❉ Sister Sledge’s recorded output is a fine body of work, as represented by this comprehensive collection.
Legend has it that Nile Rodgers asked Atlantic CEO Jerry Greensberg to name the least successful act on the label so that Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards’ Chic Organisation could transform them into genuine contenders – in much the same way that Apollo Creed picked Sylvester Stallone’s Italian Stallion for a shot at the title in Rocky.
According to Daryl Easlea’s wonderful 2004 book Everybody Dance – Chic and the Politics of Disco, Rodgers and Edwards were on such a creative roll that they felt invincible.
“Our rhythm section is the star,” Nile told Jerry. “Point out someone in the building who is not a star.”
After various names were considered (including – amazingly – a fallow period Rolling Stones), Greenberg opted for the disappointing-selling Sister Sledge.
There was a caveat: “I love these girls,” said Greenberg, ”they’re like family to me.”
A lightbulb illuminated above Rodgers’s head, and the single which begat the album of the same name was already taking shape. Sister Sledge’s We Are Family sold millions and would be the soundtrack to a billion girls’ nights out, an off-the-peg anthem for any number of minority groups, the club song of baseball team the Pittsburgh Pirates, and best of all, the singalong song of choice for Nelson Mandela and his corridor cellmates on Robben Island.
The oft-told anecdote of Nile Rogers’ musical largesse gives the impression that Sister Sledge were losers, were useless, were proof of the maxim that anyone can be a star, but this is far from the truth.
Cherry Red’s/SoulMusic’s Thinking of You CD box-set reissue of Sister Sledge’s recorded output aims to disprove this notion by focusing on the group’s eight studio albums between 1973 and 1985, whilst containing enough non-album singles, B-sides and other ephemera to keep the most devoted completist happy.
Starting off as Mrs Williams’ Grandchildren (a snappy name – along with its contentious apostrophe), Joni, Kathy, Debra and Kim Sledge adopted their more familiar moniker in 1971, and had their first chart success back in 1975 with their UK number 20 hit, the rather splendid Jackson 5-alike Mama Never Told Me.
The girls’ first album Circle of Love appears on Disc One, and if you’re a fan of plaintive, laid-back soul, this is a fabulous introduction to Sister Sledge. Many of the songs were written by budding soul diva Gwen Guthrie. Highlights include the quite frankly gorgeous Cross My Heart (with a beautiful lead vocal from Kathy), the effortless loveliness of Give In To Love and the effing marvellous You’re Much Better Off Loving Me – a song which earns extra bonus points by threatening to morph into The Osmonds’ The Proud One before quickly withdrawing in case things get messy. (I won’t labour that particular figure of speech for all sorts of reasons.)
Along with the lush, Philly-sounding strings of the ‘slowies’, there are punchier, funkier sounds with Pain Reliever, Protect Our Love and the album’s closer, the almost-sounding-as-if-it’s-from-another-album Fireman.
Circle of Love is a terrific, stand-alone album, but Disc One of Thinking of You is bolstered by the inclusion of the sultry non-album single The Weatherman and its equally good B-side Have You Met My Friend?
Confusingly, Disc One (SoulMusic/Cherry Red have labelled it Mama Never Told Me) ends with the first two tracks of Sister Sledge’s second album, 1977’s Together. The other ten tracks of Together can be found on Disc Two (labelled Do It To The Max)– this ‘run over’ strategy is found across the other discs, and if I’m being picky, this tends to detract from the listening experience, and is a strange logistical decision in light of the brilliant and precise presentation and curation of previous box sets from the Cherry Red group.
Together is nowhere near as strong as Circle of Love. Opening tracks Blockbuster Boy and the execrably titled Do the Funky Do are eminently forgettable, and the album doesn’t truly get started until the angelic harmonies of Hold on to the Feeling kick in. There’s a perfunctory cover of Stevie Wonder’s As, a fairly horrid version of Alain Toussaint’s already-horrid Sneaking Sally Down the Alley and then the not terribly good Funky Family (they’d evidently pushed the lyrical boat out with many of these titles) before the rather nice Baby It’s the Rain and Can’t Mess Around With Love. The other tracks are pleasant enough, but it’s fairly obvious that there wasn’t going to be any word of mouth to propel the album to any number whatsoever in the Billboard Top 100 back in 1977.
A change of direction was needed if Sister Sledge were to avoid being dropped from Cotillion and its parent label Atlantic.
And so it comes to paydirt time.
1979’s We Are Family is like a sonic explosion. Opening track He’s the Greatest Dancer was originally planned as a Chic single (Sister Sledge ‘rejected’ I Want Your Love as being a tad saucy for such good Christian girls), and the combination of Chic’s musical and production magic with Kathy Sledge’s fabulous vocal created a timeless disco classic that’s recognisable within seconds.
Even better (in my humble) is the wonderful Lost in Music. With a lead vocal from Joni Sledge, this track has entranced the most unlikely of artists (witness The Fall’s predictably bizarre but brilliant version on their album The Infotainment Scam) and its numerous appearances on the British chart are a testament to this uniquely urgent addition to the SS canon.
We Are Family is Sister Sledge’s most perfectly realised album by a soul/disco mile. Rodgers and Edwards not only beefed up the sisters’ dance sounds, but they were well aware of their ballad and smouldering soul favourites from previous Sister Sledge albums. Tracks like Somebody Loves Me, Easier to Love, You’re a Friend to Me, One More Time and the fabulous Thinking of You (a belated hit in the UK in 1984) demonstrate that Chic recognised fellow travellers and were not simply using the sisters as a vehicle for their own songwriting and record-producing hubris. These are simply great soul songs and it’s an incontrovertible fact that such smoochy fare would ensure that many callow, spotty male youths would be leaving top flight ‘nite’ spots in such UK hotspots as Cleckheaton, Stourbridge and Buntingford almost semi-destroyed by love bites and clawed buttocks after finding the courage for the first proper slow dance of their glamorous lives thanks to the combined efforts of Chic and Sister Sledge back in 1979.
You’d have to a heart of stone (and a knob of butter) not to get on the dancefloor once the opening bars of We Are Family kick in. Bolstered by the ‘Chic Choir’ (including Diva Gray and Luther Vandross), Kathy Sledge delivers the greatest vocal of her career and the song just exudes the absolute joy of life in three minutes and thirty two seconds of aural ecstasy.
A colossal record. End of.
The sisters’ follow-up, Love Somebody Today, is by no means a bad album, but pales in comparison to its (beautifully) monstrous predecessor. Opening track Got to Love Somebody Today is a disappointing start to the album, but the almost-solo Kathy Sledge song You Fooled Around is ace, and would have fitted perfectly into the Chic-produced Diana Ross album Diana which was released almost concurrently in 1980.
Rodgers and Edwards supplied eight new songs for the album and there are some gems in the Kim Sledge-led Easy Street, Joni’s Reach Your Peak, the superb slow-tempo How to Love and on Debbie Sledge’s turn-to-shine, the upbeat and lovely Let’s Go On Vacation.
Perhaps we’d all been spoiled in 1979, but Love Somebody Today can’t scale the heights of We Are Family. I’m tempted to say it’s a nice album, but maybe I’m being swayed by the girls wearing their nan’s woollens on the front cover.
The final tracks of Disc 3 and the early tracks of Disc 4 (this is all very odd) cover Sister Sledge’s fifth album All American Girls. Edwards and Rodgers are gone and the producer’s ‘reigns’ are ‘taken up’ by Narada Michael Walden (who is perhaps best known in the UK for his 1980 hit I Should Have Loved Ya – of which track three If You Really Want Me sounds remarkably similar. It’s a disappointing album with too many undistinguished, landfill tracks, but the lovely ballad Next Time You’ll Know and the uptempo Music Makes Me Feel Good (with its blatant rip off of the intro of Steely Dan’s Deacon Blues) are some compensation.
1982’s The Sisters saw Sister Sledge self-producing for the first time. There’s the occasional hip-hop influence in opener Super Bad Sisters, along with chicken-in-a-basket covers (My Guy), Donna Summer Bad Girls rip-offs (Lightfootin’), fairly decent balladry (My Special Way/Grandma), Christmas sleigh bells (Everybody’s Friend) and future hits for other stars in the form of the Michael Gore/Dean Pitchford-penned All the Man That I Need. Eight years later the song reached number one in the US when it was covered by Whitney Houston.
Yes, it’s as bad as that.
So, The Sisters is not unpleasant – then again, neither is Aldi’s Ghost IPA, but you wouldn’t want it as your ‘best’ when your local craft ale-drinking vicar pops round to tell you that she’s been wasting her life with “all this God nonsense” and is putting all of her money into a cage-fighting career and writing the definitive Anna Karen/On the Buses musical.
Sister Sledge album number seven is the rubbishly-titled Bet Cha Say That to All the Girls (Discs Four and Five of Thinking of You). The album was produced by George Duke and is resolutely early/mid-eighties in both its feel and sound. A dearth of good songs is the major problem with this album, although the lovely, dreamy Once in Your Life (another rare Kim Sledge outing) and the rather super dance track Shake Me Down shine out in what is a fairly generic and formulaic album.
The final original album, 1985’s When the Boys Meet the Girls saw the return of Nile Rodgers (minus Bernard Edwards) as producer. It’s not up to the high standards of We Are Family, but Dancing on the Jagged Edge (featuring all of the sisters on lead vocals), The Boy Most Likely (with its Let’s Dance echoes and breaks) and the languid, rather charming You Need Me are all classy pop/dance songs. The one song which seems at odds with the general tenor of the album is the album’s smash Pan-European hit Frankie. The song’s delicate, lilting rhythm could easily have been a reggae-fied lovers’ rock classic, and in Nile Rodger’s masterful hands (and its evocative, accompanying video) the song has an almost 1950s bobbysox, doo-wop feel.
I hadn’t heard this song in years and I’d forgotten why I almost hated it all those years ago. When I played it a second time, though, the memories and the reason came back: it’s the worst Sister Sledge song by a very long way. It’s the sort of song that lodges itself into your brain with its dumbass catchiness and then refuses to leave until you’ve had a full-blown Jesuit exorcism.
It’s one of those songs – like The B-52s with Love Shack – which casts a shadow over all the reasons why I loved a particular group in the first place.
Well, maybe it’s not that bad.
Disc Six of this handsome collection contains enough remixes for the most ardent Sister Sledge obsessive (and they’re out there, believe me, and I’m not foolish enough to diss these good folk – especially after getting into ‘big troub’ with the fans of David Cassidy and Cilla for my previous We Are Cult pop music musings).
All the big-hitters are here, but special mention must go to Nile Rodgers’ superlative remix (with various Duran Duran alumni on backing vocals) of Lost in Music which charted at number 4 back in 1984; and if you‘re a Lost in Music obsessive, the 1994 (UK chart number 14) remix is there for you to annoy your loved ones and neighbours alike.
So, what is Sister Sledge’s place in soul/dance/disco’s rich tapestry? Undoubtedly, We Are Family (the single) would be enough to guarantee the sisters Sledge some degree of immortality. The song’s rich cultural associations, its appropriation by a myriad groups, and its almost Happy Birthday to You ubiquity established its landmark musical credentials, and the album of the same name represents an almost perfect symbiosis of the best producers in the world working with a great vocal group and an equally talented group of backing singers. Sister Sledge’s entire ’70s and ’80s output – as represented by this comprehensive and exhaustive collection – is a fine body of work, and even if the epoch-defining We Are Family had never existed, this ageing collector and curator of classic female ’70s soul music would be clutching the wonderful Circle of Love to his ancient but ever-loving heart.
Thinking of You is everything you would expect from a Cherry Red re-issue: lovingly assembled (with a superb accompanying booklet), almost perfectly formed and all in all, just a beautifully realised creation.
❉ ‘Thinking of You – The Atco/Cotillion/Atlantic Recordings (1973-1985)’ is released by SoulMusic through Cherry Red Group on 20 March, RRP £24.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.
❉ A regular contributor to We Are Cult, performance poet and spoken word artist Stephen Porter has written for Esquire, Backpass and a host of other publications.