Interview recorded May 12, 2012
As one-fourth of Sister Sledge, Kathy Sledge's silky voice led songs such as "We Are Family," "Love Don't You Go Through No Changes on Me," and "He's the Greatest Dancer," and permanently imbeded them into the minds and hearts of soul and disco fans around the world. More than a recording artist, the performer and songwriter is currently working on a stage tribute to the glory of Billie Holiday, as well as a reality show that provides a personal glimpse into the next generation of Sister Sledge. She talked with Justin Kantor recently, not only about these projects, but also revealing some surprising behind-the-scenes stories of the early days of Sledge.
Justin: Hi. This is Justin Kantor of SoulMusic.com. Today, I have the honor of speaking with a lady who has trailblazed many paths in soul, pop, and dance music. As the primary lead vocalist of Philadelphia songbirds Sister Sledge, she made audiences get up on their feet and unite in harmony with the classics “We are Family," “He’s the Greatest Dancer,” and “Love Don’t You Go Through No Changes On Me." Now she has taken her years of experience recording and touring and is translating it all into a stage play, “The Brighter Side of Day,” paying tribute to the glory of Billie Holiday. She’s also sharing the spotlight with her daughter and nieces in a TV-bound reality series aptly titled “We are Family."
Kathy: Hi, Justin.
Justin: Hey Kathy. How are you doing?
Kathy: I’m good.
Justin: How’s your weekend going, so far?
Kathy: Oh, my gosh, the weather is absolutely beautiful. It’s so pretty today.
Justin: Well, this is really cool. We talked earlier this week, but it’s cool to do this since I kind of grew up with Sister Sledge’s music, and your solo recordings, as well. The occasion of the interview rises from this musical production that you’ve put together, "The Brighter Side of Day." So can you tell our readers what it is exactly, and how it came to life?
Kathy: Okay. It is a musical about the era and the time of Billie Holiday. I have actually been told that I bring Billie Holiday to life on stage. There are only two major productions about Billie Holiday, really. That’s "Lady Day," and then there’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. Both of those parts landed in my lap. One, for off Broadway with George Faison, and the other, with Steven Stall—"Lady Day" for Broadway.
It was just crazy to me that someone told George Faison that I channeled Billie—and he literally showed up in front of my house one day. He introduced himself and said, "I’m George Faison, and I hear you channel Billie Holiday."
Kathy: "Well, okay; I guess I do now."
Kathy: And I was awarded the part. Ironically, the play never came into fruition, but what it did was it made me revisit "The Brighter Side of Day," which was a musical that I actually had always wanted to portray about Billie.
I felt like, if I bring her to life, then why don’t we just celebrate the music and the lady and the class. We all know the heavy story. It has now been snowballing to the point where we’re sitting with major playwrights, playwrights who have productions on Broadway right now. We’re meeting and interviewing several of playwrights. We have some major backing interested in coming on board. So I’m watching this thing snowball.
The really exciting part, too, is my husband grew up with the whole Philadelphia legendary jazz circuit. He and—actually--Stanley Clarke are co-producing the music part of the project together. So the jazz legends are coming on board, too, and Stanley has invited some of his colleagues, like George Duke and Herbie Hancock. It’s exciting because I’m seeing all of these people come together to lift up the music and the era.
And, of course, in the center of it all, I’ve always felt this passion to portray Billie. People say I bring her to life. So let’s do her in a way that she’d be extremely proud, and that’s what "Brighter Side of Day" is all about.
Justin: So all the songs in the production are songs that she recorded or performed at some point?
Kathy: Yes, some of them, of course, are songs that we know her by, and then there are some original compositions.
Justin: Oh, really?
Kathy: Yes, definitely. I am a songwriter. And it’s funny--there’s one song in particular called “Take Away Two," which you would think is straight out of the 1940's. But I actually wrote it around ten years ago with a music colleague of mine, Tim Gleason. Now we're watching everything just come to life.
In fact, you can visit BrighterSideofDay.com. There’s a music page which pulls up some of the music that takes you right to the era. Some of Alicia Keys' horn section are a part of the show, as well. They’re called the Chops. If you’ve seen any award shows, then you’ve got to know the Chops. They are one of the strongest horn sections ever. It’s interesting because what we are doing--it’s like bringing these legends back to life on stage, like Louis Jordan and the Timpani 5, Louis Armstrong and, of course, Billie Holiday. Some of the greats.
We’ve only performed "Brighter Side of Day" twice. We debuted some of it at BB King’s, when I had a concert there, and we got rave reviews. Then we debuted it in Philadelphia, and then we said, “Okay, I could take it on the road.” But seeing the kind of energy that’s coming on board, it’s definitely a Broadway-bound production. The energy has been amazing. So I’m very excited.
Justin: Are there any specific places that are set to perform it next, or is it kind of to-be-determined?
Kathy: I performed it at the Black Congressional Caucus, too. Julian Bond was there, who was on the board of a theater in Washington, DC.
Justin: The Lincoln Theater?
Kathy: Yes, on U Street. Also, one of the attorneys for the Lincoln Theater was at one of the performances. It’s that kind of show that, when you see it, now they’re saying "When it is ready, please bring it here." So I have to say, it’s more than a passion of mine. I feel like I have to do this. I feel like I’ve been doing Billie since I was 16 years old, and what’s ironic is that I never studied her, I can just do her. In fact, if you go to the website, a lot of people think that’s Billie Holiday singing, and it’s me.
Justin: Yeah, it’s great; I heard some excerpts on there. It’s really awesome. I was curious: this is a different facet of the entertainment industry from what you’ve become known for. Coming from the recording and touring background and the music business that you’ve been so successful in for the last several decades, has it been daunting at all to you to sort of dip your feet into this world of theatre? Is it a lot different, or is it kind of a smooth transition?
Kathy: I can honestly say, I think I’ve been blessed in the respect that people that know me as an artist, they know I’m an entertainer. I haven’t had any hurdles, so to speak, of people thinking, "Well, can you do that?" It’s funny because, I sometimes do parallel myself a lot to the Jacksons, like Michael, in this respect, being the youngest out of five siblings, and starting out when you’re around 8, 12 years old—literally growing up on stage. Stage is like home to me.
I think, if you’re an entertainer, then wherever that platform is, you’re just very comfortable in it. So I’ve been very fortunate that people, they get it, and I haven’t had anyone say, "Well, that’s odd." I think it has a lot to do with the portrayal of Billie. People always ask me what do I think of when I do her, to do her so well. The first word that comes to mind, ridiculously so, is strength: the huge strength this woman had. I always say, if it were a different time, it would have been a different story with her.
Justin: Well, I was just talking with a friend last night who was telling me how, at the time that she was going through all that she did, there was such a stigma attached to anyone who had an addiction. So, unfortunately, at that time it just kind of made it really much harder for her. I think it’s cool that you’re kind of focusing again on the "Brighter Side of Day." In other words, it’s not like a Lady Sings the Blues part two kind of thing.
Kathy: No, and it’s funny, because, when I got the part in "Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill," for the audition, George Faison had me come to New York. He put me in a room with a piano player, and he sat in a chair and said "Okay, for your audition, I want you to channel Billie." And I sang “God Bless the Child” and I did channel this one thing. I can do her voice, and it’s very thin line to be doing an impersonation of someone or actually bringing someone back, bring the audience back to that whole era where you just feel like you’re there. I handle it very carefully with kid gloves, because people have asked me can I do certain performances.
I don’t want it to seem like a revue, because it’s about an era. I thought, you know, if that is really the case, and when I have performed it, in some cases, elderly people, especially--they sit in front and they cry. Some watch it with their eyes closed. They’re there. I can imagine, these are some people that actually saw her perform.
I can tell that the body language is kind of scary. I’ve never studied her, I can just feel what she probably felt. People have told me that my voice sounds a lot like a clarinet sometimes, when I do jazz. I hear that’s the instrument that they would say that her voice reminds you of. So, I think that’s where it can connect, vocally, but I just say, okay, if that’s what this is, then let’s do it in a way--not changing history—but I feel like Marilyn Monroe had a very challenging life, but we’re not reminded of it every time you see her.
So I thought, with Billie, there was a time in her life—basically how do you want to be remembered? Do you want to be remembered for the heavy or for what the legend … the very music that you brought here, that you left us with?
Then I even think about the fact that even though she had the heavy, she always was portrayed as a lady. There are certain candid photographs that I’ve seen of her that exuded so much class. Especially as I got the part, too, in “Lady Day.” "Lady Day" was written by Stephen Stahl, and ran for years in Paris. Dee Dee Bridgewater played the part, and I heard that she was phenomenal. She actually did the whole play in French in Paris, and then it played in the West End, and it was nominated for the Lawrence Olivier award.
So, the story … and that’s the part that I got for Broadway … one of their major producers moved on to Boston, so it was on hold. That again made me revisit "Brighter." What’s interesting, Stephen Stahl, who is an historian--he studied Billie Holiday’s life.
When I got the part, I got a chance to learn more about her. There were some uncanny parallels. Like, I was doing a cold reading: two things happened. Everyone always asks me what’s my favorite song whenever I portray or do Billie, and hands down, it’s “Them There Eyes." I think it’s sexy, I think it’s flirtatious, I think it’s fun. And people expect me to say “God Bless the Child” or “Strange Fruit"—which I hate singing “Strange Fruit." I do. But I love “Them There Eyes."
So here I am at this cold reading with a lot of producers, and this is my first time even learning certain things about her. I had to do a cold reading, in her words, of why “Them There Eyes” is her favorite song. I was like, wow, I’m just kind of smiling, like okay. I knew that.
And then there was another really interesting part of the cold reading where, again, this is her life--I’m reading and I didn’t realize that her father left her when she was three. Well, mine left when I was four. He died in Texas, and mine died in Texas. And this is all in the reading and I’m learning as I’m reading.
It’s not going to be hard for me to feel this character. It’s not going to be hard for me to relate to certain things. But, at the end of the day, I just felt like, let’s just celebrate this woman. We know the heavy; let’s just lift her, and that is really the whole backbone behind "Brighter Side of Day." It’s exciting, because, of course, I started this, but now I’m seeing major people come on board--Stanley Clarke for instance. I’m a huge fan of his.
And I think people get it, and I think they are ready to embrace this legend the way that “Brighter” embraces her.
Justin: Well, that’s really a gift, I think, that you can channel her, and the way you can; it allows you to send those positive vibes out into the universe about her legacy. It really is interesting that you have those parallels with her life. It’s almost as if, you know, you’re connected in some way.
You’re also using your experience and expertise to sort of, I believe, guide the careers of your children in some ways--and even some of your sister’s children in show businesses with a reality series that you’re working on, aptly titled “We Are Family."
Kathy: I’m excited about that, too. I have to tell you, Justin. I toured with Michael [Jackson] and his brothers years ago, the sister brother tour, and there were so many things that I felt that I could relate to with him. Even though we didn’t speak much, but there were some parallels. So, of course, when he passed, we were all devastated; but I was ridiculously devastated.
What it did with me was it made me stop and say, "Tomorrow’s not promised,” and there are four projects. "Brighter Side of Day" is one of them, the “We Are Family” reality show … that is around the time that I started these projects, and now they’re getting traction and starting to really build.
Now there’s a book deal that I’ve just been offered, but to make a long story short, “We Are Family” was another one of these projects. I just felt like …The motivational speaker Les Brown says to live your dreams. He raised a question in one of his books. He asked a classroom at a university, "Where are some of the greatest resources ever?" They were answering, "The gold mines in Africa," or, "The oil wells in Saudi Arabia,” or "The corn fields in Wisconsin." And he said, “No, actually, they’re in the graveyards. Because there are dreams and poems and songs and things we will never get to know if you don’t do them now.” And so, when Michael passed, I thought about some of the things that I’ve talked about doing, and I started. I just rolled up my sleeves.
The “We are Family” reality show is basically about the next generation. Each sister, the sisters and daughters; they’re gorgeous girls. My daughter, Kristin Gabrielle, Debbie’s daughter, who's tall like Debbie, Kim’s daughter, and then, my goddaughter actually reminds me of Esperanza Spalding, amazing musician from Berklee. They’re all talented.
Justin: I went to Berklee, as well.
Kathy: Oh, did you? Okay. I’m thinking—and then you have this huge brand--my sisters and I have this huge brand. Let’s just attach this really swagger, hip, fun, adorable generation to it—and of course, the moms will come out, eventually, too. I actually put it together that I’m sure there’s going to be an interest, where are the moms?
But I thought, "Here’s a way that I can do this,” and, yes, reinvent the sisters, as well. At the same time, it’s true that branding is a huge thing now. Another thing is they’re all college grads; there’s so much more to the next generation. I use the girls as a hook, but then the sisters of sons, as well, they remind me of the Wayans family. The response has been very strong.
We have three different networks that are interested, and I’m praying that one, in particular--I can’t say yet--jumps on. So I’m hoping that by the time that this gets released, we’ll know which network it is, but it’s looking very good, and you will be hearing about it. Of course, it’s called “We are Family,” and “Sledge Girl” was derived from my daughter’s Twitter name, and so that’s what they called it then, but that’s what the show’s basically about. It’s about [how] they can be a band.
The footsteps are hard to follow; the challenge is there. But there’s a lot of family and there’s drama. There’s lots of drama in my generation, with my sisters, I can tell you, that’s a show in itself! But I thought, here’s a way to do this that it can really happen.
Justin: Well, I imagine, for them, having that family guidance from you and the other girls is an invaluable asset. I can say for myself, not coming from a showbiz family, that when I set out for a career in the business—going to Berklee for that reason, for performing; I studied the business aspect.
It was very overwhelming, because even with a college education in music education, I felt like the constant sort of hard-balling and rejection that you encounter in the music industry can really zap your creative energy a lot. Kind of conflicts sometimes with what you’re trying to project as an artist. So I don’t know if you have any thoughts on that, but it’s interesting, because you kept mentioning the new generation. I kept thinking of the song “Brand New Generation,” which was one of the first songs Sister Sledge ever recorded.
Kathy: That’s right; that was our first.
Justin: So, going back a bit, and I know it was a different time and place when you guys started. I think you were ten when you had that first record on the Money Back label in Philadelphia, with “Time Will Tell” and “Brand New Generation.”
Kathy: That’s when I had all that vibrato in my voice [mimics], like a little goat.
Justin: Yeah, I know! I just think of the end of “Brand New Generation,” you have your little dialogue: “Brand new generation, y’all.”
Kathy: Yep. "Sock it to me now, come on!" I used to get them all out of their seats. Yeah, you’re right, "brand new generation, y’all."
Justin: How was it then? Looking back at the beginning of you and your sisters' career, that you arrived at a situation where you had a record deal at that young age?
Kathy: It’s such an interesting question. I’ve been quiet for a long time. But, actually, I just did the "O" interview, and it was kind of a catharsis to start opening up about growing up in the industry, a family full of women under a magnifying glass.
We stand for family, so you can’t butt heads, even though, of course, we do. But when we were younger, I don’t recall ever planning or having dreams of being a singer. It just happened.
People don’t realize where we came from; we lived on top of a bar. There were five of us: my mom, my sister, my elder sister, who is my best friend, Carol. She was kind of like our mom figure, because my mom would hold down three jobs.
Really what happened was someone asked us. But we never felt like we were struggling. We always had so much love. There was such a bond with us. I think, if anything, music got in the way of that bond, and that’s the hardest thing. That’s a challenge with most bands, but even more magnified in family bands, and even more magnified in a family band that stands for family. So I think we had some huge challenges, but back then, never planned to be a group.
Someone came up to us and, I mean, we would harmonize while we were playing jacks; we would just sing. It was actually a part of recreation for us, because we didn’t have much, but we would sing. We would make up our own carnivals; we would do things like, I kid you not, make carnivals for the neighborhood. We would do things like make little popcorn balls and sell them.
Justin: That’s very creative. That’s cool.
Kathy: We were very creative and we always had fun together as sisters, and we enjoyed each other as sisters. And I can say that music has gotten in the way of that. When I was a little girl, I remember someone asking us, could we perform because their band walked out on them two weeks before their cabaret. They were going to pay us three hundred dollars. And I remember, we were like, "Three hundred dollars? Doesn’t he realize that we’ll do this for free?" I was like, "Don’t tell anybody, because I’d do this for free; are you kidding?" That, I kid you not, was the start of us becoming a band.
t was serendipitous; we never ever planned it. We never even planned our name. We were the Sledge Sisters and the DJ had a bit too much to drink and introduced us backwards.
My sister Carol was there that night, I remember. She goes, "That’s kind of cute guys, you should keep that. Call yourself Sister Sledge." We were the Sledge Sisters, and what I’m getting at is that everything was, I guess, God’s plan. We jumped right on, and I’ve been singing ever since.
And I do think that here are so many stories to tell in our story, and so I’m looking forward to telling it. But I think that it was a way, honestly, to help out with the bills. From that cabaret, we got asked to sing at a club in Center City in Philadelphia. And there we were every Saturday and Sunday night, and then back to school the next day.
Then everything linked on like a chain. There were some producers that came to one of the night clubs that we were singing at. They asked us, "Can we produce you, because we’re trying to get a record deal as producers and songwriters, and who knows? You might get a record deal from it,” and we did. And from that, that was our huge hit overseas, “Mama Never Told Me.”
Justin: So was that the Young Professionals, the ones that you were talking about?
Kathy: No, "Time Will Tell" was something that we did and I remember that was …
Justin: It says music by, produced by Marty Bryant.
Kathy: Marty Bryant, who’s my Facebook friend, now that you mention him. Yes, great guy. He produced “Time Will Tell” and the other song, “Brand New Generation." They were very quiet. They got some airplay locally. We were starting to be known as a local band, and we were working every weekend and we were helping out with the bills.
And then another local club we worked at--that’s where we met Thom Bell and Phil Hurst and they were these two young producers that wanted to get a production and songwriting deal with the Philadelphia Sound.
As it turned out, they produced us, and that one song that we did went to number one in the UK for weeks on the charts, and that was “Mama Never Told Me." That took us overseas and that’s why, I think, to this day, Sister Sledge has more international value, because we had a lot of international hits way before “We Are Family."
Justin: You mentioned that the circumstance you came from, you weren't living in the lap of luxury. But it’s interesting when you mention the time that passed before you had a major hit in the U.S. Of course, you had “Love, Don’t You Go Through No Changes On Me," which was definitely successful for you.
Kathy: But you want to hear something funny? That was more successful for us in Japan and in other countries than it was here. It got some airplay. I remember, I'd go to school and I stopped talking about what I was doing, because I was excited to say I just put a record out. No one would ever hear it. Or I was excited to say, "I was just in Japan this weekend," but I just stopped because it came off like I was lying or bragging to my friends. But what it did do was it helped me to get a very strong balance. One is your life and one is your work—and life comes first.
Justin: Did you find being signed to a major label like Atlantic Records, which you were with—you said earlier that the music sometimes came between things with the sisters. Was that what you were alluding to, in terms of decisions about what material you were going to record or …
Kathy: Oh, goodness, I think decisions about everything. I’m finally being more vocal about it. Sometimes people wonder: "Why don’t they perform together?" One reason: There’s a problem when I sing with my sisters. They believe that “We Are Family" and songs that we’ve done through the years, that they should lead now.
I’m kind of just bringing it out more, but I think that, at the end of the day, I remember I had a fan come up to me once and he said, "Where do I go if I want to hear these songs the way I want to hear them?" And I think that’s what encouraged me, too, to do more shows by myself.
Sometimes there’s a yearning out there from the fans to hear the songs the way they know them. I did do a solo project in ’92 and now, and I’ve been back and forth with my sisters. We’ve done "Oprah." We do things together, but I think that, creatively, it’s important that you grow. And I see myself growing more than ever, and I think it’s healthy. But I do have a passion for making sure that the music is how we know it. I think there’s differences, we’ll butt heads with that, creatively.
I know the last time we worked together, my sister Joni said, "I re-recorded 'Family' and I’m singing it now. I will go through that, and I sometimes wonder if Michael when through that. I don’t know. But I do know that with family bands and with any band, there’s always a need to grow, and it has to be done in a healthy way. And it is one reason why I did put the reality show together.
I thought, “I think this is healthy that there is the next generation.” And then I do think there will be the demand to see what the sisters are doing now, and there is another angle of recreating. I do believe that there is an audience out there that wants to know. But you have to do it strategically, in a way that it’s interesting and a way that people still care and a way that it works.
Justin: It’s interesting, because the group is so strongly associated with the song “We are Family." I was thinking, there were a lot of great songs that you guys did, even before that that just didn’t have the fortune of being hits. There was even one that you co-wrote that I was particularly fond of called “Love Has Found Me” that was a single for you guys.
Kathy: Ah, yes. “Love Has Found Me." That was with Don Freeman.
Justin: Don Freeman. I saw you wrote it; it was produced by Bert De Coteaux and Tony Silvester from the Main Ingredient.
Kathy: That was Don Freeman and I believe I had some writing, I think I did some writing with “Love Has Found Me."
Justin: Yeah, you did; that’s what I was saying, you co-wrote that one with Don.
Kathy: Hello. No wonder I love that song. Yeah, I’ve written so much. I’m a passionate songwriter, and that is another reason why I’m embracing writers so much. One thing I have leaned through all of this, especially in the past two years as I’ve been creating the “We Are Family” show and "Brighter Side of Day," is that I have a gift for creating music and projects and ideas.
It’s like Les Brown says, you have to tap on these gifts and take chances on them; otherwise you’ll never know. I think, with the writing part, I’m watching, especially Broadway plays now--the markets are so much more wide open to newcomers in the field. Before, they were your classic Andrew Lloyd Weber, and now we have plays like "Memphis," which Bon Jovi wrote music for. So people are wide open to different kinds of music and different kinds of people coming on board in all different markets.
That’s another reason I thought, it doesn’t get any better than some of Billie’s music, and it wasn’t just all the blues and it’s not just all Billie: it’s the era. It’s Louis Jordan and songs like "Caldonia" and "Five Guys Named Moe"—songs with heavy band orchestration, heavy horn sections. Dizzy Gillespie, "Salt Peanuts." Songs that take you right to the era.
And I thought, what’s so interesting about a lot of these Broadway plays now is that the music is such a huge core. I remember back in the ‘80s, my sisters and I were touring in the UK. There were all these cover bands that would do ABBA songs. Kids were coming out in droves to hear the ABBA songs. It wasn’t ABBA; it was a cover band. And then I heard that that was the birth of "Mamma Mia." Someone took those songs and wrote a story line through them. So I think that’s the angle that we’re taking with the playwrights as we sit with them. Let’s be creative and weave a story through these songs. It’s pretty awesome.
They did the same thing with "Titanic." It wasn’t a musical of course, but it was a real event. So they built these two fictitious characters around it, to weave a story through it. So, even though the Titanic was real, maybe Leonardo Dicaprio and Kate Winslett’s characters--they weren’t real—but it made it interesting.
Justin: It brought it to life.
Kathy: Yeah, and those are the angles that we’re all discussing in writing Brighter Side of Day. Another thing that happened when I did sing at the Congressional Black Caucus: the producer for the show, which really left a huge impression on me, said, "You know, I love seeing you do this portrayal of Billie. It’s classy; it’s beautiful." And he said, "There’s so many generations that are being introduced to her. We’re not changing history, we’re just bringing out another part of her. Something that would make you want to wear a gardenia in your hair when you’re in the theater."
Justin: When you mentioned songwriting, I have to say there is one Sister Sledge song that I believe the whole group wrote, but it seems to be one of the least mentioned ones. But to me, whenever I listen to it, I get so motivated, and I feel like it should be like an anthem: “Do it to the Max."
Kathy: Ah, yeah, you know I actually wrote most of that. That was with Don Freeman, too, I think. “Max is where it’s at." Wow, you do do your homework.
Justin: Well, it’s interesting to me because there’s been so many Sister Sledge collections that have come out, but there’s a number of the songs that never get on any of them, and a couple of the ones I wanted to mention for that reason because I truly—like that’s a song I have it on my iPod from the vinyl, I transferred it. So in my workout sometimes I’ll listen to it, and there’s other really cool songs like that, like “Love Has Found Me." I really think they’re great songs, but you never hear about those.
But that just is interesting to know, when I was looking at the labels to see you guys actually were writing some of the stuff. Another notable thing to me, that I think everyone relates to with what you’re doing now with the next generation—is when you guys were putting out a lot of albums in the ‘80s, you were a group that actually produced yourselves, specifically with your album THE SISTERS.
I know that it was interesting because you had come from the success of working with these super-producers like Nile Rodgers, Narada Michael Walden, and then it was really cool to see that you produced your own album—and even on the music within that, you were exploring a variety of styles. You did some rapping with “Super Bad Sisters,” and you did the remake of “My Guy,” that classic, I think that …
Kathy: That was my biggest input. I remember that album. My biggest input in that one was that I really, really pushed for “My Guy." I thought that was a great cover song.
Justin: Yeah, because I was going to say, it seemed like after that, that became a big part of what you guys would do in your shows. So I was just curious about that aspect of producing yourselves. Was that a difficult feat to achieve at that time, as a female group in the industry, or was it something that could be easily done? Do you have any memories about that?
Kathy: Yeah, I do. THE SISTERS project--we did get a chance to produce it. It was an interesting project for us, as well, learning how to work together as producers. To be honest with you, it wasn’t a fun feat. There were a lot of control things going on in there, honestly. I had very little input, but I did push for “My Guy."
I learned from that project immensely; and there’s a reason why you have producers on board. There’s a reason why you have writers on board. I’m a songwriter, but even with my first solo project, HEART— I did write “Heart” on that project; but I listened through so many songs because even though I wanted to write, I wanted to hear. I wanted to be wide open to other songs, and I found some treasures, I think.
And what I did learn from that project--I really got a chance to have a real hand in a project. With THE SISTERS, I did get a chance, like I said, to put “My Guy” in there, but I didn’t have a lot of leeway in working together.
Justin: It’s interesting because that ended up being the lead single from the project, so that was cool, I guess.
Kathy: That was interesting. You know what’s funny? I always tell my sisters, “You guys should listen to me,” but what happened was that it was the single chosen and it became a turntable hit, which meant that the DJs grabbed it. It was kind of like the market was saying, “This is what we like,” and I was kind of proud of that.
And maybe from being the youngest, you don’t get listened to as much, but you get, as you grow and you learn and you get wiser, you don’t get as distracted, and you set your goals. I think that’s one reason why it’s healthy to grow apart. And I think that, in the SISTERS project, it was a learning experience.
But with my first solo project, with HEART, I was saying, what I learned that the late Bernard Edwards told me after the project was out. He took me out to dinner and we were talking colleagues, musician to musician, and he said, "I loved your album." I said, "Well, give me some feedback." He goes, "It was a collaboration of some great songs.
What it lacked," he said, "was the continuity, and that’s what a strong producer comes in, like Quincy Jones did for the THRILLER project for Michael. That is the gift of an amazing producer. Like what Terry Lewis does with Janet, for her projects. There’s a continuity and each song runs into the other and you can have a string of hits from all different writers. But what’s going to make that continuity to the project work, is a strong producer." I believe that I’ve grown now to be a stronger producer.
I co-produced some of the music on "The Brighter Side of Day" project, but the kind of producer that I’d love to be is the one with my ears wide open for ideas. There are people all in the process that are there for a reason. The state-of-the-art engineer, let him control the board. Don’t try to do it yourself. I think, with the HEART project, I learned that it’s so much better a project when you bring in experts that do what they do. Where you come in is, you’ve got to trust your ear. If you don’t like it, you have to say, "Can we try a little less ad-lib?" You just trust what you hear.
And then sometimes it’s give and take. Once a collegue of mine was telling me they produced Mariah Carey, and at the very end, she started going on the octaves really high. He said, "We don’t really need that in here." They played it back again and she did it again. And that happened like three times and finally they said, "Why do you keep doing that?" And she said, "Because I can." And I thought that was kind of cool. It was like, okay. And sometimes it is give and take. The artists have to listen to the producers, and producers have to listen to the artist. When you come up with a really good marriage, you have these huge successful projects.
So, there’s a reason why some artists are artists. I remember, once again, on the HEART project, some people would submit their songs and then they’d go, "Well, if you use it, I have to produce it." And we would let them and then the record company would turn around and go, "We don’t like this production, but we love the song." And I learned that sometimes when you’re a writer, you’re too close to your songs. It’s good to have another flavor come in and try to …
Justin: Well, I was trying to think, I can’t remember the names, it was Annie something that wrote that song I love, “All of My Love." I don’t know if you’ve seen--I did a little performance of it at a little local event, because I was just really inspired by that. I thought you did a lovely job with that. I didn’t really know the songwriters from elsewhere, but it was just a beautiful song.
Kathy: Stephanie and Steve Gold. At the time, they were a married couple, and they wrote beautiful love songs, but they submitted that song, and again, I would listen through so many songs for the project, and that one just stood out--that and “I Think of You," which is one of my favorite songs, by the late Sami McKinney. Oh, my gosh, I love that song.
Justin: I didn’t realize he had passed away.
Kathy: Yeah, he passed away.
Justin: When did he pass away?
Kathy: Maybe like four years ago.
Justin: I met him once when I was living out in LA; he was a really great guy.
Kathy: He was a delight, wasn’t Sami so sweet?
Justin: He was so fun. A lot of times you meet people that are really cool and everything, in the business; and he just was really vibrant. I was talking to him, because I don’t know if you ever heard a song he wrote called “Did You Pray Today?” that was recorded by this girl named Lisa Taylor. You should look if up if you haven’t heard; it’s a really powerful song.
Kathy: I will. I would love to hear that.
Justin: He was telling me at the time, "I think we’re going to get Patti LaBelle to record that" because, it’s one of those songs that, unfortunately, because she, Lisa Taylor, was new and wasn’t known as much, I don’t think it got to the next level. It was successful, but it was kind of limited to being a radio hit.
Kathy: It’s funny. That’s how the record companies really mess up—because they don’t know what to get behind.
Justin: When we were talking about THE SISTERS, there is a guy who’s on a lot of that project: Nick Mundy.
Kathy: Oh, I love Nick. He’s a great writer.
Justin: Yeah, he’s really cool, too. He’s one of my Facebook friends. I have some of his solo projects, and he had told me that he used to tour with you guys playing guitar. I saw that he’s on a lot of these songs.
Kathy: He’s written so many. We talk about collaborating. He’s my Facebook friend, too. He has a very cool sound. I think it’s great when musicians like Nick just keep putting out what they’re about, because then what happens is, you always know what you’re going to get and you’re always going to be happy with it.
Justin: When you have that personal chemistry, I think it lends itself to better creative output. From the business standpoint, I was wondering, in the ‘80s— especially that time, a lot of the paths hadn’t been beaten yet, as four sisters together in the industry. I got the impression that you guys were very much take-charge in your career, and very involved in a lot of aspects.
Did you find that being four women together in the industry that you had to be very aggressive in order to get done what you needed to do for your careers? And, if so, do you feel that you ever, as women, got a bad rap because of the fact that you were women paving your way in the business?
Kathy: Definitely. I think we were more or less trailblazers in a lot of things in this respect. We would break the barriers. I found out, for instance, on one of the VH1 specials about the top women in the industry, we came in at number four of the girl groups. I think, before us it was the Supremes and maybe Three Degrees, but we were the first girl band.
This sounds not as important, but this was just one of the facets: we were the first girl band to ever do choreography and wear pants. Because I couldn’t even imagine myself in a gown, but what’s interesting is that we broke a lot of barriers at a lot of different levels.
After us, I think it was TLC and the Spice Girls. We were the ones that actually said, "No, you don’t have to be just standing up there in a long gown and gloves." I don’t think I’ve even seen myself in a gown, except for the Grammy’s. Of course, we broke a lot of barriers, as far as being entertainers—choreography and movement and energy--girl bands don’t have to be just kind of like standing there like the Raelettes.
Then, as far as the business part of it, yes. For instance, our mother was our manager in the early days. Now, every other artist’s mother is their manager—Chris Brown to Usher. But back then, it wasn’t impressive to be a mother/manager. You were a backstage mom.
Honestly, the parents now have pretty much taken over the management role so much so, a lot of managers are pissed about it. But I think, who better to understand Usher’s career or Beyoncé’s career than her mom? Because it’s beyond career direction. This is your daughter. Now the doors are wide open to that.
We were, of course, in that day where our mom was our manager and would really catch it. My mother really would catch it. That was one barrier that I think we paved the way for, and then, of course, yes, wanting to have more say so—more than just going in there and singing the songs, wanting to write more. We would always push for that. I don’t think a lot of the artists now even have to worry about those things. People embrace their music or embrace their parents coming in to get on board. And I’m proud to say that.
Justin: So, fast forwarding back to now, as we’ve talked about, so you have "The Brighter Side of Day" and the "We Are Family" show; and you mentioned the book that you just got a deal for.
What are your long term goals at this point, either for yourself, or for the next generation of Sister Sledge? What is most important to you at this point in your career and in your family--their careers?
Kathy: I feel like there’s so many things that I am tapping on now and exploring—and realizing, "Wow, there’s something there!" I want to tap on it even more, and one of them definitely is writing.
The reality show opened the door to other ideas of reality shows. Not just about the next generation, but talking to some other networks and production companies about some other shows that I’ve put together—totally not even related to Sister Sledge or the family.
I don’t know if it’s in my bio, but I was in Antigua and there was a rumor that I was looking for a place to shoot the "We are Family" reality show. So the board of tourism approached me and said, "Can you shoot it here?" And I thought, well, you know, that’s going to be a lot of a network to fly over here all the time. But what happened was I was there for a minute and I went to visit, because I’m always interested in the educational systems around the country and around the world.
I went to visit a small school and, as I was leaving, the principal motioned for me to please come back into this little school house, and I did. The kids were maybe six to eight years. They circled around me and sang “We Are Family." It pulled on my heartstrings.
As I was getting back into the car, there was a structure, a building near them. It was pretty, but needed a lot of work. Someone from the board of tourism told me that was their library, and I thought, "We can come back and film people giving back."
It was the beginning of a project that led me to be asked to be the goodwill ambassador for Antigua. It's so cool, because now I look at it as more than a title. I’m feeling like there’s so many things, since reality TV’s going to be here for a while: let’s just start putting out some really cool, quality reality shows. That was the beginning of one of them.
It's called "Love Will." That’s the name of the show that we’re pitching.I got the idea from a song that I recorded with Carvin Haggins, who’s a Grammy Award-winning writer and producer. If you go to my website, you can hear "Love Will," and you can also hear another song called “A Little A Lot.”
I had not recorded in a long time. People will always ask me, "Why aren’t you recording?" For a while I just sat back, because the industry was just so crazy. But when I heard those songs, it made me want to record and sing them, because I loved them. That’s when I got the idea for the title of this show that’s being pitched.
To make a long story short, I’m seeing that my ideas are being embraced pretty well; and I started going, "Well, here’s a whole platform that I’ve never explored before, but it’s starting to get some traction." So, more than anything, I’m excited about moving forward and growing into different platforms that I’ve never explored before.
Of course, I will always do music. I will always, as far as I’m concerned, love performing. Like I said earlier, I grew up on stage, and every time I perform, especially “We Are Family," it’s always new. I mean, if you think about it, it always will be. It’s like it’s going to be the first time that I’m performing it in some different situation with different people. I can never understand when artists get tired of doing something that is so much of a blessing.
Someone just told me this yesterday and I have to share it with you: They got a chance to have a conversation with Tony Bennett. They asked him, “Do you ever get tired of singing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”? And he said, "It’s like making love." I thought, "Wow. Do you ever get tired of that?" It was a nice analogy and I really could relate to “We Are Family.” It’s always new. It’s always different. It’s always exciting. It’s a special song.
Justin: And it’s got so much history. Just yesterday I was talking with a co-worker of mine who’s from Pittsburgh, and is a big fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers. I said, "I’m going to be interviewing Kathy Sledge," and we were talking about “We Are Family." She mentioned that was the theme song for the team. I don’t keep up with sports.
Kathy: For the Pirates, yep.
Justin: She’s from Philadelphia and said, “That’s really interesting that that happened since they’re such rivals.” I said, "Well, I don’t think, at the time, that that kind of information was as known.” It’s not like the Internet age when you look up where everybody’s from, and the fact that you guys were from Philly, I don’t know if it would be a deterrent to a Pittsburgh team using it.
Kathy: To this day, people think we’re from Pittsburgh. I meet people from Pittsburgh--they give me a big hug and I’m going, "That’s my second home!"
Justin: You just keep quiet after that, right?
Kathy: It’s funny, but even that song, we got to hear the real true story with Willie Stargell from the Pittsburg Pirates. He told us that the team needed a spirited song. They needed something to give them some cohesive feeling of family. He was sitting in the dugout one day after the game; it came on the speaker, and he said, "That’s it!" And that’s the beginning of that song being adopted by the whole city.
Justin: Well, it’s so cool. What I also thought was really cool was the remake that I believe you were part of after the 9/11 attacks, that Nile put together.
Kathy: That was a truly very heartwarming experience, because everyone was on the same page. It wasn’t about, "How much studio time do I get?" People just showed up with their hearts wide open, because it still does devastate all of us, the whole 9/11.
Justin: Well, I was living in New York at the time, when it happened. If you were there it’s kind of like you don’t even know how to process it--because I’m not from New York. I had just moved there, actually, not long before that, so when that came out …
Kathy: The artists in that session, I can honestly say—people just showed up with huge hearts and couldn’t give enough. I think that Spike Lee captured that on the film that he did about it.
Justin: It was a really positive vibe to it. I remember it as one of the really encouraging things that came out of that. Thanks so much again, and have a great rest of the weekend.
Kathy: You, too. Enjoy this gorgeous weekend.
Justin: I’m going to. You, too. Bye, Kathy.
Kathy. Bye. Take care.
About the Writer
Justin Kantor is a freelance music journalist with published works in Wax Poetics and the All-Music Guide. A graduate of Berklee College of Music's Business and Management program, he regularly writes liner notes for reissue labels.