To most casual pop music fans, Sister Sledge appeared, fully formed, to take over the pop and disco charts in early 1979 with their Chic-produced album, We Are Family. While “He’s the Greatest Dancer”, the first single from We Are Family, reached #9 on Billboard‘s Hot 100 that spring, the title track soon eclipsed it.
Despite being kept out of the #1 spot on the Hot 100 only by Donna Summer’s equally epic disco-rock mash-up, “Hot Stuff”, “We Are Family” was a monster hit on the radio and dance floors. More importantly, the cultural impact of “We Are Family” was immediate and long-lasting. The song emerged as the theme song of the 1979 World Series-bound Pittsburgh Pirates, even as disco records were infamously being destroyed during a “disco demolition night” at Chicago’s Comiskey Park during a White Sox game on 12 July 1979. “We Are Family” established the production genius of Chic’s Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, who, collectively and individually, went on to produce hit albums by Diana Ross, Madonna, Duran Duran, David Bowie, and many others.
“We Are Family”, with lead vocals by then 19-year-old Kathy Sledge has played at countless family celebrations over the decades. In 2016, the song was chosen by the United States Library of Congress for preservation in the National Recording Registry. None of this might have happened had Philadelphia’s Debbie, Joni, Kim, and Kathy Sledge not put in the work to record the songs chronicled on the new compilation The Early Years.
Sister Sledge formed in 1971, when the sisters ranged from 12 to 16 years old. The Early Years focuses on formative singles and album tracks from two pre-We Are Family LPs: 1975’s Circle of Love and its 1977 follow-up, Together. While their 1971 single, “Time Will Tell”, is not on The Early Years, “The Weatherman”, a lush love song released as a single in 1973 opens the compilation.
“The Weatherman”, and the second track, a gospel ballad called “Have You Met My Friend”, aren’t particularly memorable as songs, but they do prove that the sisters in Sister Sledge were great singers from the earliest point in their career. Sister Sledge was simply in search of the right song, and eventually, they found such songs, even before “We Are Family”. “Mama Never Told Me”, another 1973 single, was a step in the right direction, a delightful attempt to position Sister Sledge as a sisterly version of the Jackson 5, featuring an oh-so-catchy “shoo-be-do” chorus.
The debut Sister Sledge album, Circle of Love, arrived in early 1975. Five songs, or half the album, are represented on The Early Years. This includes the dynamic “Love Don’t You Go through No Changes on Me”, which is quite possibly the greatest song ever with a nine-word title. “Love…” is an extravagantly-produced lost proto-disco classic and more than likely the greatest moment of Sister Sledge’s pre-“We Are Family” career. “Love Don’t you Go through No Changes on Me” also got Sister Sledge on an April 1975 episode of Soul Train that also included ’70s soul stars Blue Magic performing “Side Show” and Major Harris singing “Love Won’t Let Me Wait”. Check it out.
There are several songs on the album that are nearly as enjoyable as “Love Don’t You Go through No Changes on Me”. Being a Philadelphia family, it’s not surprising that the Philly Soul sound permeates early Sister Sledge. Even though legendary Philadelphia producer/songwriter/arranger Thom Bell was not involved in these songs, his influence can be felt throughout The Early Years. “Cross Your Heart” echoes Bell’s work with the Stylistics, while “Circle of Love (Caught in the Middle)” might remind listeners of Bell’s classic hit singles with the Spinners, as well as “Mama Can’t Buy You Love” and “Are You Ready for Love”, the hits Bell wrote and produced for Elton John.
Elsewhere on the album, Sister Sledge perform songs that evoke the Supremes (“Love Has Found Me”) and the Three Degrees (“Have Love, Will Travel”). “Love Ain’t Easy” and “Blockbuster Boy” show that the sisters weren’t afraid to get a little extra funky when the situation called for it.
While the songwriting quality varies from track to track, The Early Years is ultimately a fun listen, bringing deserved attention to Debbie, Joni, Kim, and Kathy Sledge, and to the songs that paved the way to “We Are Family”.