Sister Sledge were a Philly family group who still have their firm fan base of course. And I consider myself among them. Still,most casual 70’s music lovers know them primarily for “We Are Family”,”She’s The Greatest Dancer” and “All American Girls”. Those are three very noteworthy and important disco era songs to be known for. At the same time, the music of Debbie,Joni,Kim and Kathy Sledge had a huge impact both before and after their big crossover period in the late 70’s and early 80’s. The passing of Joni Sledge at the age of 60 a few days ago put me in the mind of doing this tribute to them in this way.
One of the most important things I ever learned about Sister Sledge,thanks to the Wounded Bird label’s reissues-as well as through the kind help via Twitter from the sisters on my overview here of their 1998 song “African Eyes” on this blog,that Sister Sledge were far more of an album oriented soul/funk/disco group than many may realize. So today,to celebrate the living Sledge sisters and the departed Joni,wanted to celebrate Sister Sledge’s first eight albums from 1975-1985 through my Amazon.com reviews of them which I’ve written over the last decade or so.
Circle Of Love/1975
In 1975 these teenage sisters cut this album. Kathy,Debbie,Kim and Joni sure have their sisterly harmonies down pat,and they know just what to do with their voices. The music on this album is definitely rooted in early-mid 70’s Philly soul and Motown The title track is a superb example-upbeat and catchy as they come.The same goes for the fairly funky soul of “Protect Our Love”,’Pain Reliever” and the clever closer “Fireman” with a really cool,eerie horn solo at the end.
One thing the Sledge sisters are intent on doing is is exercising their fine intervening harmonies on a set of finely crafted soul ballads very much in the Philly style too but also rooted in classic 60’s Atlantic soul-these songs truly make excellent use of the over 30 musicians (including John Tropea’s mildly psychedelic turns on guitar) who play on this album.
The lovely “Cross My Heart”,”Don’t Miss Him Now”,”Love Don’t Go Through No More Changes On Me” and “You’re Much Better Off Loving Me” will certainly please any fan of the soul balladry that was coming out of Natalie Cole and Aretha at this time but the vocals that these sisters thrown onto them are purely icing on the cake.
For fans of Sister Sledge during their Nile Rodgers/Bernard Edwards produced We Are Family era will definitely want to check out ‘Circle Of Love’.Not only does it show how Sister Sledge got started but showcased them in the days when disco was just starting to boil over and was still just under the ground;the Philly and (late day) Motown production used on this album are very much part of the disco-funk-pop sound that would soon make Sister Sledge famous.So this comes very highly recommended.
Well it’s 1977,Saturday Night Fever is out and the disco era is in full swing. On their second time around the Sledge’s have jumped ship to the Munich scene,but it’s not Giorgio Moroder and Pete Ballotte;they’ve hooked up with producers Michael Kunze and Sylvester Levay,who was also the keyboard and sax player on this album. So this album allowed them to not only stay contemporary and embrace eurodisco to a degree but also diversify their musical pallet. Unlike Circle of Love this album focuses on uptempo and dance tunes with a larger amount of variety.
The punchy “Blockbuster Boy”,two Stevie Wonder covers in “I Was Made To Love Him” and “As” as well “Moondancer” and “My Favorite Song” certainly fit right into the then highly popular disco sound and,as always,the sisters inject more then enough of their own personalities and spunk to give these tunes a timeless feeling. But the sisters also get down with some heavy funk-namely on Kathie Sledge’s self penned “Do The Funky Do”-with it’s punching keyboards and seriously deep beats it actually qualifies as a funk classic along the same lines as The Bar-Kay’s “Holy Ghost”.
They add a little more disco stylings to the same general pallet on “Funky Family”,which could actually be seen as a somewhat more rowdy and less tame prelude to “We’re A Family”.A cover of “Sneaking Sally Through The Alley” is with little doubt one of the funkiest things on this album,and his made even more of a surprise since the sisters didn’t alter the lyrics to a mans point of view as they did on their Stevie Wonder cover. One of the finest overall tunes here is “Can’t Mess Around With Love”-a Brazilian pop tune with a look and vocal very much out of the Sergio Mendes school.
The two ballads that are here “Hold On To This Feeling” and “Hands Full Of Nothing” even seem to have a more urban feel to them and a newfound sophistication. This would be their final album before the pair of Chic productions that would make the Sledge’s superstars and it will be obvious even on the first listen that the future starts here and the changes are coming fast.
We Are Family/1979
Isn’t it interesting that,after all these years of listening to and collecting albums by Chic and Sister Sledge alike,that this was the very last hole I had to fill in my collection of the latter. And it’s the album which contains the songs I personally identify most strongly with them. Recently? That changed on a family trip to Portland. I’d seen this album,even cheaply.
And still avoided picking the CD up. Lately it seems as if Nile Rodgers and the Chic Organization have again become the focus of funky dance music. And as another reviewer here pointed out? With their ability to work well with female singers? This 1979 represent something very important not just to the artistic collaboration. But to the musical era itself.
The uptempo songs on this album are classic Chic disco/funk classics-with their chunk style bass/guitar interaction and heavy strings that even somehow got transformed into a rhythmic element. That goes for the electric piano decorated “He’s The Greatest Dancer”,”Lost In Music”,”Thinking Of You”-with it’s opening percussion along with the bass/guitar duel and the closer “One More Time”.
Listening to the title anthem for an umpteenth time? This 8+ minute version stands out with an extended bridge showcasing Kathy’s gravelly,soulful voice calling out to Bernard Edwards for “more bass”-right in tune with the music. “Easier To Love” is a percussive mid tempo message song-asking for peace for over war (A LOT more complex an idea than it actually sounds) while the two ballads have their character.
“Somebody Loves Me” is classy and elegantly orchestrated. While “You’re A Friend To Me” takes that touch of class a notch higher with it’s dynamic,jazzy blusiness. While the two remixes of “We Are Family” and the one of “Lost In Music” are interesting in a percussive disco/house sort of way? The manner in which Nile and Nard simply expand the original music and vocal line of the latter on the 1984 remix really says more for what the song itself had to say from the get go.
The courser,soulful voices of Sister Sledge were probably the closest that Chic ever came to finding a group of female vocalists who had similar sounds to the women who sang in Chic themselves. And the excellent performances from the sisters,plus some of Nile and Nard’s finest material make this a disco era classic not to be missed out on.
Love Somebody Today/1980
This is Sister Sledge’s follow up to their massively successful 1979 outing We Are Family. Again Bernard & Nile are producing the their band Chic is playing backup-also featured,notably on the title song is Meco Monardo on sax. And the music is set firmly in their standing tradition of classy disco-funk grooves and punchy melodies. This album is home to some truly incredible grooves such as the title song,”You Fooled Around” and (my favorite) “Reach Your Peak”.
Another two great grooves are the funky “Easy Street” and the whimsical groove of “Let’s Go On Vacation”. On “Pretty Baby” the message of family solidarity is again re enforced and Kathie Sledge’s great singing really shows up in fine style on “I’m A Good Girl”.So musically this album is totally up to par. Non of the lyrics have quite the same punch as the first outings the Sister Sledge/Chic combo did and that might’ve played some part in the Sisters turning to Narada Michael Walden next time around,or maybe it didn’t I don’t know.
Either way this might be musically more artistic,with it occasional improvised sax solos from Meco then We Are Family was. But no matter how you cut it this was Sister Sledge’s final collaberation with the Chic family for a little bit. They would meet up with Nile Rodgers again later but this more or less concluded that period of their musical career.
All American Girls/1981
Jettisoning the Chic production team for Narada Michael Walden proved a pretty wise choice,considering the similarity in sound. The main difference is Narada and Sister Sledge were not out to create a samey disco album with arty flourishes this time. They were out to create a funky dance-rock album with a lot of variety and to a large extent they succeeded. The title song is a classic-VERY much Narada and very drum oriented nonetheless and very much in keeping with the hits Sister Sledge had with Chic,especially Randy Jackson’s wonderful bass “breakdown”.
“He’s Just A Runaway” is definitely the big surprise;more of a new wavish dance-rock number that really introduced Sister Sledge to the new decade with ease. This team of Sledge and Narada do not shy away from the mirrored disco ball here as “If You Really Want Me”,”Ooh,You Caught My Heart”,”Make A Move” and “Music Makes You Feel Good” certainly fit into that category. But the “bottom” on these songs is a bit phatter and therefore funkier. Disco is basically a form of lite funk anyway and this just really emphasizes that disco-funk hybrid a little more.
There is a peppy pop tune here in “Happy Feeling”,one of those little surprises commonly found on the best albums out there.”Next Time You’ll Know” and “I Don’t Want To Say Goodbye” are very nice ballads but really don’t need to be here;this album is really strongest when the tempo goes up and it would’ve worked just as well if a couple different kinds of uptempo songs were added instead of the ballads. Other then that I have no complaints.This is a great album in a string of excellent releases from Sister Sledge and we should all be lucky that it’s now out there again for us to enjoy.
The year is 1982 and after being produced by Chic then Narada Michael Walden the Sledge’s decide to give a stab at the production themselves. The result is this very soulful album that,for the date is very strong based in late 70’s funk-pop and even makes a go of the gestating hip-hop movement with the super funky “Super Bad Sisters” featuring the sisters rapping very much in the Sugarhill style!”My Guy” is pleasant enough but doesn’t add much that Mary Wells didn’t to the original.
Much more unique are the original and somewhat experimental funk grooves of “Lighttfootin'”,”Get You In Our Love” and “Il Macquillage Lady”,all of which showcase the Sisters desire to make a detour from their patented disco-pop sound that made them stars and show they too could give up the funk with the best of them. There are a few great ballads here too,one of which is the mid tempo “Grandma”,very much in their tradition of celebrating family and how sometimes there is no school like the old school.
“Everybody’s Friend” is very reflective and features the creamy voiced Debbie Sledge singing lead. The album closes with the peppy “Jackie’s Theme:There’s No Stopping Us”,a great possible hit-that-never-was. This album will make you wonder why the Sledge’s didn’t produce themselves more often;they’d obviously absorbed everything they’d seen Nile Rodgers and Narada do in the past and found a style the they could work well with. This tends to be one of their more forgotten albums but it showed they did have a lot more talent then just their voices.
Bet Cha Say That To All The Girls/1983
On paper the collaboration of Sister Sledge and George Duke looked awfully good. Commercially this was a miserable failure despite the promise but that is not the case artistically. The guest list on this album is incredible:Michael Sembello,David “Hawk” Wolinski,Louis Johnson,Paulinho Da Costa,Jeffrey Osbourne,Al Jarreau and Ronnie Laws are featured.
But the focus is on the Sledge’s personality and Duke’s contemporary funk sound. “B.Y.O.B”,”Lifetime Lover”,”Shake Me Down”,the title track,”Gotta Get Back To Love” and “Thank You For The Party” are great uptempo tunes and not much I can think of shout ‘early 80’s George Duke-style pop/funk’ louder then these songs!
The ballads are also very trademark George Duke and everything even further removed Sister Sledge from their classic sound. Al Jarreau’s rapping and the cute lyrics of the title track should’ve spelled a great new beginning for Sister Sledge but it was not to be. The George Duke collaboration fizzled quickly and after this release Sister Sledge opted to return closer to more comfortable home turf.
When The Boys Meet The Girls/1985
It was ten years since Sister Sledge debuted with Circle of Love and five years since Nile Rodgers had spun pure musical gold with them.And fresh off of work on Chic’s unheralded Believer and Madonna’s blockbuster Like a Virgin Nile officially brings Sister Sledge into the mid 80’s with this album’s strong new wave funk overtones. The title song,”Dancing On The Jagged Edge”,”The Boy Most Likely”,”Following The Leader” and “Peer Pressure” capture that spirit which finds the flourishes of DX7 and Synclavier synthesizers colliding with live drumming for a sound that’s very MTV generation friendly.
“Frankie”,a bouncy little pop ditty makes a brief detour from this sound with a slightly more organic feel to it. Same can be said for “Hold On Poppy” and all the songs here are packed with unbeatable hooks and vocals. Strangely enough this never got a follow up for more then a decade;by 1985 Sister Sledge’s sound had been eclipsed by modern day female singers,some of whom were Prince proteges so the Sledge’s were starting to be seen as a bit over the hill. So again I am glad Wounded Bird reissued this and allowed this album to be enjoyed by a new generation who’ve been separate from it long enough to appreciate it’s charms.
Its amazing when running down Sister Sledge’s first run of recording just how much breadth and scope their albums covered. It ran the gamut from Philly soul,funk and disco in the mid to late 70’s to the ever evolving post disco,boogie and electro sounds of the early to mid 1980’s. As with any artists,there were peaks and valleys throughout this time. All the same,felt Sister Sledge don’t always get their due for their longevity and relative consistency in their first decade. For sure that period invited it. Still,it couldn’t work without talented people. And wish to thank the Sledge’s for the contributions to that era.