Formed in Philadelphia in the early 1970s, the four siblings who made up Sister Sledge were still relative beginners when they were invited to perform at a huge concert in Zaire in 1974 (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) which preceded a boxing match between heavyweight champions George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. The sisters were immortalised in concert footage taken which saw them perform alongside the likes of James Brown and Celia Cruz. But, even bigger things lay in store.
Towards the end of that decade, they were teamed up with emerging songwriters Bernard Edwardsand Nile Rodgers aka Chic and made an album at the height of disco which, for many, would encapsulate the era. Alongside its title track, the ‘We Are Family’ album contained the evergreen hits ‘He’s the Greatest Dancer’, ‘Lost in Music’, and ‘Thinking of You’, songs which would propel the sisters and their music around the world and which would lay the foundations of a career they maintain to this day.
Prior to delighting the audiences at Highest Point Festival this weekend with such beloved hits, Marko Kutlesa spoke to Kim Sledge about the old days.
When the group first started, your mom Florence was your manager and your bus driver. How was it going on the road with mom?
Well, actually we started out in a convertible Impala. Driving a bus would have been a bit much. However, she was like a bus driver; the head of all things. She was manager, driver and mother, she was very protective and she had a very good business mind. She had this kind of female bravado and she could open doors for us. She was excellent.
What are your memories of performing at the Zaire 74 concert alongside the likes of James Brown, prior to the Rumble In The Jungle boxing event?
Oh, it was fascinating, seeing all those different kinds of artists. Our eyes were wide open. Just to see how professional everyone was. For us, it was the first time we went to Africa and that in itself was amazing. When we walked off the plane we were met by four young ladies who said “Welcome home sisters” and gave us gardenias. It was amazing, surreal. Celia Cruz, James Brown, The Spinners, it was wonderful. There was an energy, a camaraderie between the artists. We learned a lot from being around so many pros. It was encouraging. What an opportunity!
We had originally been taught to sing by our grandma and she was an opera singer. We knew how to sing accapella, that was how we’d first learned and we also learned that the stage is important. Showmanship. When you sing, you serve the audience with your gift; music is a form of healing, it encourages, it restores you. You bring the audience into that communication.
So, when our music went out at the show, we were left with just our microphones working off one generator in front of 80, 000 people. There were so many people inside the stadium; Muhammad Ali had said that if they didn’t open the gates and let the local people in, that he wouldn’t box. Anyway, we just went back to what we’d been taught and sang and clapped and luckily everyone joined in. Surreal!
Of course, back then was a very different time. What was it like walking into a plane and walking off the plane in Africa for the first time?
Well, let me put it this way; if you have origins in a place, like we have Scottish in our background, well, when you go to that place, I think something in your spirit identifies with where you are. As soon as I put my foot down it was like I could feel my spirit stretching out, right across the whole continent. It felt like where I was from.
Of course, in America we were a minority. There, we were the majority. You had to embrace the feeling; it was like having a veil lifted off.
When Sister Sledge recorded their first album you worked with a lot of great songwriters like Fay Hauser, Patrick Adams, Gwen Guthrie, Patrick Grant, Linda Creed, Thom Bell. How was that experience?
All of the writers and musicians on that album were incredible, all full artists in their own right. They were very patient with us. Encouraging. They knew what they were doing. A good producer will pull the best out of you, and that’s what they did.
You were eventually teamed up with another couple of producers who managed to pull the best out of you – Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers aka Chic. How did that come about?
It was a record company decision. Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers were new artists for them. We’d already been performing for about 10 years. A friend of my mom’s, Phil Hurtt, who worked for Atlantic at the time with another friend called LeBaron Taylor, well they knew Henry Allen, the president of Atlantic. They were looking for an artist to place with Bernard and Nile. So, we were introduced.
Being in the studio with them was really challenging at first. Remember, we’d been trained by grandma, so rehearsal and performance, discipline, was really important to us. That’s how we knew to do it. Prior to that point, the goal of any studio session had always been to never waste time, to be ready. Don’t waste money, get it done and get it done quickly. We would record an album in just a couple of weeks because we’d practised the songs so much at home. But, that was not the way Chic worked. They were totally spontaneous. They refused to show us any songs beforehand. We never knew what we were going to do before we arrived at the studio.
When we came in on the last day, they said they’d been watching us and they’d written the last song about us. That was “We Are Family” and we heard it for the first time and recorded it on the final day.
So, without any guide tracks or demo versions, how did they teach you the songs?
Oh, ahahahaha. It was so raw. They would come to you with a piece of paper with some words on it, often you could tell they’d only just written it, and say, sing this “and we fly just like birds of a feather”. We were like, “OK”. They relied on our ability to interpret, there was a chemistry, a connection between them as writers and us, the group. We felt our way through it and they just loved that we could be spontaneous like them.
What were they like as people? Were Bernard and Nile very different kinds of people to each other?
Well, they were both very gifted. Bernard was very cool, very laid back, very friendly. I loved him. Nile was more upbeat, more energy. He’s still the same way today. Very animated and a great big smile. Bernard was very focused. Although he loved spontaneity, he also had a very specific plan in his mind for the foundation of the songs. I guess because he was a bassist.
The 1979 album you did with Chic was absolutely huge. How did life change for the band after it was released?
Well, we went on tour and we ended up having two weeks off in two years. It was an international whirlwind. It just didn’t stop. Some times tiring, but very exciting. Luckily, we always brought our family on the road with us, so grandma and others were around.
Did you ever imagine those songs would ever have the longevity they’ve achieved?
No. I didn’t even think about it. But, when I look at it now… Our base was always a spiritual one. Our faith was Christianity and we came from a background of a family who prays. Our family covered us in prayers, my mom, my grandma. And I believe God has a plan. Those songs bring people together. Even now, when there’s so much division in the world, songs like that connect people, they bring camaraderie, they encourage people. Music is for the soul.
It’s like the missing part of a puzzle piece that brings people together. People come together with those songs and they don’t judge each other, they love each other, heal, have fun, they become one. I’m so grateful to be able to have a part in providing that.