Thursday, November 20, 2008

Blood Is Thicker Than Water

One of the most memorable, even iconic, songs of the late 70s disco era has to be the anthemic ‘We Are Family’ by American female vocal quartet Sister Sledge. Almost thirty years on the song still crops up in film and television, and through a series of remixes over the years has maintained a freshness and vitality that still packs out dance floors the world over.

Sister Sledge, or the Sledge sisters if you prefer, began their lifelong love affair with music almost before they could walk. Sisters Debra, Joni, Kim and Kathy (in order oldest to youngest) all performed regularly in church choirs, beginning with their hometown Philadelphia’s Second Macedonia Church. The Sledge family had a long tradition in music and entertainment, with both the girls’ parents having worked professionally. Their grandmother Viola Williams was an opera singer, and in fact before the girls even started attending elementary school, they sang at parties and functions under the moniker of ‘Mrs. Williams’ Grand-children’ - probably a good thing that the quartet settled on the catchier name of Sister Sledge.

Whilst still in high school Sister Sledge (then known as Sisters Sledge) recorded their debut single ‘Time Will Tell’ during 1971 for the Money Back label. The song benefited from the production talents of Marty Bryant and the backing band Slim and the Boys, the team behind the Stylistics early hits. Over the next couple of years the girls from family Sledge balanced study commitments with their growing devotion to professional music. They honed their vocal craft as backing singers with the production team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. In 1973 the quartet signed a recording deal with Atlantic and released their debut album ‘Circle Of Love’ (US#56-R&B) in late 1974, which spawned the first chart hit for Sister Sledge, albeit a minor one, with the US#92 (#31R&B) ‘Love Don’t You Go Through No Changes On Me’ in early ‘75. ‘Mama Never Told Me’ (originally recorded in 1973) was the first single to break Sister Sledge in the U.K., peaking at #20 on the British charts in mid ‘75.

Rather than building on the promising returns from ‘Circle Of Love’, Sister Sledge seemed to tread water over the next couple of years, with their 1977 album ‘Together’ going largely unheralded. All four sisters graduated from their studies at Temple University, but continued to record both in the home town of Philadelphia and New York. But the period from ‘76 to ‘78 saw the explosion of disco on the U.S. scene, with a number of vocal groups making the leap from all manner of previous styles to embrace the disco sound. Sister Sledge were placed in the mercurial production hands of Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, who were one of the hot production tickets on the music scene in the late 70s (as well as being the driving force for Chic - see earlier post). Over the latter part of 1978 Sister Sledge recorded tracks for the album which would redefine their career. The lead out single was the appealing dance number ‘He’s The Greatest Dancer’, which carried all the hallmarks of classic disco. It gave Sister Sledge the breakthrough hit they had been striving for, and peaked at #8 in the U.S. (#1-R&B), #6 in Britain and #22 in Australia during the first half of ‘79.

This time around Sister Sledge had the solid gold track to consolidate their new found profile. ‘We Are Family’ embodied all that was appealing about disco, with slick production values, smooth vocal harmonies (which featured Luther Vandross in the mix), infectious rhythm, and an irresistible melody. ‘We Are Family’ hit the U.S. Hot 100 during April ‘79 and peaked at #2 during June (held off from #1 by the Bee Gees’ ‘Love You Inside Out’). It soon followed the family tradition in the U.K. (#8) and Australia (#19), whilst the album of the same name racked up impressive sales (US#3/UK#15/ OZ#19). ‘We Are Family’ (written by Rodgers/Edwards) reached beyond radio waves and dance floors, and permeated through other pockets of popular culture at the time. It was adopted as the theme song for the Major League Baseball team the Pittsburgh Pirates, and has been used a number of times over the years as a galvanising anthem for social and political movements. The album ‘We Are Family’ yielded yet another top 20 hit in Britain with ‘Lost In Music’ (#17/US#35R&B), rounding out a stellar 1979 for the Sledge sisters. Time to take on the 80s.

No comments: