Kathy Sledge’s voice is tonic for the soul. When COVID-19 sent millions into lockdown earlier this March, the classic Sister Sledge song “Thinking of You” quickly became a staple of “Club Quarantine” hosted by DJ D-Nice on Instagram Live. “That’s my Club Quarantine theme song,” he even declared in the New York Post.
Originally featured on We Are Family, the number one R&B album that catapulted Kathy Sledge and her sisters from near obscurity to national magazine covers, “Thinking of You” charted twice in the UK Top 20 and remains a gleaming paragon among all the hits that Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards wrote and produced for the group. The song’s enduring appeal has now re-introduced Sledge’s lead vocal to D-Nice’s two million followers, plus luminaries who regularly visit Club Quarantine, including Michelle Obama, Rihanna, Drake, and Oprah Winfrey. Sledge herself has also stopped by Club Quarantine, giving D-Nice the ultimate seal of approval.
Sledge has a new groove of her own, however. Just before D-Nice made “Thinking of You” his anthem for Club Quarantine, Sledge completed “Jump Into the Light”, her latest collaboration with London-based production team Horse Meat Disco. It serves up a fresh and modern twist on classic dance music, with the singer’s unmistakable voice ringing out over the rhythm. The song is a worthy follow-up to “Falling Deep in Love” (2019), another Horse Meat Disco gem that showcases the power and potency of Sledge’s signature voice.
That voice has inspired some of the most accomplished musicians in the industry. Whether as a solo artist or singing lead on Sister Sledge hits, Kathy Sledge has been a muse for trailblazing figures like George Duke and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis. “Kathy is raw, rugged, and rough, tough and ready for all singing occasions,” says Narada Michael Walden, who produced the group’s All American Girls. “One of my favs is ‘If You Really Want Me’ — funky fresh, bad to the bone! Raw perfection from Kathy and Sister Sledge!” Indeed, Sledge’s singular vocal quality has long distinguished her from her peers and even from her sisters.
Beyond her recent music projects, Sledge has also launched “Family Room”, a new series she’s producing with her daughter Kristen Gabrielle that invites viewers and celebrity guests into their home via Instagram. The series initially caught network interest before the pandemic halted production. Rather than putting “Family Room” on hold, Sledge and her daughter decided to broadcast from their family room, literally. “It’s magical,” says Sledge, who’s welcomed guests like D-Nice, Questlove, Sinbad, and Tommy Davidson onto the show. “We’re in this room for an hour, and we’re just having a good time talking. It’s relevant to some of the things that are going on, but the main thing about ‘Family Room’ is just to lift each other up.”
PopMatters recently visited Kathy Sledge at her “Family Room” headquarters where the singer and her daughter have greeted thousands of viewers from behind the screen over the past few months. In this exclusive interview, Sledge talks about the surprise resurgence of “Thinking of You”, celebrates musical inspirations like Gladys Knight, Billie Holiday, and Stevie Wonder, and explains the joys and challenges that have faced the group who introduced “We Are Family” to the world.
Kathy, let’s begin with a line from “Thinking of You”. What do you think brought the sun out today?
[sings] “It’s my baby!” I think just the fact that it’s another day — that’s what brought the sun out today. We’re all blessed, and it’s good to be here, under the circumstances.
How did you discover that “Thinking of You” had become the theme for D-Nice’s “Club Quarantine” sets?
I think Kristen woke me up one day and said, “Mom, D-Nice is bringing everyone together in quarantine. He’s playing your song. I wanted to see who he follows and he follows you!” I thought, Wow, that’s cool. First, it was just a song that he loved to play. Then we got in touch with each other. He told me what that song meant to him, and I told him what it meant to me. It just evolved and became the quarantine theme song.
I love the fact that I sang that song for years with my sisters, but this is the first time I ever got accolades that I’m actually the lead singer on that song. That’s very special.
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio
Over the years, we’ve heard stories about “We Are Family” and “He’s the Greatest Dancer”, but tell us your recollection of how Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards presented “Thinking of You” during the We Are Family (1979) sessions.
I remember they would always show us the song that we were going to record, not even the day of, but when it was time to record it. I learned “Greatest Dancer” line by line. “One night in a disco” — cut — “on the outskirts of Frisco” — cut. They believed in spontaneity, so we weren’t allowed to hear anything. When they first played “Thinking of You”, I loved it instantly. I like all the songs that I got the opportunity to sing with Nile and Bernard, but “Thinking of You” always stuck out to me.
I think what makes it stand out is the melody. A lot of DJs have told me that my voice is uplifting, but it’s really special when you hear a song that’s uplifting to sing and “Thinking of You” is that 100%. The feedback I get about it is always the same thing — “That song makes me so happy”. It’s a gorgeous melody. They’re simple lyrics but they’re very special.
I love how you address listeners directly with the opening line “Everybody, let me tell you ’bout my love”. You hook us from the outset.
Yes! What’s so crazy is “Thinking of You” is now getting the rave here in the United States but overseas it’s always my favorite song to sing, sometimes more than “We Are Family”. I think because it was chosen as Club Quarantine’s theme song, it has crossed other markets.
I do a lot of virtual concerts at home [“Songs of Comfort”] and I always get requests for “We Are Family” and now I get just as many for “Thinking of You”. Some generations weren’t even here when I recorded the song and that really blows me away because it says a lot about “Thinking of You” having a life of its own and how it’s just stood the test of time. I love that because I always feel like music should bridge generations and not separate them.
Earlier this year, you and your daughter Kristen Gabrielle began broadcasting a series called “Family Room” on Instagram Live. What’s the genesis of that particular project?
We were actually talking to networks and just getting a lot of traction for the idea of “Family Room” as a mother-daughter talk show. When the quarantine happened, Kristen actually came up with the idea, “You know what, mom? Why don’t we just start right within these four walls?”
We thought that there are a lot of people quarantined and alone. We do it on Saturdays, 12:30 pm eastern time, so that makes it 9:30 a.m. on the west coast and in the UK, it’s 5:30 p.m. — happy hour! We have this really cool thing where I have a cup of coffee for the people on the west coast. Kristen has a glass of wine for the people in New York. Then we get so many people from the UK and other parts of the world. They show their emojis of their cocktail glasses.
It’s really cool because we actually bring people in live. I love that concept. When I perform “Greatest Dancer”, for instance, it’s the part of the show where we bring someone up from the crowd. I call that song the icebreaker. The entire crowd feels like they’re up there. It’s the same kind of vibe that you get in “Family Room”. We’re all in there as spectators but then we actually bring in people live and everybody shines. “Family Room” is starting to really have legs. We’ll be talking to networks again because now it’s evolved in a different way.
Parallel to the pandemic, we’ve also seen horrific ruptures of racial injustice and anti-black violence. I remember you telling me that, growing up, your mother moved you and your sisters into an all-white neighborhood in Philadelphia. You faced the whole spectrum of racism there.
Yeah, we definitely did. It was a part of our life. There were cross burnings. We had to have police protection in school, almost like Daisy Bates. It was one of the factors that I think made us so close as a family, as sisters. Walking together to school, feeling frightened sometimes, or never giving eye contact because you know they’re going to call you a name. That was from fourth grade until going into high school.
I remember always having to pass a school where there were elementary aged kids. This was when I was first starting ninth grade because I would always walk home by myself and I would just get myself ready for it. They would call me a name, but you learn to have tough skin and to be resilient and to know that that’s sad — the ignorance of someone who’s different from you. I got a chance to actually embrace that in a knowledgeable way, in saying, “I’m not the one with the problem.” It does make you tough-skinned.
You’re put in a setting where you feel different. You know you’re not — you’re you. I remember in fourth grade, I had a favorite teacher. I knew I would never be the “teacher’s pet”. There was a sense of familiarity she had with some of the other kids, with the white kids, but not with me. I would envy that.
Did you perceive any hypocrisy among your white neighbors once you became well-known?
Yeah, we would get, “Oh, you’re different. You sing!” [laughs] I remember my late sister Joni said something once, “You know, there’s a handful of the bad people. For most of us, our hearts are good, but it’s the bad ones that mess it up for everyone.” I think Medgar Evers and Malcolm X and Martin Luther King would have tears of joy now to see the whole world marching, and standing up for Black Lives Matter. They all lost their lives in this.
Even though you developed a tough skin, how did you deal with the anticipation that, every day, someone might say something derogatory or treat you differently?
How I dealt with it was with my sisters and the sisterhood we had. I think we found what we needed in each other and it didn’t really bother us like you think it would have. We were very very close growing up and we had each other, so then we became the hit of the neighborhood and it wasn’t because we were singers. We were just this close and we would do things like have carnivals. We would do fun things and before you knew it the whole neighborhood would just be around us.
When we started becoming popular through music, then we were embraced in a different way, but that was interesting too because it also helped me in growing up, in knowing you shouldn’t like anyone for what they do, you should like them for who they are. You could see the difference in being embraced because you sang or because you did music or because they saw you on the local television show but I think what’s important is when people realize they like you for you. That’s important to me.
Let’s go back a few years. How were you and your sisters asked to join the roster of artists who performed at “Zaire ’74” in what’s now the Democratic Republic of the Congo for Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s “Rumble in the Jungle”?
We were protégées to the Spinners. We would always open for them at the Latin Casino or the Club Harlem in Atlantic City. We would do that breakfast show at six in the morning! Our then-manager was their manager, bless his heart, the late Buddy Allen. When they got a chance to go to Zaire, he actually pitched our group going.
To this day, it has to be one of the most memorable experiences … Meeting Muhammad Ali and seeing George Foreman. I came up to their belt buckles because I was 13 or 14 years old. There are a lot of things that I don’t remember because it always seems like one long day — Sister Sledge, singing, and music — but that sticks out to me. I met the president, Mobutu, who built a special arena for this.
There’s a very interesting story with that. What they didn’t put in the movie that depicted Will Smith as Muhammad Ali is that Mobutu wanted to make money with Don King. They thought everyone was going to come to Zaire, but they didn’t have a huge turnout. I think tickets were $20 — and that’s what the people that lived there made in maybe two months. They did not have that kind of money.
When the concert started before the fight, the arena was empty because no one could really afford those tickets. People don’t know this but Muhammad Ali and George Foreman got together in their backstage dressing room and said, “We’re not stepping foot in that ring until you open those gates.” They opened the gates and people poured in because they were hanging on the gates. To me, that was one of the greatest things that both of those champions did. I remember that vividly.
James Brown, the Pointer Sisters, Johnny Pacheco, Hugh Masekela … it was a worldwide cast on the show. We got a chance to perform for like 80,000 people. It was an experience that I will never forget.
From a cultural perspective, what were your expectations going over to Zaire and then how did you feel when you arrived?
It was everything. I was going to the Motherland. I was going home. Especially in that era growing up, it was very rare to land in an airport and see everyone of color there. I felt this sense of, “Wow I don’t feel like a minority here. This is my country.”
It was very special when we got off the plane. They had a welcoming party for us, “Welcome Home”. This is a very touching story. My sister Joni spoke fluent French. I speak some fluent French. Her job was to teach James Brown how to say “Je suis chez moi” — “I am home”. We were all on the same flight. It took her an entire flight to teach him “Je suis chez moi” but when he stepped off that plane, he was bad! [imitates James Brown] “JE SUIS CHEZ MOI!”
I have footage of me teaching the bump to young women from Zaire. I actually saw this rare footage on YouTube. I don’t even know where it came from but I remember the moment. When they did it, it was with rhythm. It was very interesting to see these cultures but still at the same time feel like one. It was such a feeling of coming home that I can’t describe.
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio
During that show, you performed Gladys Knight & the Pips’ “On and On”. Prior to that you covered “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye)”. What did you relate to in Gladys Knight’s voice at such a young age?
The soul. It was always from her soul and still is. I was fortunate to just do a concert with her at Blenheim Palace in the UK this past summer. I got a chance to hug her and tell her how much I love her. I think that Gladys’ voice is something that you’re so familiar with. We all are. When you hear it, you know it.
We would always work the club scene and “Midnight Train to Georgia” and “Neither One of Us” were part of the show. This was way before any records, really. To be able to sing her songs at that age and feel my own voice in those songs, was an honor. I learned a lot from her — her phrasing — as I have from Billie Holiday and Diana Ross and especially Mavis Staples.
I always used to do this quick little imitation of Mavis from “I’ll Take You There”. When I had to do the ad lib for “We Are Family” that’s where that “ah ha oh yeah” comes from. It was just spontaneity. We did the ad lib of “We Are Family” in one take. Of course it wasn’t exactly how we hear it now but I just put everything out there and then Nile and Bernard spliced it and edited it and made it what it is.
Artists like Gladys Knight and Mavis Staples and Diana Ross and Minnie Riperton … these are artists that, as I name them, you can probably hear their voices. That’s what I think is so unique about iconic artists like that. That’s advice I like to give a lot of the new young artists — find your voice and don’t try to sound like anyone. When you say “Sade”, you hear Sade. When you say “Luther” [Vandross], you hear Luther. If you hear there’s another Sade album out, or Maxwell or whoever, you’re just going to buy it. You’re not going to say, “Let me see if it’s going to be a hit” because you love the flavor that they give you. In Gladys’ case, she’s the ultimate.
As a group, Sister Sledge recorded “As” and then as a solo artist you recorded “Another Star”. What is it about Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life (1976) that resonates with you, specifically?
The first person I think of is my sister Kim because we were closest at that age. When Songs in the Key of Life came out, we shared a room. We knew every ad lib. We knew every harmony and we would just wake up singing “As”. To this day, that is one of the most phenomenal projects ever. “Summer Soft”… I could just go on and on. I know every lyric to most of his songs.
I always say we’re living in the time of Mozart or Beethoven. That’s really who Stevie Wonder is to me. I think Songs in the Key of Life is one of his greatest masterpieces. He was so ahead of himself, politically. He’s such a visionary.
You were already a seasoned professional when “We Are Family” was released. After that became such a phenomenon, describe how you adapted to life on the road, touring at a level that was a step up from where the group had been.
It was interesting because what people don’t know is right before “We Are Family”, I was ready to say “I’ve had it”. For nine years, I was singing and doing clubs up and down the turnpike. Those were my Saturday Night Fever days because we would work those clubs where John Travolta actually danced in the movie. There were so many years that we put in before “We Are Family” that by the time “We Are Family” came out, we’d sacrificed so many things, from being on the track team to proms.
I remember our first major tour after the record really broke in the country was with the Jacksons. We were supposed to be “the answer” to the Jacksons. Debbie was on maternity leave and Carol would step in, so we were breaking in a new sister. We were touring with the Jacksons and now we had a hit record. I was scared to death because it’s not like the small intimate clubs where we’re one on one. It’s massive crowds. Are they going to like us? What I learned is they loved you even more.
Our mother always used to tell us two things: “No one reads an old newspaper” and “Never depend on a hit record” so we kind of grew up learning how to entertain. Having a hit was just the icing on the cake. What I learned is that I didn’t have to work as hard, but it didn’t mean that I didn’t.
My best friend tells me I should work for the Red Cross. She says, “You’re in the wrong business. You’re too nice.” I think of it this way: If we’re working for 10,000 people, I don’t see 10,000 people, I see 10,000 individuals. Each person is taking in that song in their own way and each person saved up, back then $25, to come to your show. It’s a compliment when someone actually comes out and supports you and they want to be entertained.
In touring with the Jacksons, what struck you the most about Michael in terms of how he navigated the professional part of his career versus offstage life?
Michael was one of the nicest persons you could have ever met. I never saw Stevie Wonder cry until it was at Michael’s memorial because, if you think about it, all Stevie ever saw was Michael’s heart … and Michael’s heart was huge.
With the Jacksons, what I saw in Michael was a lot of naiveté but the purest heart and one of the greatest entertainers we will ever know … and I got a chance to share a stage with him. I had a little crush on Michael. When he commanded the stage, that was just who he was, and offstage he seemed very very shy.
On the “brother-sister” tour, we had buses and we would always eat at the truck stops because the truckers didn’t know who we were. They didn’t care. I remember I was moving into my apartment. I was seventeen and I was buying things because I was getting stuff for my apartment, like lamp shades and dishes. We were at this road stop and I saw this set of dishes and they were $19.99. The guys are getting off their bus and I’m like, “Yo, these are $19.99. This is a good buy. You should get some of these if anyone wants them.” They were laughing. They all walked off but Michael stayed. He was laughing really hard. “Why are you buying those?” “Because I’m getting my own apartment.” Mind you, he’s maybe two years older than me. Then he stopped laughing and he looked right through me and said, “Why are you getting your own apartment?”
If I knew then what I know now, I would have explained what it’s like … the feeling of wanting my own apartment. What I learned later in life is that Michael used to ask these questions and live vicariously through you. What is it like to want your own apartment? I think I said, “Because … you know!” but he didn’t know. Now I would have said because if you have your own place, if you leave a cup of tea there, it’s still there. It’s yours. It’s your space. You don’t have to answer to anyone. I would have described what that’s like.
I’ll never forget at his memorial, his brother Marlon told a story where he was in a record shop and he saw this old man digging through some old records and he walked over to the old man and he said, “Hey Mike” and Michael said, “How’d you know it was me?” He goes, “I’d know those shoes anywhere!” Everyone laughed but then Marlon went on to say that’s how he lived his life. He’d have to go get professionally “done” with professional makeup to make sure that he could have normalcy, just to go to a record store.
The year that “We Are Family” was nominated for a GRAMMY Award, you and your sisters performed on the broadcast. Instead of wearing your trademark spandex …
… it was feathers and gowns!
Take us back to that night and how you put that performance together. Those gowns seem so different from the image you projected at the time.
Geoffrey Holder designed our gowns! Bless my mother’s heart. She saw us in gowns and she had him design the gowns. My mom said, “We’re gonna get Geoffrey Holder!” I loved Geoffrey, but I didn’t know who he was then. He had this vision of feathers and gowns. [laughs]. I swear there were plumes. I remember right before the show, I was like “I’m not wearing that plume …”
What I remember most about that particular night was Quincy Jones’ face. When the curtains opened, he was like, What? We were everything but who we were! We had a choreographer give us “cute” steps instead of what we’d do. We would take ballet to be able to kick above our heads! I remember I felt constricted. I couldn’t move. The idea of being at the GRAMMY Awards was still an honor … but I’ll never wear a gown like that again for “We Are Family”!
Narada Michael Walden recently told me that he hopes to “rock with you again soon!” You wrote “If You Really Want Me” with him on All American Girls (1981), but that album also has a great song that you wrote with your husband Philip Lightfoot, “Music Makes Me Feel Good”. How did you and Phillip start writing songs together?
It was organic. He’s a writer. He was with the Delaware Philharmonic and classically trained. He would sometimes come up with really nice melodies and ideas or chords and I would come up with some melodies and the lyrics. A lot of times, even with Phillip, I’ll ask musicians to give me a track and I just write to what I feel with the music. The music inspires me.
I did some collaborations with Jam & Lewis. We did some stuff years back, but we just talked not so long ago. There’s one song we wrote called “We Could Turn This World Around” and it’s so relevant to what we’re going through right now. We talked about maybe revisiting some of this stuff.
What kind of outlet did your solo album Heart (1992) give you?
Oh my gosh, I love Heart! We’re actually re-releasing Heart because we’re getting a lot of requests for it. I put my heart into that album, no pun intended. I got a chance to go and meet with Bernard Edwards. I really wanted his opinion on my album. The constructive feedback I got was, “I think it’s a great album. I think it’s a great compilation of beautiful songs, but next time add more continuity between each song.” I learned from that.
We took a lot of time, especially on “I Think of You”. I love that song. Like every song on that album, I chose it. Whoever had a song for me, a demo, or something for me to hear, I would listen because you never know where that hit is going to come from.
I still have such fond memories of seeing you perform The Brighter Side of Day tribute to Billie Holiday here in New York. What’s the current status of The Brighter Side of Day as both a concert experience and a recording project?
It is and will always be a passion of mine. In the early Vegas days, we would open for Bill Cosby and Jay Leno. We put impressions and impersonations in the act. My mom and my aunt had some records. I started playing Billie Holiday and I started mimicking her voice. My mom was very shrewd. She said, “You’ve got to put that in the act. That’s phenomenal that you can do her voice! Where’d you learn how to do that?”
Then I started doing her nuances onstage, which was a little bit interesting because I was only maybe eighteen but I knew that Billie was strong-willed and tough so I would portray her that way. Every now and then I would have her walk past the microphone because she was a little dazed and the crowd would get a laugh out of that. I started not liking that. I wanted to do Billie in a way that she would be totally proud. I always feel like if we don’t tell our story someone else will.
I came up with a name — The Brighter Side of Day — and thought, What would it be like if we could step back in time and just see this woman at her best? Looking her best and singing her best and feeling her best. I surrounded the show with that era of artists like Louis Jordan and the Tympany Five. I actually used Alicia Keys’ horn section, the Chops Horns. In this house, we wood-shed for four days, all the musicians. I watched these musicians in different corners of my home, studying Louis Jordan and studying Louis Armstrong and studying the music of Billie Holiday and Bud Powell.
We wanted to bring back these great artists. We wanted to propel you into the ’40s. In the middle of all that is this bright shining star, Billie Holiday. We invested in flat screens. I told my production manager, “I want you to find only the most gorgeous pictures of Billie.” By the time these people sit down and they’re tapping their feet to “Giant Steps”, I want them to feel like they already know her when I come out as Billie in the second half of the show and they can’t wait to see this gorgeous person. That’s what The Brighter Side of Day is.
Getting into character with her is very interesting. I have to almost look through you. You’re there and that’s cool but I don’t care — I’m gonna do my show! I didn’t study her life but I read one thing about her and that’s all I needed to know:
Her piano player told a story of how they were working in a club down in the rural south, like the back roads. She was singing and the club owner told her to shut up and that she stunk like a pig. The person telling the story said Billie didn’t say a word. She just turned around, commenced to find the closest chair, picked it up, and just hurled it across the room right at him. That was her way of saying, “You will kill me before you call me that.” That said everything.
It’s impressive how you’ve maintained a consistent club presence over the years. In 2014, you and Aristofreeks had a Top Five dance hit with a song called “Keep It Movin'” …
… That’s your song!
That’s my song, one of them! “I can’t keep losing my mind looking back on yesterday” is a line that stands out.
I think we go through that don’t we? When we start reflecting in an unhealthy way, whatever it may be — relationships, the old job, family — it’s okay to reflect but don’t stay there. I’m a victim of that. If you’re standing still, then you’re going backwards so you have to keep it moving. Those lyrics are very personal to me. The next line is “I’ll just keep it going for me myself and I”. That doesn’t mean in a vain way. It just means if you can’t save yourself, then who can you save?
“Jump Into the Light”, your latest collaboration with Horse Meat Disco, is quickly becoming another favorite of mine. How did you team up with them for “Falling Deep in Love” (2019) last year?
Well, I got to tell you, when Simon Dunmore of Defected Records reached out to me and said, “I want you to do something with Horse Meat Disco”, I was like “Come on, is that really a name?” [laughs] I have to say Luke Howard and Luke Solomon over at Defected are the nicest group of guys and genius in what they did with the whole disco scene. They brought it back in the ’90s. They had this huge following. There would be long lines just to get in, to see where Horse Meat Disco would take their music to different venues. It became this really cool thing.
When I met them, we collaborated on “Falling Deep in Love” and now we have “Jump Into the Light”. We’ve written some other really nice stuff. There’s one song we wrote called “Charlemagne”. It kind of has a Prince vibe to it. I just enjoy writing. I love exploring all different kinds of music and Horse Meat Disco brings that.
Your sister Joni passed away in 2017. I never had a chance to meet her, sadly. For people who only knew Joni through Sister Sledge songs, especially her lead on “Lost in Music”, describe who Joni Sledge was.
She was a party! I have to say a lot of times my daughter reminds me of Joni in this respect — Joni was glamour and Joni was fun. Joni knew all the latest fashions. She was the sister out of all my sisters that would tell you it’s time to wear red lipstick. She just knew a lot of things because she loved life. She was creative. Later in life, we would butt heads — more about the music but never about being sisters. The sisterhood that I shared with Joni in the earlier days was golden.
Thinking back on your career, what’s one of the most awe-inspiring experiences you’ve had as a performer?
I think singing a song that you’ve written, that you’ve created, that people sing along to. That blows me away because it’s something that came from here [touches heart] and they know it. You create something and people love it. That’s special.
As a soloist? I think honestly not having to answer to anyone. I always like to make it clear — I never left my sisters. I was given an ultimatum. When I did a solo project, I was given an offer. I wanted to take that chance. I went to my sisters and said “I really want to do this. Everyone else is working with solo ideas.” I was told, “No you cannot. If you do it, you got to go.”
No one has an anchor tied to you. You are the choices you make. Through the years, I would go back into different configurations with my sisters. It was kind of a rough ride. It’s never too late to know who you are and to know what you love and to see if others believe in what you believe, when it comes to your music.
Along that continuum, what’s one of the greatest challenges that you’ve overcome in your career?
I think it’s always been a very hard challenge dealing with the backdrop of the things I’ve had to deal with, with my sisters, that people don’t know. I don’t talk about that because it’s not the kind of “We Are Family” story you want to hear. People wonder what happened —”Where’d you go?” I was sued for 20 years. I was told in settlement or mediation that I’m not allowed to say that I’m “of Sister Sledge” or “from Sister Sledge”. It’s like trying to hire Kool without saying “the Gang”. [laughs] It made it so that buyers and agents were scared to work with me because they knew that they’d be sued. For eight years that put me out of work
I am talking to different people now about the life behind “We Are Family” through my eyes. We’re known as “We Are Family”, and I’ll always be proud of that, but the story I think is more “Lost in Music” because that [the music] is what got in the middle of some things.
People know about the suit because it did go public. When I get interviewed, I get asked “Do I love my sisters?” Yes. “Is it crazy?” Yes. Then I usually say, “Now what’s in your wallet?” When I bring that up people say, “I could never work with my brother, or my aunt’s crazy, or my sister’s this.” It’s just life. We had the challenge of living under a magnifying glass and having to be like the Waltons.
We’re that family that brought the world together through a song as a family at the risk of almost losing our own. That’s where the “Lost in Music” part comes in. Was it a challenge? Yeah. When people ask will you ever work together again, I usually say I’d rather be sisters. You can stay in a situation or a relationship where you don’t feel appreciated anymore. You have to know when it’s healthy to say I’d rather go to another level in a different way.
Lately, when I talk about the music in the past of Sister Sledge I refer to it as “the band” instead of “my sisters”. I think psychologically that helps me more. Kim and I have talked about doing something. I say this out of wisdom — I will never use this voice again and call it “Sister Sledge” even though I sang all the hits because I found that I couldn’t work as “Sister Sledge”. With that said, I feel like the most important thing in anything is family and if anything gets in the way of that, then that’s just unhealthy.
Looking forward with “Family Room” and more music on the horizon, what else would you like to say at this point in your career?
Whatever I do now is because I want to do it. Growing up, songs were chosen for me, even the We Are Family album, which I love. It doesn’t necessarily have to be music. I love the idea of “Family Room”. I love sitting alongside my daughter and feeling the magical chemistry that we have that is so real. My son is my heart and my daughter is my best friend. She may not make me a cup of tea, but she would take a bullet for me! [laughs] When people see that show, they get it right away.
Photo: Sekou Luke Studio / Kathy Sledge with Christian John Wikane