With a place guaranteed in the disco hall of fame, their music defined an era and made household names out of Sister Sledge. Today “We Are Family” is sung in almost as many karaoke bars as “I Will Survive”, and other classics like “He’s The Greatest Dancer”, “Lost In Music”, “I’m Thinking Of You” and “Smile” are much- loved classics that were part of many of our own soundtracks to life.
Hailing from the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia, it was siblings Debra, Joni, Kim and Kathy that were the original glee clubbers that found a recording home at Atlantic Records’ Atco subsidiary in the mid-‘70s and debuted with CIRCLE OF LOVE under the production guidance of the Main Ingredient’s Tony Sylvester and Bert DeCoteaux; the album also featured compositions from future stars Patrick Adams, Gwen Guthrie and seasoned vets Thom Bell and Linda Creed.
A switch to the Cotillion label and working with the team behind Silver Convention, their sophomore set, TOGETHER, saw Sister Sledge dive deeper into the emerging disco sound; “Funky Family” would serve as a precursor to “We Are Family”. It would also see Kathy advancing as a songwriter, and handle lead on the majority of the album’s material. But it was their all-important third album that finally saw them break into the mainstream, thanks, in no small part, to the combined efforts of the hit songwriting and production duo of guitarist Nile Rodgers and bassist Bernard Edwards. The story has it that Atlantic were so pleased with the financial success of their Chic alter ego that they offered them the choice to work with anyone on the roster. Turning down Aretha, Roberta and Donny, they plumbed for the four charismatic sisters. It proved a shrewd move. “He's The Greatest Dancer”, which hit number one R&B and number two pop on the Billboard charts in spring 1979, was quickly followed by the album’s title track, “We Are Family”. It sold a million copies, similarly peaking and one and two respectively on the R&B and Hot 100 charts.
Several other albums followed in the ‘80s with varying degrees of success – their up tempo “Frankie” a bona fide UK number one pop single amongst them – before, in 1992, Kathy stepped away from the confines of her family to record this, her one and only full length solo album for Epic Records. She worked with the A-list of R&B producers: Barry J. Eastmond (Freddie Jackson, Barry White, George Benson), Bryan Loren (Vesta Williams, Meli’sa Morgan), Lemel Humes (Stephanie Mills, Miki Howard), Charles Farrar & Troy Taylor (Boyz II Men, Brownstone), and her husband, and regular Sister Sledge collaborator, Phil Lightfoot, among them.
HEART featured the single “All Of My Love”, a smooth ballad made for the burgeoning US quiet storm format, but it was “Take Me Back To Love Again” that finally gave the club fraternity something to sing and dance about. A light new jack swing-flavoured shuffler in its original album form, with additional remixes supplied by Roger Sanchez, the song became an instant clubbing anthem on both sides of the Atlantic topping every club chart in the process. Sanchez also worked his magic on the album’s title track which was equally well received by the dance community. The album also served as a platform for what would follow and continued her strong inroads into the burgeoning house market, such as her clubbed up reading of Stevie Wonder’s “Another Star” and the equally beefy “Another Day” with Roger Sanchez.
Almost 20 years on, there is a fair amount of datedness to the release – new jack and jill swing was all the rage then so tempos, musicianship and melodies reflected this. “Every Little Way” for example sounds like a dead ringer for Soul II Soul’s “Back To Life”, while “Since I Found You” echoes of Jody Watley at the start of her solo career. The rest of the album is mainly on the downlow, with schmaltzy ballads all too many in part; “Reason For This” is a cool Jam & Lewis-style with Eastmond’s stamp very evident. Regardless of over expectations (on my part at least), HEART marked a welcome debut from a true star of the disco era, which beguiles sharp musicianship and a sophisticated, ferociously commanding lead vocal performance that will no doubt please mature listeners.
Lewis Dene has been involved in the many facets of the music business for over 20 years. As a music journalist he has previously written for Blues & Soul, Record Collector, Music Week and DJ magazine. He currently consults for Media 2 Radio and is a resident DJ for Hed Kandi in America
About the Writer
Lewis Dene has been involved in the many facets of music business for over 20 years. As a music journalist he has previously written for Blues & Soul, Record Collector, Music Week and the BBC, in the process compiling and/or writing liner notes for over 200 CDs (including a number for SoulMusic Records). Lewis currently consults for Kings Of Spins and is a resident DJ for Hed Kandi in America.