Having performed at church and school programs and at fashion shows and political events, North Philadelphia natives Sister Sledge got their commercial start in 1971, when siblings Debbie, Joni, Kim, and Kathy ranged in age from 12 to 16. Under the name Sisters' Sledge, they debuted that year on the local Money Back label with "Time Will Tell," written and produced by Marty Brown (who had just scored a hit with the Stylistics' "You're a Big Girl Now"). Subsequently signed to Atco, the Sledges released a handful of singles over the next three years and during the same period continued to branch out abroad with performances in Tokyo and at the momentous Zaire 74 music festival. "Mama Never Told Me" was their first U.K. chart entry (peaking at number 20) and was followed by "Love Don't You Go Through No Changes on Me," the group's first single to make a commercial impression in the U.S. (number 91 on the pop chart, number 31 R&B, and number five on the dance chart). Circle of Love, their first album, was racked in 1975 and landed at number 65 on the R&B chart. It was produced by Bert DeCoteaux and Tony Silvester, while most of the material -- "Love Don't You Go Through No Changes on Me" included -- was written by Gwen Guthrie and Patrick Grant.
Having moved to Cotillion, another Atlantic subsidiary, the Sledges scored a couple minor intermediary hits before they issued their second album, 1977's Together, with Michael Kunze and Sylvester Levay on production. The biggest hit of this phase was "Blockbuster Boy" (number 61 R&B). It wasn't until 1979, after the Sledges contributed to Vince Montana's A Dance Fantasy Inspired by Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and were paired with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of white-hot Atlantic act Chic, that the group entered the mainstream. We Are Family yielded the number one R&B, Top Ten pop hits with "He's the Greatest Dancer" and "We Are Family," and consequently went Top Five pop. Those two songs, in combination with "Lost in Music," also crowned the dance chart. Additionally, "We Are Family" was adopted by the World Series-winning Pittsburgh Pirates, and was nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo, Group or Chorus. The Sledges, Rodgers, and Edwards also worked together for 1980's Love Somebody Today, a second straight Top Ten R&B LP, highlighted by "Got to Love Somebody," a number six R&B hit.
Sister Sledge then partnered with ex-Mahavishnu Orchestra drummer Narada Michael Walden, an Atlantic-signed artist fresh off producing and writing for Stacy Lattisaw. Together, they made All American Girls, a 1981 LP featuring the number three R&B hit of the same title. The group self-produced 1982's The Sisters, which spawned a Top 40 pop hit (number 14 R&B) with a cover of Mary Wells' "My Guy." Another diversified jazz musician juggling a solo career and R&B production, George Duke (between sessions with Jeffrey Osborne and Deniece Williams), entered the frame for the 1983 album Bet Cha Say That to All the Girls, which included the number 22 R&B single "B.Y.O.B. (Bring Your Own Baby)." The Sledges were comparatively quiet in 1984. "Thinking of You," off We Are Family, was issued in some territories as a single and narrowly missed the U.K. Top Ten. A 12" containing new remixes of "Lost in Music" and "We Are Family," executed respectively by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, also fared well outside the U.S. In the U.K., the A-side went to number four. The overseas commercial resurgence carried into 1985 with the Sledges' seventh album, When the Boys Meet the Girls. An Atlantic-issued reunion with Rodgers, its first single, "Frankie," topped the U.K. pop chart and became their ninth Hot 100 entry in the U.S.
Sister Sledge recordings were sporadic thereafter. They included "World Rise and Shine" (a collaboration with Incognito's Jean-Paul Bluey Maunick for a 1992 anthology) and the adventurous Joni Sledge-produced album African Eyes (1998), followed the next decade by a post-9/11 all-star benefit version of "We Are Family" (2001) and the jazz-oriented LP Style (2003), amid assorted remixes and live recordings. Joni died of natural causes in 2017. Debbie, other Sledge family members, and Tanya Tiet have since tended to Sister Sledge's legacy on-stage. ~ Andy Kellman & Alex Henderson, Rovi
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