Family Matters

30 May 2012 | 6:45 am | Cyclone Wehner

Kathy Sledge of Sister Sledge recalls a mutual admiration society meeting with Mary J Blige for Cyclone: “She said, ‘I love your raspy voice!’ And I was like, ‘I love your voice.’”

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Destiny's Child might not exist but for Sister Sledge, who, together with The Pointer Sisters, modernised the girl group. Philadelphia's Debbie, Joni, Kim and Kathy Sledge unleashed a funk classic – and gay anthem – in 1979's We Are Family (WAF) after teaming with Chic's Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards. Ironically, Sister Sledge had already gigged for years, their debut single, Time Will Tell, out in 1971. Now Kathy Sledge, the quartet's lead vocalist, is bringing her “fun” disco-themed Sister Sledge revue to Australia. And she prides herself on recreating much-loved records like He's The Greatest Dancer. “I'm a real stickler for that because, when I go to concerts, I like the songs to sound just like I know them,” says the diva, whose fans include everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Paul Weller to Mary J Blige.

Rodgers recently toured his acclaimed Chic show and Sledge stays in touch. Rodgers runs the We Are Family Foundation, with Sledge on the board of directors. “I think Nile is a genius – I do,” she rhapsodises. Today the gracious – and chatty – Sledge, in her mid-teens when she laid down WAF, the title track of Sister Sledge's breakthrough third album, can fully appreciate the producer's unorthodox methodology. “A lot of people know it now, but they didn't know [then] that I had actually learned [WAF] as I sang it. I did it in one take and it was the first time I ever heard it. But that is a part of the make-up of the genius of Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards. They had a formula and they knew what they needed to make it work. I didn't understand it then, because you kinda wanna know what you're about to sing, but now I totally get it. It's just a captured spontaneity and a magic that you can't rehearse... I think that's why it's a timeless song.” 

Sledge relishes watching old YouTube footage and even seeing herself in ponytails. “Honestly, I didn't feel like a kid – I felt like I was a hardworking woman,” she laughs. The youngest of the Sledge sisters, she relates to the experiences of Michael Jackson (“who we all so miss”). Her parents, themselves in showbiz, encouraged their daughters to sing in church and later clubs. Yet Sledge dealt with fame. astutely In the '90s she launched a solo career with Heart. She rejoined Sister Sledge for their 2000s album, Style. They have talked of cutting another, she reveals. However, apart from touring her Broadway-bound Billie Holiday tribute, The Brighter Side Of Day, Sledge's current mission is to shop a reality show about – yes – her talented family (daughter Kristen Gabrielle sings) that she's executive-producing. Indeed, like her contemporary, Madonna, Sledge has entrepreneurial flair. “To me, reality television has become the new record industry,” she suggests. It offers, too, an opportunity for exposure Sister Sledge didn't have in 1971.

Few cross-generational exchanges occur in R&B. Sledge, who admires Beyoncé, has had fans urge her to collaborate with Blige, whom she met once at a benefit concert. “She commented on my voice, which was a compliment to me. She said, 'I love your raspy voice!' And I was like, 'I love your voice.'” Still, Sledge's “passion” is to duet with Stevie Wonder. Meanwhile, house producers have reached out to the disco icon. She sang on Robert Miles' Freedom and sometime actor Adam Barta's Give Yourself Up. Sledge isn't surprised that dance music – relegated to the American underground following rock's brutal backlash to disco – should enjoy a revival, people seeking 'release' amid the recession.

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Sister Sledge's back catalogue has been endlessly remixed, covered and sampled. Sledge approves of Will Smith's Gettin' Jiggy Wit It, borrowing from He's... (a song Dannii Minogue also made over). “I just liked that groove, I like how he cut into it – I thought that was very innovative.” But her ultimate pick? “I like all the different renditions of Thinking Of You, 'cause Thinking... is my favourite song – I mean, I love singing Family, [but] I have to say when I sing Thinking... I can just go on and on and on. I heard that it is one of the most remixed songs in the UK – like, Wow!”