Sister Sledge were always more than “We Are Family.” The Philadelphia born and bred quartet captured lightning in a bottle with their third studio album of the same name in 1979, but, as with the best stories, there was always more to Sister Sledge than one song or record. With Joni Sledge’s surprise passing at the age 60 this past week, it becomes even more important that the complete story of Sister Sledge is remembered beyond their culturally ubiquitous hits.
Joni Sledge, born September 13, 1956, was one of five sisters. Like her sisters, Joni had an immense passion for music. It was no surprise that Joni, along with three of her sisters (Debbie, Kim and Kathy) formed a singing group in 1971 under the guidance of their late mother, Florez Sledge, a former actress. After making the local rounds with their inaugural single “Time Will Tell,” Sister Sledge garnered a deal with the Atlantic Records subsidiary Atco. There, they began cutting singles in preparation for their forthcoming debut album―“Mama Never Told Me” (in 1973) and “Love Don't You Go Through No Changes On Me” (in 1974). The former single brought them their first Top 20 charter abroad, in the United Kingdom, with the latter single bringing them success at home in America (US R&B #31, US Dance #5). Shortly thereafter, their first album Circle of Love (1975) appeared with production from Bert DeCoteaux and Tony Silvester, songs penned by Gwen Guthrie, Patrick Grant and Linda Creed.
The record set Sister Sledge apart from a growing number of talented girl groups in R&B with their tight, pastel textured harmonies. Musically, Circle of Love was full of punchy Philly soul and lush ballads that dressed the stage for their second LP, Together (1977), an even more enterprising collection of Euro-soul-pop flavored songs that saw Sister Sledge record with producers Michael Kunze and Sylvester Levay. Kunze and Levay had recently struck gold with “Fly, Robin, Fly” by The Silver Convention in 1975. Together also moved Sister Sledge to another subsidiary of the Atlantic imprint, Cotillion Records.
While neither Circle of Love nor Together rounded up commercial returns, in retrospect, they were fully formed recordings for Sister Sledge that have appreciated over time. In fact, the 2015 reissue of Circle of Love, courtesy of Big Break Records, further highlighted each Sledge's vocal contribution to the group. Included on the reissue was the rocky soul of “Love Ain't Easy,” one of Joni's earliest leads that displayed her vocal coquetry.
In 1979, Sister Sledge reached the commercial audience that had eluded them with their first two albums. We Are Family was produced and written, en masse, by Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers of Chic. As Sister Sledge’s label mates (Chic was signed to Atlantic Records proper), Edwards and Rodgers were fans and expressed an interest in a creative partnership. We Are Family, which made platinum gains, birthed two of the biggest hits of the disco age in its title cut and “He's the Greatest Dancer.” The songs showcased the youngest Sledge, Kathy, on lead. Her scrappy, but perfumed singing style became immediately associated with Sister Sledge in regard to their radio crowd. But one of the finest moments (and singles) from We Are Family didn't feature a lead from Kathy, but rather from Joni on “Lost in Music.” A modest R&B hit (US #35), it went on to become a cult favorite among soul and dance music aficionados, Joni's previous flirtatiousness having evolved into sensuousness.
One of the down sides of the We Are Family LP's success was that Sister Sledge became not only synonymous with the Chic Organization, their own personality almost absorbed by Chic's, but the broader disco genre as well. When they reunited with Edwards and Rodgers for their fourth album, Love Somebody Today (1980), Sister Sledge's intent was to restore their own original spirit to the album. Love Somebody Today was a creative turning point for the group, but failed to match the sales life of its predecessor in the wake of the gathering disco backlash. One of the songs that anchored the LP, a sturdy, strutting funk number, ended up as an iconic Joni lead, “Reach Your Peak.” It went on to become one of Sister Sledge's signature tunes.
As 1980 gave way to 1981, Sister Sledge, like many black acts, were struggling in the post-disco fallout. During this same year, the ladies released their true opus, All American Girls. Produced by former Mahavishnu Orchestra member and soon-to-be super producer, Narada Michael Walden, the album gifted an edge to Sister Sledge's soft serve soul with electric guitar and synthesizers. “Make a Move,” a velvety, electro-funk non-single side on All American Girls, had Joni giving one of her fiercest and most ferocious performances, an undeniable highlight in Sister Sledge's canon.
From 1982 to 1985, Sister Sledge put out three more full-length records: The Sisters (1982), Bet Cha Say That to All the Girls (1983), and When the Boys Meet the Girls (1985). The albums were as adventurous as ever―a spotlight on the self-produced effort The Sisters being quite deserved―but mainstream audiences had grown indifferent to Sister Sledge, their hits becoming more infrequent. Even with Kathy's departure in 1989, Sister Sledge weathered that and varying waves of nostalgia revivals as a top notch touring group throughout the 1990s and well into this decade. Thankfully, in that stretch of time, Sister Sledge did record two more studio albums―African Eyes (1997), with Joni, Debbie and Kim, and Style (2003), the final Sister Sledge album that saw sister Kathy return to the fold.
Cool, gracious and graceful, Joni Sledge, like all of her sisters, was an integral part of Sister Sledge. One hopes that with her passing, the complete musical travels of Sister Sledge can be properly revisited. If one positions the components of the disco genre, Chic and We Are Family into their correct points within the more expansive Sister Sledge story, a rich, sonic tapestry will be revealed to listeners old and new, beyond just these three elements. That would be a fitting way to remember Joni Sledge best.
STREAM Our Essential Sister Sledge [Remembering Joni Sledge] playlist: