Everybody’s gotta start somewhere and Sister Sledge started here, more or less. In 1975, when this record hit the racks, Kathy, Debbie, Joni and Kim Sledge had been singing for audiences in Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York for a couple of years and issuing singles here and there. By the time that a mostly unsuspecting world saw this, you could claim that that Sister Sledge was at least a regional sensation. And that mostly unsuspecting world didn’t exactly embrace the still teenaged quartet, although one single, “Love Don’t You Go Through No Changes on Me”, managed to break into the Hot 100 on the Billboard charts and create a little bit of a stir in the world of R&B. But a classic record, or even a very good forgotten one this ain’t.
There are really no hints of the Sledge as it was to come in the next few years; nothing as catchy or formidable as “We Are Family” and nothing as stunning as “Got to Love Somebody”. That’s not atypical for a debut record from the era, of course, more than one band arrived via LPs that were half baked at best and embarrassing at worst. In that regard Circle of Love is neither. The compositions, most of them from the pen of Gwen Guthrie, are often solid but dressed up in instrumentation that is closer to soft jazz than one might want to place the sisters. (Yeah, they had a disco reputation but this is pretty horizontal.) Still, it’s just not that good.
There’s not much that distinguishes “Cross My Heart” and “Protect Our Love” from each other, and the opening title track doesn’t offer much of an auspicious introduction. It’s good enough, though it, like so much of this record, has dated about as well as the average episode of an American sitcom from the late 1970s. This isn’t a slam on the Sledge women themselves as there’s plenty of evidence here as to how the group managed to capture the attention of ATCO and audiences virtually everywhere they went. And “Pain Reliever”, another Guthrie composition is fun enough to recommend even if it doesn’t quite provide the band with the oomph it so richly deserves.
That said this expanded 40th anniversary edition contains a whopping 10 bonus cuts, culled from the era and providing evidence of a band that would one day be capable of so much more than what’s offered on the album proper. There’s also a new interview with Kathy Sledge (who left the band around the turn of the 1990s) to sweeten the deal and provide perspective.
Of those bonus tracks, “Have Love, Will Travel” and “Mama Never Told Me” are easily the most memorable and worthwhile. By 1977 the group would have a much better album, Together, behind it and much better (and more confident) material to choose from. And of course by 1979 the group would have its quintessential hit with “We Are Family” and become forever joined in the fortunes of the amazing Chic.
That part of the story and even this early part is definitely worth telling but one can’t help but feel more excited about the latter chapters than this one.