Interview: Kathy Sledge The Voice Of “We Are Family”

Kathy Sledge lead-vocalist and founding member of Sister Sledge is bringing her talents to Seattle’s Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley. Band members are: Kathy Sledge (vocals) two special guest vocalists, Philip Lightfoot (drummer), Michael Kwas (Keys), Stacey McGee (bass), Dai Miyazaki (guitar), Louis Taylor (trumpet). Show times Thursday and Sunday at 7:30pm. Show times Friday and Saturday at 7:30pm and 9:30pm. Doors open at 6:00pm Thursday and 5:30pm Friday – Sunday. Get tickets and more info here.

Kathy Sledge

Photo: Sekou Luke Studio

Kathy Sledge’s iconic voice celebrated the song “We Are Family” over 40 years ago. The anthem is still relevant and thought provoking to this day. It was one of Sister Sledge’s first domestic hits.

The heart of Sister Sledge is Family. With trendsetting style and musical flair, Kathy, Joni, Kim, and Debbie Sledge created a unique sound that garnered Grammy nominations, number one hits, and timeless global anthems. Featuring an iconic vocal by Kathy – the lead singer and signature voice of Sister Sledge’s biggest hits – the lyrics to “We Are Family” were inspired by the real-life dynamic between the four sisters and propelled them to worldwide fame. Decades later, “We Are Family” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame (2008) while the Library of Congress added it to the National Recording Registry (2017). Not bad for four sisters who “flock just like birds of a feather.”

Born into a family of prodigious musical talent, the Philadelphia-based group learned both the business and creative side of the industry from an early age. Their grandmother Viola Williams was an acclaimed opera vocalist who featured the young quartet at church functions and charity events as “Mrs. Williams’ Granddaughters.” Their father Edwin Sledge broke racial barriers on Broadway as one-half of the tapping duo Fred & Sledge while their mother Florez Sledge had keen business acumen, becoming the group’s manager and shepherding them through the subsidiary Cotillon record label when the legendary music industry executive Jerry Greenberg signed the newly named Sister Sledge to Atlantic Records.

During the early-’70s, Sister Sledge offered a fresh counterpart to the Jackson Five, scoring major hits everywhere from the U.K. to Japan with “Mama Never Told Me” and “Love Don’t You Go Through No Changes On Me.” In between, they won the Silver Award at the Tokyo Music Festival and appeared at Zaire 74, a concert conceived by Hugh Masekela in tandem with the historic “Rumble in the Jungle” match between Muhammed Ali and George Foreman. Their albums and soul-stirring concerts under- scored their mastery of pop, R&B, jazz, and dance music, with rousing renditions of Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight songs, as well as their own self-penned material.

Groundbreaking producers Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards (the CHIC Organization) completely revamped the group’s image on the #1 We Are Family (1979) album. “‘We Are Family,’ beautifully sung by Kathy Sledge, is a near perfect fusion of gospel fire and disco cool,” Rolling Stone critic Stephen Holden noted about Kathy’s one-take recording of the title track, which the Pittsburgh Pirates adopted as their official anthem. Her lead vocals on “He’s the Greatest Dancer” and “Thinking of You,” plus Joni’s soulful performance on “Lost in Music,” fueled We Are Family with blockbuster hits, rewarding Sister Sledge with a platinum album and unanimous praise from critics.

Following the phenomenal success of “We Are Family,” Sister Sledge worked with innovative producers like George Duke and Narada Michael Walden, self-produced their own album The Sisters, and appeared on top music programs like Soul Train, American Bandstand, and Solid Gold. Throughout the ’80s, with Kathy bringing her unique sound to the lead vocals, they fired up the charts with “Got to Love Somebody,” “Next Time You’ll Know,” “All American Girls,” “He’s Just a Runaway,” a cover of the Mary Wells classic “My Guy,” the #1 UK smash “Frankie,” and an early version of “All the Man I Need” recorded years before Whitney Houston scored her own hit with the song.

As each sister has pursued solo projects over the years, exploring their own personal and creative endeavors, all of them have continued to carry on the band’s legacy. In the aftermath of 9/11, they came together for Nile Rodgers’ all-star charity production of “We Are Family” featuring legends like Diana Ross and Patti LaBelle. All four sisters subsequently reunited on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2011 where Oprah herself declared “We Are Family” “one of the most requested songs of all time.”

To this day, the Sledge sisters remain one of popular music’s most admired musical families. In fact, Billboard recently named their original recording of “We Are Family” one of the “Top 20 Greatest Girl Group Songs of All Time” (2017). Whether performing in different configurations of the group for different occasions, honoring their sister Joni who passed away in 2017, or coming back together for a worthy cause, their greatest achievement is bringing the world together through a song. Indeed, the enduring spirit of Family is the true legacy of Sister Sledge.

Earle Dutton (ED): How did it feel to go to Japan for that first music festival?
Kathy Sledge (KS):
That was pretty interesting. I think I was 13 years old when we participated in the Tokyo Music Festival. We tied for second place with The Commodores. That was the really early Commodores with Lionel Richie who is an amazing person still to this day. It was first time being in a music festival of that magnitude. I still remember how gracious the audience was to us. It was tremendously exciting to be a part of that at that age. Everything was over the top in a good sense.

ED: What was it like to meet and share the stage with James Brown at the Rumble In The Jungle in Ziare, Africa?
KS:
I pretty much grew up on stage with the sisters. It is kind of humbling to think that I got to share the stage with so many iconic artists like James Brown, Bill Withers and The Pointer Sisters. I vividly remember just standing in the wings of the stage and just absorbing and learning from these great artists. It felt surreal meeting James Brown. All of the talent traveled on the same plane. I remember just being on the plane with James Brown, Johnny Pacheco, The Pointer Sisters, and Bill Withers. I have a picture from that trip where I am standing next to George Foreman and I only come up to the top of his belt buckle.Kathy Sledge Jazz Alley SeattleED: Have you ever “Fan girled” or swooned over someone you were performing with?
KS:
Oh, you mean like Michael Jackson? (Laughter) We were always parallel to the Jackson 5. We were the girl group compared to their guy group. We toured with them. Michael Jackson had the kindest heart. He had to be one of the nicest people. I didn’t have lots of conversation with him. He seemed very shy. I think that every young girl of that age had a crush on Michael Jackson.

ED: Did you ever think “We Are Family” would be such a big hit and still be relevant today?
KS:
Absolutely not. A lot of people don’t know this but I am been performing all of my life. I was a real life Hannah Montana. I would perform at these concerts then go home and get on the bus to go to school. Learned not to talk about it at all or at least not much. You can’t just hang with your friends and talk about your weekend. “I was at the mall,” “I went to the movies,” and me “Oh, I was in Japan.” It sort of felt like I was either bragging or lying. So I learned to say that I had to work. I think we had like nine singles before “We Are Family”. We were in Germany for a month, recording an album. Then we got a call from the Yowza Yowza Yowza people. They wanted to record and album with us. At the time, I felt that I was missing out on after school events and stuff that I really wanted to do. I didn’t want to record another album. We had hits in other countries but not really any at home. I was 16 at the time and I remember asking Nile Rodgers, “do you think they are going to play this record?” We still laugh about it to this day. I had no idea “We Are Family” would still be relevant and iconic to this day. I didn’t think anyone was going to play it. I was very used to not having airplay. It has taught me, as an artist, to continue to stay relevant.

ED: How does it feel that it is such a huge anthem for the LGBTQ community?
KS:
It feels amazing. That song just brings you in and embraces you. It doesn’t discriminate. I am proud of that. I feel that “We Are Family” is really true to the lyrics. I have had some internal challenges with my own family. I have always felt like it was the theme song for the world. I am very proud to be the voice on that song.

ED: What is your favorite song to perform live right now?
KS:
That would have to be “Thinking Of You”. I love that song. What’s crazy is that “Thinking Of You” is just as big as we are family in certain countries.

ED: Who do you just dream of collaborating with?
KS:
I would say Stevie Wonder but he is everyone’s dream collaboration. I have been told by my fans that they would love to hear the nuance of my voice with someone like Maxwell.

ED: What music do you listen to during your down time?
KS:
There is a satellite radio station called Blue Martini. It is very eclectic. I don’t listen to dance music much. It depends on how I feel.

ED: What would you like people to take away from your current tour?
KS:
Feeling really good. I have been told that my music is always feel good music. I like music that makes you feel uplifted.

Get tickets and more information about Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley here.

Connect with Kathy Sledge:

Twitter: @KathySledge
Instagram: @KathySledge

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Earle Dutton

Earle Dutton

Earle Dutton is the Chief Blogger and Editor of Equality365.com. He founded Equality365.com in 2013 to provide information about LGBTQ friendly events of interest, and to support LGBTQ entertainers and supportive artists who visit our community. Earle is a successful businessman in the Pacific Northwest with a long history of support for and involvement in, the Northwest LGBTQ community. His personal interests include: music, theater, pets, culinary arts and technology.

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