THERE is a certain closeness, a certain warmth about a family unit that is totally indestructible. It positively glows and when you are lucky enough to be confronted with the perfect (or as close as you can humanly get!) family, it leaves a glow in you for days.
Sister Sledge — the four beautiful young ladies from Philadelphia and their absolutely gorgeous mother — are undoubtedly one of those heart-warming families and to see them topping the charts with their golden "We Are Family" album — not to mention the two singles, "He's The Greatest Dancer" and "We Are Family" — gave me a certain sense of satisfaction.
I recall the very first interview I did with these charming ladies. It was on a cold November night something like five (or was it six?) years ago. I was on the London end of a telephone and all four sisters and their mother were gathered in the living room of their comfortable home in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, our photographer/representative, Kwame Brathwaite, merrily clicked his camera and captured an innocence that is rarely seen in this business.
It kicked off a friendship/relationship that I greatly treasure and so, when given the slightest chance, I always wanted to try and capture this warmth on paper.
Unfortunately, Debbie wasn't present — she was about to give birth to a second child (congratulations, in advance!). But it gave me the opportunity of meeting the fifth sister, Carol — and confirmed that the whole family is just one big pleasure.
I hope that this feature does justice to Flo Sledge and her daughters, Joni, Kathy, Kim, Debbie and Carol.
B&S: Kathy, how old are you now?
KS: I'm twenty now — I'm the youngest.
B&S: You have been out there for eight years or so now; has it been difficult for you to grow up in this environment?
KS: It's been an experience and you do miss out on a lot of things, I know. But it's not so much difficult as different. We started making a little noise when I was still at High School and I went through the envy thing with some of my friends — but nothing too drastic. I didn't get into fights or anything! You just learn to stick with your true friends.
B&S: Did being on the road affect your education?
KS: Sometimes people look at entertainers and think how lucky we are. But when they learn that you're still in school and getting an education, they have to give a certain amount of respect to you.
B&S: Are you still studying now?
KS: Yes, Therapeutic Recreation for handicapped and elderly people, and children. I really love old people and children.
B&S: Don't you care about the rest of us in between!?
KS: Oh, sure I do — but I feel that children and old people need more help than we do.
B&S: What is your aim in that direction?
KS: I have it all planned out! Whatever capital I make from Sister Sledge, I am going to invest it in recreation centers for children and special medical centers for handicapped people. And then leisure centers for the elderly. In one way, it'll also be an investment for me but it is a labour of love. And I intend to be really involved in it, too. It will always be something that I can fall back on, too.
B&S: Can you ever see that replacing your desire to entertain?
KS: Maybe — when that time comes. There is a time for everything, after all. But hopefully I can do both.
B&S: What does the studying entail?
KS: You learn the technical things — such as administration and business. One of my greatest experiences in life was actually working with kids during my summer break. And that convinced me of what I am doing.
B&S: Are you planning to have children of your own?
KS: Yes — as many as I can! Really, though, I want three children — two boys and a girl. Two boys because every boy needs a friend but one girl because she has to be the center of attraction!
B&S: How many sisters do you have?
KS: There are five of us — and no brothers.
B&S: Was there any battle between you to be the center of attraction?
KS: No, we never had that problem because we never felt that mum favoured any one of us. And my sisters are my very best friends and I could never have made it through without them.
B&S: Did your confidence come from them?
KS: I think so. It's nice to have a tight family thing but you do have to grow for yourself. I am now at the point in my life where I have to become more independent and to start finding myself.
B&S: Has the success of "We Are Family" changed you?
KS: Only the way some friends treat me! It really got to me at first and I started to think that if this is what happens, do I really want the recognition. But I have come to realise that you can't please everybody.
B&S: Maybe your friends are not as adult as you are because of the lifestyle you have lived in the last few years. And you are experiencing things at a far earlier stage in life than most young ladies. Anyway, Kathie, how heavily involved in songwriting are you now?
KS: Very heavily. I want to write for other artists now, too. I guess I have about fifty songs. I tend to write lyrics mostly. It's like writing a diary really — because I'm not the kind of person who can just sit down and write a song about anything. It has to be from personal experience. I have written a song that I would like to submit to Aretha Franklin — but I haven't quite finished it yet. I wrote it with a guy called Don Freeman; he's with Seals & Crofts now but when we next get together, we'll finish it. I love heavy lyrics and I guess my songs are like Janis Ian's.
B&S: Does that make you a deep person?
KS: I think so. My sister, Carol, was saying the other day that artists and poets are considered a little weird. But, really, they are the ones who deal with reality. My lyrics are definitely deep and I find myself often changing them so people can understand them.
B&S: Do they deal with general subjects or mainly love songs?
KS: Most of them are love songs, and since I write mostly when I'm sad, they tend to be sad.
B&S: Yet you don't appear to be a sad person — or are you?
KS: I'm at my happiest when I feel secure about myself and sometimes I feel so insecure. When I know what I am doing and where I am going, that gives me security. And, proud as I am of my family roots, I know I need individual roots, too.
B&S: When you are not busy working on Sister Sledge, what do you do with your time, Kim?
KS: I try to find peace of mind. I like to read a lot and to write poetry. And I like to research information on all sorts of things — cultures, politics, world happenings and so on.
B&S: Basically educational things?
B&S: What sort of books do you read — serious ones?
KS: Yes, revolutionary and evolutionary things. Mao Tse Tung, Che Guevara, for example. And art and religious books. I don't like fiction too much but I do have a few on my bookshelf — "Song Of Bernadette" is one. And I read text books a lot — languages, economics are my favourites.
B&S: Don't religion and revolution contradict each other?
KS: Not when you read to learn. I build my own opinion on world happenings this way — and on people. Some things do contradict each other, though. I consider myself a religious person — let's say I believe in God. And I am certainly not a revolutionary kind of person at all.
B&S: Who are the people you most respect?
KS: My mother and my grandmother.
B&S: There is a special closeness in your family — is that important for you to always fall back on?
KS: Yes, it is. It's so important that it gets ridiculous at times. When one of us has a problem, it reflects in all of us — even when it's an outside problem with a boyfriend or husband. We have learned, though, to put things aside when our careers call. It is so important to be in tune with each other when we're on stage. But we know each other so well that if Joni decided while the show is on to change the choreography, I can automatically pick it up.
B&S: What do you contribute towards the smooth running of Sister Sledge?
KS: I'm the wardrobe mistress. I have to make sure the gowns are ironed and that there are no little holes or tears anywhere. And that the shoes are intact and that the props are in order. I'm also in charge of band rehearsal. But that may all be changing soon because we are getting someone in to do all of that.
B&S: Are you a sports person or a home body?
KS: I like to do a little of everything; there isn't one thing that I do very, very well so I do some of everything. I like to walk a lot and to jog sometimes — but you can jog yourself crazy! And I ride a bike.
B&S: These are things you do on your own mainly. Do you spend a lot of time on your own?
KS: Yes — and no! I like to do things with my sisters and with my husband but I do spend time on my own. I don't like big crowds — unless I'm in a certain mood. And when I feel like that, I'll go to a disco and boogy till the place closes! But I have to be in the mood to be with a lot of people and to want fun.
B&S: Are you interested in visiting places?
KS: I love it. I love walking into a place where you can sense history. It fascinates me. I have a book that was given to me by the producer of our second album — Michael Kunze. It's an original copy of a history book that was written a couple of hundred years ago in England. And the paper is like rice paper and you even have to decipher some of it.
B&S: How important is music to you?
KS: Very important. And all types of music. From working in music, I have learned to appreciate more, I think. I know a lot of my friends who are into disco and it has helped them to develop their character, for example. And a lot of my friends from school are into political music — such as Gil Scott-Heron, for example.
B&S: Is there room for politics in music?
KS: Yes. Because music is life and it should reflect our lives.
B&S: How do you explain disco — which is considered to be happy music. And yet it is successful at a time when things are generally considered to be so bad. Is it an escape?
KS: Yes, I think so. People want a release.
B&S: Do you write music yourself?
KS: I do but I don't have the gift that Kathy and Joni have for putting together songs. I'm more into words — more of a poet.
B&S: What do you do for hobbies and relaxation, Joni?
JS: My hobbies — I love tennis! But it's not relaxation, though! It's a lot of fun but no relaxation! For relaxation, I like yoga and taking baths! I like to pamper myself and put all kinds of girlie things in a bathtub. It eases my mind and I can gather my thoughts. And relax. And I like to swim — in warm water! Water relaxes me totally.
B&S: How long can you spend in a bathtub, then — hours?
JS: If I have the time, yes. And I like writing songs because that brings out a lot from inside me that I couldn't share with the world in any other way. If something leaves a very strong impression on me, I'll sit down and write it in poetry form. Then I'll turn it into a song.
B&S: Are there certain conditions you write better under?
JS: When I'm really happy and when I'm alone, I find I write easily. And if I'm puzzled or sad, it tends to come out in poetry form. I think the sad songs are more personal — I don't know if they're more saleable, though.
B&S: Are a lot of your poems too personal to publish?
JS: I used to keep a diary when I was younger and I want to get back into it. Those are the only thoughts that I wouldn't want to share.
B&S: Within the group, do you have any responsibilities?
JS: My job is to take care of the finances. That was a big job but as we have become bigger, it's being supervised by other people now. When we first started out, we were doing little shows and someone had to keep the books intact and make sure everything checked out. If it didn't, it was my head! But it was good experience — though it was a pain at times! It was the only way for us to organise ourselves at the beginning. Happily, the figures usually tallied.
B&S: Because of your being artistic, didn't accounting contradict with your character?
JS: No, I think it added dimension. When I was younger, I used to paint and I always loved that — Debbie was a good painter, too. And I always loved to dance and I joined all kinds of dance schools — from ballet to African dancing. Ballet was good for discipline and it drew on my mental energy. And African dancing was more strenuous. I'd really like to go back to ballet classes. Oh, and I love disco. I guess I just love to dance — it's a part of me.
B&S: A lot of your hits have been dance records. Do you feel more at home in that kind of music form or would you like to see the group graduate beyond that?
JS: I think that Kathy does a great job on the "We Are Family" album. She has so much energy and her voice has never sounded better. But I do think we are capable of graduating beyond that. Personally, I like ballads because they seem so much more personal. I know a lot of entertainers who feel like that.
B&S: Is there anything else you'd like to add to what you and your sisters have told us?
JS: I would like to mention again our mother and grandmother, because they have had such an influence on our lives. And I'd like to mention Paul Robeson and people like him who have exerted such an inspiration when I am in danger of faltering.
B&S: You feel that Paul Robeson and others have paved the way and broken down the doors you are now passing through?
JS: Very much so. For us, our grandmother has been such a source because she used to be an opera singer. When I look at her, I see so much in her eyes. So much wisdom. And it gives me so much inspiration. So, I am going to make it for her, too. She is a born entertainer and she and Kathy have so much in common — they're both crazy for a start! They are always joking! And I'd like to finally thank all of our fans — who have stuck by us until we finally made it.