Music interview: Sister Sledge on 40 years of disco

Debbie and Kim vowed to continue Sister Sledge to honour their late sister Joan. Picture: Camilla Camaglia
Debbie and Kim vowed to continue Sister Sledge to honour their late sister Joan. Picture: Camilla Camaglia
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Of the many musical movements spawned in what was arguably pop’s most fertile decade, the 1970s, perhaps the one that continues to exercise the most far-reaching influence on modern popular culture is disco.

Born out of the underground nightclub scene in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco, it reached its mainstream peak in 1978 when even the likes of Abba and Blondie were incorporating four-on-the-floor beats into their songs.

In March a package tour of artists from the era will be performing in arenas across the UK. Headlining a bill that includes Tavares, Rose Royce, Boney M, The Real Thing, Odyssey and George McCrae is Sister Sledge, the female vocal group from Philadelphia whose hits include We Are Family, Lost In Music and Thinking of You.

For Debbie Sledge, now 63 and still touring with her sister Kim, 60, the shows offer a chance to catch up with old friends. “We’ve had the pleasure of working with each one of them and it’s always like a reunion when we see each other,” she says. “We’re fans of every one of them.”

Having weathered four decades in the music business, Debbie says justifiably: “I feel like there’s an accomplishment and I’m proud of that. I’m proud that we’re still at it and that we’re still family – and I mean that not only with my [own] family but with my family of fans that we call ‘fam’.”

The sense of family runs deep within Sister Sledge. The four original members – Debbie, Kim, Joni and Kathy – were first trained to sing by their grandmother, Viola Williams.

Sister Sledge performed as a trio in the 1990s.

Sister Sledge performed as a trio in the 1990s.

“We feel very privileged to have had that training from our grandmother,” says Debbie. “She was a lyric opera singer, she taught us how to control our breathing which was invaluable.”

Williams was also a protégé of civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune, ‘The First Lady of The Struggle’, and she passed on her interest to her granddaughters. “I think every black American is going to have to deal with civil rights, that’s just a part of our upbringing,” says Debbie. “If you’re living in the United States you’re affected by civil inequality. There’s still a lot of issues rising up now but in my opinion that’s good because it was hidden in the past. It’s now coming to the forefront and it can’t be ignored.”

Their mother Florez was an actress before becoming Sister Sledge’s first manager. Debbie remembers her employing her acting skills with the young group. “In my family because we joke around a lot and we become different characters. Every now and then my mom would put on a character and make a point. That was a very fun way of growing up.”

If there could occasionally be sibling rivalry, each sister did find their own niche within the group, Debbie says. “One of the things about me and my sisters is that we’re all leaders, we’re all very highly opinionated, so that sometimes is a conflict, but I took on the role of vocal leader because we found very early that I could remember all the harmonies, all the parts. In most of the songs that I heard I could pick out the harmonics then we began to arrange our own harmonics in songs that we chose.

I’m proud that we’re still at it and that we’re still family – and I mean that not only with my family but with my family of fans that we call ‘fam’.

Debbie Sledge

“Kathy took on the role of youngest, which she uses to this day, which to me is a little funny but she felt like she could get away with a lot if she claimed ‘I’m the youngest’. Joan took on a various serious role of management within our group because she had a very clear business mind. Kim and I struggled because we were the least verbal – now Kim is very verbal and it would be hard for me to get a word in edgewise if she was in this conversation.”

After their first hit, with Love Don’t You Go Through No Changes on Me, Sister Sledge were invited to perform at the Zaire 74 music festival that was organised to promote the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ heavyweight boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. The bill also included James Brown, Bill Withers, BB King and The Spinners. Debbie recalls that some of the photos that appear on the cover of their first album were taken live at the performance in Zaire. The sisters were then still teenagers . “We were very wide-eyed and full of wonder at all the legends we were surrounded by,” says Debbie. “That was a life experience for us, one of our highlights.”

For their third album, the sisters teamed up with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic. The result was the classic We Are Family, which Rodgers later described in his autobiography as his finest collaboration. Debbie describes the making of the album as “a very eye-opening experience for us”. “Nile and Bernard were new, they had just finished working with Norma Jean [Wright], we were very excited to go to the studio with them. We all didn’t know what was going to come about but we were there to give our best and we felt very privileged.

“None of us knew the magnitude of that recording, of what would happen with that session. I recall seeing Nile and Bernard in Europe at one of the performances that we did on a television programme and they looked shocked or amazed at how that song just took off. We just feel very blessed with our careers.”

Coming from a religious background, the sisters did object to one of the lyrics that Rodgers and Edwards wrote for He’s The Greatest Dancer. “There was one line, ‘Oh, please take me home’, I said to Nile ‘We wouldn’t do that’,” says Debbie, laughing at the memory. “He was a little frustrated, there were some clashes in that sense, but he said, ‘This is creative licence, just sing it’, so that is what we did.

“When we perform it live to this day we change the words because it’s very important for us for the song to be real. I believe that’s one reason why We Are Family is such as success, that song is real to us even to this day, when we perform it we mean every word.”

Sister Sledge did make a second album with Rodgers and Edwards, Love Somebody Today, but its sales were more modest. Debbie feels it’s under-rated. “It was a great album with great production and we had so much fun producing that but I don’t believe that it got the same backing as the first album because we were still very new to the record company. It took a little bit to get promotion for the first album, actually, so they really felt like ‘Let’s try to get away with no promotion on the second album’. I don’t think it got the promotion that it needed.”

For a while they took to producing themselves but they did reunite with Rodgers on their seventh album When The Boys Meet the Girls, which yielded their biggest UK, Frankie, a Number One for five weeks in 1985. Debbie remembers neither party was “crazy” about doing the song when they were first presented with it by the writer, Denise Rich. “I think the Nile issue was there were a number of song choices that he could make. The reason that he made that choice for Frankie was because he said he couldn’t get it out of his head. He did a tremendous job with it because it was certainly different from what he [first] heard. It’s great, it’s always fun performing that song.”

In 1999 Sister Sledge performed at the Clinton administration’s last Christmas party at the White House. “It was a great honour,” says Debbie. “The whole thing was just a wonder but one of the highlights was the then president Bill Clinton sang along with us. He actually called Hillary and I think all three of them [including daughter Chelsea] were up there singing with us, it was wonderful. He was singing at the top of his lungs right next to me.”

Debbie is diplomatic about the quality of the president’s singing. “You know what, everybody singing We Are Family are good singers, they’re singing it with total sincerity,” she chuckles. “I could imitate him but out of respect I won’t do it.”

Although Joan sadly passed away in March, at the age of 60, Debbie and Kim decided to continue the group. “It wasn’t that it was difficult to carry on, it was more difficult to suffer that loss,” Debbie says. “The best way that we knew to honour our sister is to carry on and honour her publicly. We do have plans to put on concerts that feature her music to raise funds for the causes that she was passionate about and those things are in the planning at the this time.”

At the heart of everything remains the group’s positive message. “I believe that was instilled in us very early on,” says Debbie. “We have the most positive, strong women who have raised us. I’ll say this as a woman, and especially as a black woman in the United States: you have to be positive. That’s the strength that we learned in our family. We’ve seen our mom and our aunts struggle with issues that a lot of women don’t have to deal with but a lot of black women do, and they stayed positive. That is the way to overcome, really. We learned that.”

40 Years of Disco is at First Direct Arena, Leeds on March 15, 2018. www.eventim.co.uk or www.sistersledge.com

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