Kathy Sledge, founding member of Sister Sledge, joins to discuss the legendary group’s beginnings, the legacy of disco, and more.
“Respect: The Women of Atlantic” is a special series on What’d I Say. It’s hosted by Colleen “Cosmo” Murphy, founder of Classic Album Sundays.
Sister Sledge —“He’s the Greatest Dancer”
Colleen Murphy: Disco, a dirty word? Absolutely not. Disco was a term given to dance music in the 1970s when dance parties and nightclubs flourished in cities like New York. The downtown underground club The Paradise Garage, and the uptown internationally renowned Studio 54, brought together people from all racial backgrounds and sexual orientations. Often, the spotlight shone brightest on free and uninhibited dancers comprised of women, gay men, and people of color. When the film and soundtrack “Saturday Night Fever” was released in 1977, disco spread like an inferno to the suburbs, and suddenly, what started as an underground movement had quickly blazed a trail throughout the USA and beyond.
Record labels were quick to respond with newly organized dance departments, and disco remixes of anyone and anything. Like the fate of any popular musical genre, disco had become commercialized. Although, there still was a great body of 12-inch remix records that remained firmly rooted in urban dance floors.
Suddenly, the club DJ had equal — and sometimes even more — power than the radio DJ in breaking records. My good friend and mentor, the late David Mancuso, was one such person as he helped break the record “Soul Makossa” by Manu Dibango, at his own private party, the Loft. Other underground DJs picked up on it and eventually this rare record from Cameroon was licensed by Atlantic Records and appeared on the Billboard charts and radio playlists.
Chicago radio shock jock, Steve Dahl, tried his best to bury this cultural and musical movement that united people from all backgrounds and creeds. In July 1979, he organized a disco demolition night, in which he encouraged people to bring their disco records to be burned in a bonfire in the middle of Comiskey Park.
Overnight, many dance music acts, many of which were led by African Americans, were put out of work and some eventually disbanded. But even though it faded from the commercial mainstream, disco’s irrepressible spirit and energy continued to prosper, igniting dance floors throughout the world. Atlantic Records played a big part in this story, as the label produced some of the most revered and credible black American music right from 1947, when it was founded by jazz and blues enthusiasts Herb Abramson and Ahmet Ertegun.
They signed some of the most iconic African American talent, including Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, and continued their support as soul and R&B morphed into the disco sound that was heating up dance floors around the world. In the ’70s, the label’s roster boasted dance acts like The Spinners, CJ and Co., Slave, Tasha Thomas, Freak, The Tramps, and the mighty Chic. And Atlantic’s subsidiary, Atco, showcased one of the most significant female groups, who continue to show their staying power, Sister Sledge. Real-life sisters Debbie, Joni, Kim and Kathy started their career as teens performing jazz, soul, gospel and R&B, and secured a hit early on in their career with their 1973 single, “Mama Never Told Me.”
Toward the end of the decade, label president Jerry Greenberg had the brilliant idea of putting them in the studio with Chic’s Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers. The result: a classic album that has spawned four chart-topping singles, a Grammy nomination, inclusion in the national recording registry by the Library of Congress, and a title track with an inspiring message of unification that has managed to transcend cultural boundaries through to this day.
I’m Colleen Cosmo Murphy, founder of Classic Album Sundays and host of “Respect: The Women of Atlantic,” a special series here on What’d I Say. 40 years after the recording of Sister Sledge’s 1979 breakthrough album, I sat down with the youngest founding sister of the group, Kathy Sledge. She reflected upon what it was like to be a teenage recording artist and touring musician who worked with some of the best African American talent of the era. And we zoomed in on the story behind the iconic album, “We Are Family.”
Colleen Murphy: I’d love to back up to the beginnings of Sister Sledge, and performance and music run throughout your bloodline.
Kathy Sledge: Yeah, throughout our lives, really. It’s our origin, and it’s funny because I don’t remember as little girl ever saying, “I want to grow up and be a singer.” I think it was destiny. Our grandmother was an opera singer, she was protege to Mary McLeod Bethune. Our father, and if you Google this it’s really interesting, he was the first black entertainer on Broadway in “Kiss Me Kate” to break the barriers. He danced with the dance team duo called Fred and Sledge. So, the music always started way before we were even thought of.
Colleen Murphy: And how about your mother? She was also an entertainer.
Kathy Sledge: My mom, if she were here with us today, she would always say she has two left feet. She had two left feet, but she always loved music. She always had a business acumen for music and the business of it. So when we decided to become a group, she was our backbone and she led us to our first, well all of our success, really, with “We Are Family.” There was a road that we had to travel, though, to get there.
Colleen Murphy: But your mother also managed you, you had your grandmother who was also coaching you, giving your vocal lessons.
Kathy Sledge: Yes.
Colleen Murphy: So you were really empowering as a female to have all these women guiding you.
Kathy Sledge: Yeah. My father left when I was four years old. So I had five aunts, and what’s so crazy is there are five sisters in my generation and five in the next generation of “We Are Family.” Our grandmother influenced us. I would actually say she was the first to ever give me personally, and my sisters, a personal appreciation for music. We would sing for our grandmother. We would harmonize and we would sing in the church. We weren’t necessarily on a church choir, we were Mrs. Williams’ granddaughters.
Colleen Murphy: And as an all-female group, you must’ve been looking to groups like The Supremes, who were enormously successful. I mean, they kept the Beatles out of the No. 1 spot in the charts in the U.K. at one point. That’s how successful they were. So who else were inspiring you aside from The Supremes?
Kathy Sledge: Well, our mother always had all kinds of music, from classical to all kinds, all genres of music. And so definitely, from the whole Motown sound, The Supremes, anything that was hot back then. The Marvelettes, Temptations, not just girl groups. But when it comes to the girl groups, The Supremes and female singers, Aretha Franklin of course, Dionne Warwick. Not only the artists, but the songs they would sing, and the harmonies and the melodies. We didn’t realize we had a gift of harmonizing, the sisters. And so from that music, like Dionne Warwick, “Say A Little Prayer For You,” and Aretha Franklin.
Aretha Franklin —“I Say A Little Prayer”
Kathy Sledge: Like every little sister group, we would sing in the mirror with our hair brushes and they were microphones and Carol was the lead singer.
Colleen Murphy: The thing that’s so interesting is how young you all were when you really started as Sister Sledge officially, releasing your first single in 1971 with “Time Will Tell.”
Sister Sledge —“Time Will Tell”
Kathy Sledge: I was 12 years old. My sister, Debbie, we had a flip side to “Time Will Tell” called “The Weatherman.” We were stair steps in age, so we were always singing and I guess you could say professionally, this was the first time we ever got paid for singing. That made the difference. That’s what differentiated singing and professionally singing. So we just grew up on stage. Our mother used to always teach us too, it’s wonderful to have records but always be an entertainer, no matter what.
Colleen Murphy: Your first single, or second single for Atco, “Mama Never Told Me,” it really has a Jackson Five element to it. It really sounds a lot like a female version of the Jackson Five.
Kathy Sledge: I think that was our first hit single in the U.K. and it took us by storm, because at home, domestically, we were on the grind. We’d get on an airplane and go to wherever, be at Tokyo or the U.K. and have this hit record in this territory, and the fans and all that comes along with it, and then you come home and get on the bus and go to school. And I learned very early on, one’s your work, one’s your life, and your life comes first.
Colleen Murphy: I mean it must have been quite challenging. Were you taken seriously as a female African American act that was so young and adolescents and teenagers?
Kathy Sledge: I think we always were. And I think the answer that first comes to mind is because our music was taken [seriously], our voices, our harmony, our performance. I think it doesn’t matter if you’re six years old or 90. If your talent is strong then that’s how you get the respect, and so we were taken very seriously. I remember the earlier days of working the club circuit. There would always be, depending on where and what club, and I mean the nightclubs in Philadelphia, there would always be a group of people, especially our aunts and uncles, they would always be there. They were always the constant-
Colleen Murphy: Support.
Kathy Sledge: Yeah. But there were people that would come just to hear me sing, “Midnight Train to Georgia,” or Joni sing, “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” These were the songs we grew up hearing and learning. And we also learned to perform for the demographic that you’re performing for. So there’s so many things to be able to be diverse in your music for your audience.
Colleen Murphy: One concert I have to ask you about is the Rumble in the Jungle in 1974 in the Republic of Congo, or Zaire, with Muhammad Ali when he was boxing George Foreman. You were performing alongside the likes of James Brown, Mr. Brown. What was that like? Because you were so young.
Kathy Sledge: James Brown, Bill Withers, The Pointer Sisters, and all of the talent was on one plane.
Colleen Murphy: Tell us about that what it was like, because you were still a teenager.
Kathy Sledge: I was. I was around 13 years old. We were thrilled to be there. My eyes were the size of saucers. I was just taking in everything. My sisters and I were. We were proteges at the time to The Spinners, and that’s how we got a chance to go, who throughout our lifetime were always gentlemen and they would teach us. They would take us under their wing and give us advice. The late Billy Henderson used to give us harmonies and really intricate harmonies — fifth with fifths and sevenths and different parts.
The Spinners — “Are You Ready for Love”
Kathy Sledge: Yeah so we would learn. And we were just an open book of just taking in all the knowledge we could, especially that tour. The Zaire tour was, for me, a personal feeling and [for] my sisters. It was my first time ever traveling to Africa, to my motherland, and to just get off of the plane, I remember the first thing a young girl presented us with flowers and said, “Welcome home.” And it’s just an experience you can’t describe. It was an education as well as just the most awesome time ever to be on the stage with people like James Brown and The Pointer Sisters and Bill Withers. And then it was multicultural. It was also third world artists there like Hugh Masekela. To this day, it’s like yesterday to think about that experience.
Colleen Murphy: Well, let’s move up to, you started movie working with another one of my favorite artists, Gwen Guthrie, who I think was such a great, great artist.
Kathy Sledge: So talented.
Colleen Murphy: So talented and you did “Love Don’t Go Through Changes on Me” with her, she wrote that with her boyfriend, Patrick Grant.
Sister Sledge –“Love Don’t Go Through No Changes on Me”
Colleen Murphy: That song is just an absolutely wonderful song, and of course, it was on your first album for Atco, which is part of Atlantic, “Circle of Love.” What was it like working with Gwen Guthrie? Did you learn a lot from her?
Kathy Sledge: I always think of the first word that comes to mind — I felt the energy that she gave was always bright. And it of course exuded through her music. I would just listen to and work with her and hear how she would come up with the most amazing lyrics and melodies. She was very innovative and very easy to work with.
Colleen Murphy: Let’s back up to 1977. For your second LP, you went over to Germany to record with Michael Kunze and Sylvester Levay, who did [the group] Silver Convention. I remember the first time I turned on my radio.
Kathy Sledge: “Fly Robin Fly.”
Colleen Murphy: “Fly Robin Fly” was the first song I heard. So it always has a special place in my heart. And you did the album, “Together,” with them. And you wrote a song, “Do the Funky Do,” which I think is a great song.
Kathy Sledge: Thank you, that was with Don Freeman. We used to call him the white soul brother, because Don used to wear this huge red afro. He actually went to Zaire with us.
Sister Sledge – “Do the Funky Do”
Colleen Murphy: What was it like working in Germany?
Kathy Sledge: Everything was very planned, everything was very…they knew exactly what they wanted, which most producers do. Some are more flexible to what they want. Sylvester and Michael were flexible, but they knew what they wanted and I think they had their, and a lot of producers do, they had their formula with “Fly Robin Fly.” Strings and you can hear that come together in the “Together” project.
Colleen Murphy: That’s great. Now you had this success in Europe, but you were here over here in the U.S., it was still a bit more challenging. You were all going to university and going to school. Were you actually thinking, “hey if this doesn’t work we have something else to fall back on?” Where you getting frustrated that maybe your career here in the U.S. wasn’t progressing as quickly as you would like?
Kathy Sledge: Yeah, because there were things we would sacrifice, like proms and track meets, and I was always on the track team and gymnastics. Gymnastics all through college. There were meets you couldn’t make, there were things you couldn’t do. I remember my best friend to this day, I couldn’t go to my senior prom, but I remember I was in Hawaii somewhere and I remember calling her. This is a really good best friend for you. She was describing what everyone was wearing as if I were there. She was telling me. I guess I went to the prom through her, vicariously through her. I remember her saying, “Oh, I’m sorry that you’re in Hawaii but you’ll be…” She could just understand.
It wasn’t about where I was, it was the fact of where I wanted to be with that place in my life. To be that age and understand that, we definitely sacrificed a lot through those years. Those were our growing years and we weren’t allowed to go away to college. We had to stay in one place because we had rehearsals, and I think my mom used that one.
Colleen Murphy: To keep you nearby?
Kathy Sledge: In retrospect, yeah.
Colleen Murphy: You all went to Temple University, didn’t you?
Kathy Sledge: We did.
Colleen Murphy: What degrees did you all get?
Kathy Sledge: I actually majored in recreation and then switched over to therapeutic recreation, because I always had, and still do, a love for children, and I always felt if I had to fall back on something, I know it would be working closely in that realm. Joan was communication. Joni was always a movie star, and loved acting, and she was a great actress. Debbie, to this day, is an amazing artist. People don’t know that. She went to Tyler School of Art. And the Dean of the college said this she was the greatest fine art student to ever walk through their doors. Debbie paints like a…OK I’m going to really sound a sister now, but like a Michelangelo. Debbie is an amazing artist. She has talked about doing an exhibit of her work and she will. Two of her children are amazing artists as well; they have her gift. She’s always been artsy that way, but these are things people don’t know.
This is, I guess you could say, our second passion. And I’ll be honest, I’m not quite sure if it’s the second. I know music is always our passion, but music was our destiny. Our passions…Kim always had and actually is going back to law school now. She had to defer years ago and she’s like, “No, I’ve always wanted that.”
Colleen Murphy: She’s also an ordained minister, isn’t she?
Kathy Sledge: Yes and she has a passion for the whole spiritual walk. I think she did a gospel project. But I think music found us. One of the productions I’m working on is “Lost in Music: The We Are Family Story,” because you know us as “We Are Family,” that will always be the portrait of who we are. “Lost in Music” played a huge part too of what we’ve been through.
Colleen Murphy: Let’s get to the album.
Kathy Sledge: I’m jumping ahead.
Colleen Murphy: Now you’ve got all that frustration of “are we going to make it?” We’ve made it in Europe, we have a couple of records out. You are hooked up by the Atlantic president of the time, Jerry Greenberg. He hooks you up with Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers, who are having phenomenal success with Chic, both with their debut album, “Chic,” and of course the songs like “Dance, Dance, Dance,” “Everybody Dance.” The next album that came out with “[Le] Freak,” of course, and “I Want Your Love,” and “Risque,” which had “Good Times,” massive, massive song, and “My Forbidden Lover,” which I absolutely love. So they’re having this amazing run and they introduce you to Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards.
Kathy Sledge: Yeah. The “Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah” people.
Chic — “Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)”
Colleen Murphy: And you hadn’t really met until you walked into the studio. Can you tell us about that?
Kathy Sledge: It takes Nile to tell the story and Jerry Greenberg, who happens to still be a really good friend of mine. Nile and Bernard had been so successful, they could not have a bomb project. It had to work. On this list were all the artists on the label or the ones of interest, and we were there. And Jerry started describing us: “You’ve got to meet these girls, they’re a family. They flock together like birds of a feather.” Nile and Bernard start taking notes and to this day, most of that is a portrait of who we are in the lyrics to “We Are Family.” And Jerry loves to tell that story, and I’m proud of it. I think it is a portrait of who we were known to be. The unconditional love as family. We have our madness and I’m sure you know about, but living under a magnifying glass is also huge.
He picked us out. We were on the list and he was describing us, and they said, “We want them. Those are the ones.” They had an image in their mind, they had a formula in their mind. Being a songwriter it was little frustrating because I thought we could write. We weren’t allowed to write anything but I got it. I was this goofy kid with braces. I think I just got my braces and I would always follow Nile around the studio and ask, “Do you think they’re going to play it on the radio?” We laugh about that to this day. But I loved his confidence. He’d laugh at me and go, “Yeah, babe. They’re going to play the song.” Let alone, he would say, “This is going to be massive.”
And I couldn’t even imagine that, because we had had so many records that were massive in other countries but never here. But I’ll never forget when the song was released, when I was waking up for school that day, that’s not “We Are Family” but “He’s The Greatest Dancer,” is what woke me up the day it was released.
Colleen Murphy: Oh my gosh.
Kathy Sledge: I was shocked. They’re playing our record finally in the United States. That’s what woke me up.
Sister Sledge — “He’s The Greatest Dancer”
Colleen Murphy: That’s incredible. Let’s talk about that song first, actually. There’s a lyric that you guys objected to that you didn’t want to actually say.
Kathy Sledge: It was please take me home, and my sisters were a little huddled like: “You can’t sing that. You can’t sing please take me home.” Now I’m naive, I’m 16, I’m like: “Well, I’m thinking you meet a guy. That’s the guy I want to marry. Yeah, please take me home in that respect.” I didn’t think of it as anything else. Of course that’s a Studio 54 era of pick me up. We weren’t these little church girls with collars on like, “You can’t sing that,” but we do we come off that way, and some of us were. There was a problem with the lyric. I didn’t have a problem singing it.
That song, what people don’t know, Bernard Edwards was so hugely talented and I miss him, but that song was one I had to record line for line. One night in the disco, on the outskirts of Frisco, cut. On the outskirts of Frisco, cut. I was cruising, and I was learning it as I was singing it. These guys were so dynamic that while we were working on that song, they were writing another one while we were in the studio. They had so much demand for their work.
“I Want Your Love,” I want your love, was actually our song. And if you listen closely, especially the bridge, when it goes, “you’re all I need,” and the violins come in, that’s Sister Sledge. That’s our harmonies, but at the last minute they flipped it. “[He’s The] Greatest Dancer” was their song. Because of that, a lot of the background vocalists, Family and Dancer, Luther and Alfa Anderson, that sound stays constant and consistent with all of the Chic records.
Colleen Murphy: Yeah, you definitely hear that. Like Norma Jean, she was on their album as well.
Kathy Sledge: Norma Jean, yeah.
Colleen Murphy: Let’s talk about the recording of “We Are Family,” because they were writing that in the studio as you ladies walked in.
Kathy Sledge: They were doing a lot. They were writing “We Are Family.” I remember we were doing this ad-lib track, it was like two in the morning. That ad-lib track was one take and I’m very proud of that. And I think to this day that’s what the magic is. Of course, they remixed it and moved it around and added. I didn’t sing, “hey, hey, hey.” I didn’t sing that five times, they put it where it worked. But I think to me, with every song throughout time, there is always something, some story behind it that makes it something iconic about it. And I always like to think that the magic in “We Are Family” was the chemistry we were feeling. Even with that track, the ad-lib track, after I got through singing my heart out I remember them saying, “OK, that’s it.” And I’m like, “What? No. I have to do more.”
Colleen Murphy: I wanted to ask about that. Was the whole spontaneity a challenge working with Nile and Bernard?
Kathy Sledge: It was mostly a challenge with Debbie, who is, then she was always the sister that would give us or would like being responsible for our harmonies and giving us our parts. And we would always make up vocal harmonies. And it was very frustrating to her because she felt like, “Wait, no. We have to have harmonies here or why are we not learning these songs until it’s time to get them or record them?” Bernard, they would butt heads a lot. They would butt heads, those two. There were times where he’d walk in the studio and she walked out. So there was tension.
And another thing, when you think back on Sister Sledge, I think the reputation we had working with people was not one of they’re difficult to work with, but we did have this rule and I now I get it. It would frustrate produces that each sister would have to try to lead, each sister. It would kill studio time.
Colleen Murphy: Well that song. We know what legs this song has had. I mean, it sounds like the actual recording had a real charged atmosphere in the recording studio.
Kathy Sledge: Yeah, I think everything worked. It was the perfect storm. Everything worked with that song. Even the fact that the ad-lib was done really late at night, that was the time to do it. Maybe I would’ve been to0…whatever. The vocals and the tightness with the harmonies and the Chic sound with the sisters, it all worked. What worked more than anything was the genius of the two men behind it. They knew exactly what they wanted and they had a formula. And we trusted them. They have a vision that you may not know and they obviously did.
Colleen Murphy: They obviously did. He says this album is the best album he and Bernhard ever wrote.
Sister Sledge — “We Are Family”
Colleen Murphy: The song was nominated for a Grammy and obviously it’s had such traction. I mean, this song has had legs. It’s been a theme for the gay march on Washington. It was adopted by the baseball team, the Pittsburgh Pirates. You performed it for the Pope. Nuns were dancing to it. It’s one of the most famous wedding songs. It’s so significant and so loved by so many different people from all walks of life. It’s so joyous. Why do you think it’s had such traction?
Kathy Sledge: Again, I think some of the best things work when you don’t push too hard and I think it was meant to be. I think it’s a song that will obviously be heard long after we’re gone.
Colleen Murphy: It’s a great legacy.
Kathy Sledge: It is and I’m very proud of that. I think we just got added to the Library of Congress last year, so it’s up there with the Martin Luther King speech. I mean, it’s history. This is really an amazing thing when you think about it. Who knew?
So I think what “We Are Family,” it’s what a song does to you more than, it takes you somewhere. I get more people that say, “I’ve been at every wedding.” You get the, “Oh my gosh, that’s our favorite wedding song.” They just mentioned it on one of the morning shows, best songs for weddings, whatever. But I think it’s because it brings you together. And also, it’s real.
I think back to Jerry Greenberg, I think from the beginning it was real. No matter what the sisters have done or bump heads or whatever, because yeah, there’s madness on if you Google it, but the truth is unconditionally, we are family. I think that’s what people gravitate toward with that song. It may not be with some of the things we’ve been through, but with that song.
Colleen Murphy: My favorite song of the album is “Lost in Music.”
Sister Sledge — “Lost in Music”
Colleen Murphy: It’s so deep. Do you remember what it was like recording that song as your sister, Joni, as you said on the lead there?
Kathy Sledge: Joni always reminded me of a voice. There was a band called Seawind.
Colleen Murphy: I remember Seawind. Larry Williams, I believe.
Kathy Sledge: Yeah, I think it was his band. But she would love rock and she would love to do the kind of ad-lib. And like “We Are Family” and “[He’s the] Greatest Dancer,” it was very regimented in what we could sing and how and what. They would tell us to sing a certain line over and over sometimes in “Lost in Music” until they heard exactly what they wanted. She delivered that. And “Lost in Music” is another song, I always say our story will always be “We Are Family,” but there’s a huge “Lost in Music” in our life. But I think you would get lost on the dance floor with “Lost in Music.” To this day, everything was right with that album, all the way to the strings, to the voices, to the group singing it, to the message.
Colleen Murphy: Yeah the messages in the music, as The O’Jays said. Also, I wanted to mention the album cover too. I’m a fan of looking at the album covers and progressions of album covers. You have your earlier albums, you look like kids.
Kathy Sledge: We just grow up right in front of your face.
Colleen Murphy: Absolutely, so sophisticated. So sophisticated. Now with this you had huge success and strangely, Billboard named you as Best New Artist. You had all been around since 1971 recording.
Kathy Sledge: Yes.
Colleen Murphy: But you were only 20 years old. What was this sudden success like? You were performing on television, you’re touring, you have-
Kathy Sledge: It’s funny because you’re right. We recorded “We Are Family” when I was 16, the success lasted forever. By the time I was 20, it was like it was yesterday that we just recorded it. When people say, “Wow, it was overnight success,” I always say, “Yeah, 20-something years overnight.” It always seems like overnight success. And then sometimes when you look back and reflect on everything, it feels like one long day. We never came up for air. And because we were entertainers and learned that you never depend on a record. What’s that saying? No one reads an old newspaper. You always have to be able, to be able to perform, no matter what. We are blessed that we have a song that 2 year olds know and 90 year olds know. So it’s always new to somebody or familiar to someone.
And even in conversations, you don’t have to say, when people introduce me sometimes, people go, “Do you remember we…” You can just say, “Do you know the song, ‘We Are Family’?” And that is what makes the difference. And so I think it’s something that around that time, it was a whirlwind. We were just working so hard. But we would do the Rick James tour and then go to the Engelbert Humperdinck tour in Vegas and the work with, you name it.
Colleen Murphy: Such a diverse audience that you had to perform to.
Kathy Sledge: It goes to show the song was such a diverse song, that you could actually open before Rick James or the Funk tour. I remember Joni pushed to sing a rock song, that was a nightmare on the Funk tour. Run Away. But yeah, we would be able to do that. We were able to work in any kind of market and entertain in that market.
Colleen Murphy: And even though you were able to entertain in any kind of market, which your track record shows this, at that time you were lumped in with disco. And I don’t think disco is a bad word personally, because I am a huge fan, but at the time there was a big backlash. And on July 12, Chicago shock jock Steve Dahl had the disco demolition night.
Kathy Sledge: Which was very political to me.
Colleen Murphy: I agree. Why do you think it was political?
Kathy Sledge: It was very political. It’s interesting. I love disco. I don’t like being pigeonholed in that one era. But at the time music was regulated and it was separated, it was segregated. There was the pop charts, which was the white artists. There was the R&B charts, which was the black artists. And you have to reach No. 1 R&B before the white radio stations even touch your song. And here comes disco with all different colors and genres of music.
I remember “You Don’t Send Me Flowers” was No. 1, and then “Le Freak” came out and knocked it right off the block. And there were a lot of executives back then that were infuriated. They were, “What? This just doesn’t happen.” And so, I think it was political. I think it was, the backlash was really political. It was, we have to keep this separate. Dance music comes in here and it doesn’t matter what color you are. What color is dance? You know? And so I think something had to, they had to label it even more so. Now, don’t get me wrong there are some really bad disco songs.
Colleen Murphy: Oh my gosh, there was a lot of people jumping on the bandwagon.
Kathy Sledge: But then there’s some really bad country songs and some really bad…I think there’s good and bad in all kinds of music. So, I think what they did was they emphasized the really bad stuff and they said, “Let’s just burn all these records.” I think really what it was doing was: “Let’s move this thing out of here. It’s in the way.” Now it doesn’t matter, but then it actually was a trendsetter and it changed the music industry. They had to find some way without making you realize what it really was about…how do you just hate a certain kind of music? It’s just weird.
Colleen Murphy: Absolutely. Do you think that really affected your next album, [it] was also written and produced by Nile and Bernard, “Love Somebody Today,” and that came out in 1980. Do you think the backlash against disco — and because you were being somewhat pigeonholed, even though obviously you had a much greater grasp on writing music — do you think it affected that?
Kathy Sledge: No, I don’t. “We Are Family” is a hard act to follow. You don’t try to outdo certain things. What Sister Sledge would always run into is “We Are Family” was such a huge record and we always had a diversified market, especially in other countries. We started getting a backlash of we’re not black enough. We would get that, especially with “All American Girls.” So you never know what an act is going through.
Colleen Murphy: When you look back to the ’70s and ’80s and your recording career with Atlantic Records, what is your favorite Sister Sledge song?
Kathy Sledge: I think “Thinking Of You” always will be. I love “Thinking Of You.” I love it to this day. I just did Southport Weekender in the U.K. Sometimes the ad-lib. To me, I’m a stickler for, it’s got to sound like the record. I see some artists and they’ll do it a different way, where they’re going to do a jazz version of “Thinking Of You.” And I’m like, “No.” So I think “Thinking Of You” is a lovely song. It makes you feel good. I love singing it. I love what it says. Hands down, that’s my favorite.
Colleen Murphy: Kathy, thank you so much for joining me today.
Kathy Sledge: Thank you.
Colleen Murphy: It’s been such a pleasure and an honor to talk to you and to meet you, just thank you so much.
Kathy Sledge: Thank you.
Colleen Murphy: It was such a joy to speak with Kathy Sledge, whose voice I heard on the radio when I myself was growing up and coming of age. She and her sisters’ third album for Atco Atlantic was one of the defining moments of disco, which I hope you now understand is not a dirty word. And much like the ethos behind disco, the title track, “We Are Family,” continues to unite people from all backgrounds and beliefs. And I’m certain it will remain an anthem for generations to come.
I’m Colleen “Cosmo” Murphy and thank you for listening to “Respect: The Women of Atlantic,” a special series on What’d I Say. Subscribe to What’d I Say at your preferred podcast service.
Sister Sledge — “Thinking of You”