glasgow, Scotland.
“My concerts will show what Sister Sledge is all about,” explains Kathy, who has spent the summer lighting up the UK festival circuit with her dynamic live performances. But she is at pains to point out that her upcoming UK shows offer something different, using the group’s hits to tell a chronological story of Sister Sledge’s life in music.
“I’m excited about it because it’s like a prelude to what a Broadway-bound production or a West End transitional play would be like,” says Kathy, who is hoping that in time it will develop into a full-blown Sister Sledge musical. “I show the audience how we started the music, from our early days up to the massive festivals. So we’re going to be up and dancing. I’m very hyped about it.”
Kathy is proud of her new show’s production values and says she drew on her experience of working on other stage projects over the years to bring it to life. “My very first one was about Billie Holiday, called The Brighter Side Of Day,” she says, recalling her critically acclaimed 2014 tribute to the iconic jazz singer which allowed the public to see that there was more to Kathy than Sister Sledge. “I got together with Alicia Keys’ horn section and they became Louis Jordan and the Tympany Five, which helped propel you into the 1940s. I also produced a concert series called My Sisters and Me with Deniece Williams, Karyn White, and CeCe Peniston.”
Sadly, Kathy won’t be joined by her other sisters (Debbie and Kim, the surviving original group members) in her UK concerts, due to ongoing differences with them, which began in 1992 when she recorded a solo album for Epic Records. “I never left the group,” says Kathy, contradicting some reports stating she quit the group to pursue a solo career. “I was given an ultimatum that I had to leave the group if I wanted to do Heart.” She’s referring to her well-regarded solo album released in 1992, which caused a rift with her other sisters that persists today. But Kathy doesn’t feel remorseful. “I don’t regret recording the Heart project,” she says defiantly. “I loved being able to write for it. It’s one of my favorite projects.”
But being cast out and ostracised by the group that had propelled her to fame meant that she missed out on some of the biggest moments in Sister Sledge’s career. “I was not allowed to sing with my family when the group was inducted to the Grammy Hall of Fame,” says Kathy, referring to the time in 2008 that ‘We Are Family’ was honored. “I was there in the audience because they made sure that I couldn’t set foot on stage,” reveals Kathy. “It was the same when the Pope came to Philadelphia in 2015. These were huge moments.”
Despite the bad blood between them, the Sledge family ties aren’t irrevocably broken. “I will always love my sisters,” Kathy says staunchly. “We are family, no pun intended. But sometimes in families, it’s healthy to grow – it doesn’t mean that you have to work together.”
Indeed, both Kathy and her sisters are united in the fact that they still promote, albeit in their separate ways, the Sister Sledge brand. “I’m trying to make sure all all of our social media pages represent the four faces of who we are because I think it’s history and you can’t change history,” says Kathy. “I’m working on making sure that we’re always represented as the original sisters. I will always be proud of the fact that we are the group, the family, that brought the world together through a song.”
Rewinding in time, Sister Sledge released their first record 52 years ago – the Marty Bryant-produced ‘Time Will Tell’ via Money Back Records, a small local Philly label – but had been singing long before that. “By the time the record came along, we were seasoned performers,” reveals Kathy. “We started in my grandmother’s church and sang around the neighborhood while playing jump rope and jacks.”
But what made the four Sledge sisters different from other kids who enjoyed singing was their ability to harmonize and blend their voices, which seemed to come naturally. “I thought at three or four years old that everyone could harmonize,” laughs Kathy, who felt that her talent was innate, God-given, and placed her on a predestined path. “I don’t ever recall saying, that when I grew up I wanted to be a singer, so I think it was destiny,” she says. “It’s just what I was supposed to do.”
In 1973, the young but rapidly maturing group, who had been wowing audiences with their live performances in Philly, were spotted and snapped up by Buddy Allen, the manager of the Spinners, who helped get them a recording contract with Atco, a subsidiary imprint of Atlantic Records. In 1974, they dented the US R&B Top 40 with ‘Love Don’t You Go Through No Changes On Me’ but weren’t able to build on it with subsequent Atco singles. In a development that surprised them, though, the sisters enjoyed a UK hit a year later in the shape of ‘Mama Never Told Me,’ which would initiate a long-standing love affair with the British public.
But back home in the US, Sister Sledge wasn’t cutting it. They switched from Atco to the Atlantic-distributed Cotillion label and released their debut album, Circle Of Love in 1975, which spent three weeks in the US R&B albums chart before sinking into oblivion. In 1977, the group’s lack of success began to panic their label, who decided to send them across to Europe to work with the German disco producer, Michael Kunze, the mastermind behind the all-girl trio Silver Connection, who had topped the US R&B chart in 1975 with the catchy single ‘Fly, Robin, Fly.’ What resulted was the 1977 album Together but it was a resounding flop. Nothing Cotillion tried seemed to be working in Sister Sledge’s favor. In desperation, they even sent the group to work with Millie Jackson’s producer Bard Shapiro, with whom they cut a one-off single ‘I’ve Seen Better Days’ but the record dropped like a stone.
But just by chance, a couple of savvy New Yorkers came to Sister Sledge’s rescue and turned the group’s fortunes around, instantly transforming the girls from zeros to heroes. Their names, of course, were Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, a gifted songwriting and production duo who were the brains behind Chic, the Big Apple disco band that were burning up the charts around the world with memorable hits for Atlantic Records like ‘Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah),’ ‘Everybody Dance,’ and their iconic 1978 smash ‘Le Freak.’
Rodgers and Edwards were the hottest producers on the planet right then and everyone wanted to work with them. But their label, Atlantic Records, had first dibs and its president Jerry Greenberg wanted the producers to work their magic on some of their other acts. Kathy Sledge takes up the story. “Jerry said, ‘We want you to produce the Rolling Stones’ so Nile and Bernard looked at each other and said, ‘If we produce the Rolling Stones, we know it’s going to be a hit. Give us some obscure group that no one knows.’”
Greenberg then drew up a list of the label’s other acts, which included stars like Bette Midler, and near the bottom, Sister Sledge. Rodgers and Edwards (pictured below, right) asked him about the group. Says Kathy: “The record company president Jerry Greenberg described us to them. He said, ‘Well, they’re family, they flock together like birds of a feather whenever they’re up at the label.’ Nile and Bernard took notes, which became the lyrics of ‘We Are Family.’”
“Basically, Jerry’s pitch to us about Sister Sledge became the libretto, if you will, for ‘We Are Family,’” Nile Rodgers told this writer in 2013. “It was the template. That was our fantasy of who they were based exactly on Jerry Greenberg’s words.”
Kathy Sledge admits that she wasn’t exactly overjoyed by the prospect of making the We Are Family album. “I almost didn’t want to do it because by then I was 15 going on 16. We had made a lot of sacrifices. We weren’t allowed to do after-school activities, like the track team or sports, and were always at rehearsals. And we’d just done almost a month recording in Germany, with the ‘Fly, Robin, Fly’ people. The record didn’t make any noise at home domestically so that was a little frustrating. Then I got home and now they wanted us to work with the ‘Yowsah Yowsah Yowsah’ people, which, of course, was Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards. So I was feeling a little discouraged.”
When Sister Sledge arrived at Atlantic Studios to start work on We Are Family, they were taken aback to find that the record was virtually complete apart from their vocals. Recalled Nile Rodgers in 2013: “The day they walked in, their record was pretty much done. We didn’t meet Sister Sledge until they came in to sing their record, which caused a little bit of tension between us.”
Says Kathy: “It was frustrating to some of my sisters, like Debbie. Most of the backgrounds were laid down already by Luther Vandross and the singers from Chic. She was very frustrated with that because she was used to teaching the harmonies. But I wasn’t, to tell you the truth. Being the lead vocalist, I always look at the producers like they are movie directors, and they see the end product.”
The Chic duo’s approach in the studio certainly contrasted with what Sister Sledge had experienced before in terms of laying down their vocals. “Working with them was different,” laughs Kathy. “When I was recording ‘He’s The Greatest Dancer,’ I did it line by line. I’d sing ‘One night in a disco.’ Cut. Then the next line, ‘on the outskirts of Frisco.’ Cut. While I was learning that, as I recorded it, I remember Bernard Edwards was writing the lyrics to ‘Thinking Of You.’ So they were working under pressure. But that’s how they worked …and they delivered.”
Despite their being relative newcomers as producers, Kathy implicitly respected Rodgers and Edwards and their unorthodox working methods. “Nile would always say trust me, and I’d go okay. I was not allowed to hear the songs at all until it was time to record them and I didn’t hear the end product until everyone else did,” she discloses. “They had a hit record and a formula that worked and didn’t want to tamper with or deviate too much from that.”
Kathy also reveals that “He’s The Greatest Dancer” was originally scheduled as a Chic track but was swapped at the last minute with ‘I Want Your Love’: “‘I Want Your Love was supposed to be our record. When you listen to it, you can hear Sister Sledge singing all the harmonies, but they flipped it. That’s how they worked.”
The album yielded four memorable hit singles, including ‘He’s The Greatest Dancer’ and, of course, ‘We Are Family,’ both US R&B chart-toppers. The album’s title song, a unifying anthem of harmony and togetherness, has lived a charmed life. “I am always surprised by that,” admits Kathy, who says she never tires of singing it. “It’s always different and never the same. Whenever I perform it, it’s like the first time at that moment. My grandmother used to always say when you’re singing in front of 10,000 people, it’s actually 10,000 individuals, and each one of those people is receiving the performance in their own way. And if you think of it that way, it makes it very personal.”
Kathy doesn’t hesitate when she’s asked if she could put her finger on why the We Are Family album has enjoyed such remarkable longevity. “I think it has a whole lot to do with how it was recorded,” she states. “I usually get a chance to rehearse stuff but the way Nile and Bernard worked captured the newness and spontaneity of it. So I think there’s this feeling of it having a new feeling every time you hear it because it was never over-rehearsed or overdone.”
Looking ahead beyond her November UK tour, Kathy Sledge says she has a new recording project in the pipeline. “Right now, I’m writing with Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam,” she reveals. “I have to say, as well as Nile Rodgers and the late Bernard Edwards, Jimmy and Terry have always been my favorite producers. I think they’re geniuses as well.”
She says she met the Minneapolis production duo (pictured right) responsible for making Janet Jackson a star during an impromptu performance at a Grammy’s aftershow party six years ago. “Jimmy Jam told me, ‘I love your voice and want to write for it.’ He wants to pay homage to the Chic sound and now is having conversations with Nile to come on board.”
How is the project progressing? “It’s at the stage of writing and a lot of rough demos,” reveals an excited Kathy. “We are talking to Warner Brothers about one song in particular.”
With a new solo venture on the horizon, Kathy’s future, then, looks set to be a bright and exciting one. Circling back to Sister Sledge, she shows no hesitation in singling out the main highlights of her long career with the group. “I think making it to the Grammys and watching ‘We Are Family’ get inducted in the Hall of Fame was very special to me, even though I wasn’t allowed to perform,” she shares. “I was Nile’s guest that day, there with Nancy, his wife. To be a part of that, even if it was remotely, was special.”
An equally remarkable highlight for Kathy was when Sister Sledge embarked on a trip to Africa in 1974. She was just fifteen but the memory of it remains vivid, indelibly seared into her consciousness. Thanks to their enterprising manager, Buddy Allen, Sister Sledge accompanied his other act The Spinners alongside James Brown, Bill Withers, the Pointer Sisters, and Latin star Johnny Pacheco on a plane trip to Kinshasa, Zaire, where they performed at a three-day music festival to help promote the George Foreman-Muhammad Ali boxing match billed as the “Rumble in the Jungle.” The event was captured in Leon Gast’s acclaimed 1996 documentary When We Were Kings.
“There’s a couple of different parts of the footage where this little girl is running around with two ponytails,” recalls Kathy, who adds with a laugh, “That’s me!”
Though it was a long time ago, her feelings from the time are still palpable. “Being a kid and being able to share the stage with these people was amazing,” she gushes. “There were 80,000 people there but they were not allowed inside the gates because they lived there. Tickets cost around $20, which was equivalent to what they made in a month.”
Kathy remembered that Ali and Foreman became aware of the situation and collaborated to right what they saw as an injustice. “What I love about them is that they met in their dressing rooms before the fight and insisted that the gates open before it started. So they opened the gates and droves of people filled up the stadium. And that, to me is such an important part of the story, that these two men, these two kings, came together to make sure that everyone was allowed to come in before they even stepped in that ring.”
Kathy remembers being overawed by meeting both boxers. “I got a chance to speak to Muhammad Ali,” she says. “He was a giant to me, even more so because I was just a kid. But as tough and fierce and strong as he was, he had a gentleness about him.”
She has fond memories of George Foreman as well. “He was just as nice and kind – a kind spirit – but he was up against a lot with Muhammad Ali, because the people just loved him so much.”
Kathy also remembers that something strange occurred during Sister Sledge’s concert in Zaire. “While we were in the middle of our performance there was a power outage,” she discloses. “Because of the language barrier, we just broke out into this choreography and started doing a dance that we used to do to Aretha Franklin’s ‘Spirit Of The Dark.’ The whole crowd cheered us on and we did it until the power came on, but it felt like a year!”
Reflecting on Sister Sledge’s trip to Africa, Kathy says, “I think being able to experience that part of history is one of the biggest moments for me and will always be.” That event is just one of many key moments that have featured in the sisters’ long and eventful musical journey.
As she looks back over her life and career, Kathy Sledge is beginning to recognize her life’s purpose. “I say, when your passion meets your purpose, you find your destiny,” she states sagely. “Sometimes, it takes a lifetime to understand your purpose and I’m starting to connect to what my purpose is. ‘We Are Family’ has brought so many people together so that’s a huge purpose. And to be able to create productions, and show the story behind the song as well as perform songs that still bring people to their feet, it doesn’t get any better than that.”
Sister Sledge Live Featuring Kathy Sledge will be touring the UK in November 2023.