Happy Birthday to Sister Sledge singer Kathy Sledge

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    Happy birthday to the legendary Kathy Sledge of the group Sister Sledge, born January 6, 1959.

    Happy birthday to the legendary Kathy Sledge of the group Sister Sledge, born January 6, 1959.

    The '60s was arguably the golden decade for girl groups - think The Supremes, The Marvelettes, Martha & The Vandellas, The Ronettes, The Chiffons, The Shangri-Las, The Velvelettes and on and on... The 70s?  Well, there are some names that stand out - The Honeycone, First Choice, The Pointer Sisters, Labelle (transformed from Patti LaBelle & The Bluebelles), The Emotions...and Sister Sledge.   The four real-life sisters from Philadelphia earned their place in contemporary music history thanks to a pair of timeless mega hits, "He's The Greatest Dancer" and the now-classic anthem "We Are Family," revived in the fall of 2001 by an all-star collection of artists as a fundraiser in the aftermath of the September 11 tragedy.   But while the late 70s mainstream popularity of dance music definitely helped Debbie, Joni, Kathy and Kim to finally receive their due as chartmakers, Sister Sledge were more than just a one-off group caught up in the heady days of disco...

    Indeed, the quartet had been working their craft, in search of a hit years before producers Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers, the wonder team behind the success of Chic, took Sister Sledge into the studios and came out with the group's first best-selling album.  Nurtured in a musical family whose ranks included opera singer Viola Beatrice Williams, a father who was part of a tap-dancing duo and a mother who also sang, the group's first attempt to jumpstart a career in music started in 1971 with "Time Will Tell," a single on a local Philly label.  At the time, the sisters were all still in school, Kathy just twelve, Kim thirteen, Joni fourteen and Debbie sixteen and two years after the release of that first 45, different record companies were looking at the group as potential hitmakers.  After all, very few female groups had achieved any measure of success in the early 70s: the R&B charts were dominated by soul men like Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Eddie Kendricks and Barry White, while the pop listings leaned heavily towards singer-songwriters of the Carly Simon, Don McLean, James Taylor and Neil Diamond variety.

    No surprise, then that the very first attempts by Atco Records to get a return on their investment for signing the girls in 1973 fell flat.  A couple of early singles received little airplay; it was only when the label teamed Sister Sledge with the New York-based production team of veteran arranger Bert DeCoteaux and former Main Ingredient group member Tony Sylvester that the group enjoyed its first measure of chart action.  It came in the form of 1974's "Love Don't Go Through No Changes On Me," co-written by the late Gwen Guthrie who would go on to more songwriting acclaim with tunes recorded by Ben E. King, Roberta Flack, Angela Bofill and others before launching her own solo career in 1982.   

    It took a little more work before the group was able to follow up that initial hit. There was a debut album, "Circle Of Love," some more singles ("Thank You For Today, "Cream Of The Crop," "Blockbuster Boy") and even a second album (1977's "Together").  However, took the combination of Edwards & Rodgers, already hot with back-to-back Chic biggies like "Dance, Dance, Dance," "Everybody Dance" and "Le Freak," were the ones to deliver the goods.

    With young Kathy's distinctive lead vocals featured prominently, "He's The Greatest Dancer" adhered perfectly to the production formula that Bernard and Nile had created with their own group: a funkybutt rhythm section, the perfect string arrangement, some soulful punctuated horn lines melded with a song with a storyline and an immediate, highly memorable hook, all working together on a irresistible groove that demanded that even the shyest, most reserved club-goer head straight to the dance floor.  Sister Sledge's tight family harmonies provided the perfect support for Kathy's ode to the ‘Saturday Night Fever' era.  Today, twenty-two years after it hit the streets, "He's The Greatest Dancer" sounds fresh, undoubtedly one of the greatest records to come out of the time period.

    Following it might have been a tough task for a team less qualified but Edwards & Rodgers were at the top of their game and "We Are Family" was a blockbuster global hit for Sister Sledge.  A gold single, a No. 1 R&B smash, a Top 3 pop record and a dance music monster, the song quickly developed into the most requested item in the group's growing repertoire; more than that, it opened the doors for Sister Sledge to tour throughout the U.S., Europe and beyond.  Used in all manner of settings - from ballgames to gay pride parades to political conventions - "We Are Family" was written specifically for the four sisters and its' message of unity, joy and hope resonated with folks the world over.

    Jumping out of the group's third overall and sole platinum 1979 album was the equally potent "Lost In Music," another hypnotic slice of dance music magic and then the popular quartet and their producers faced a dilemma.  How to follow such massive success?   It was no easy task even for Edwards & Rodgers, riding the crest of a wave with Chic and their work with superstar Diana Ross on her first-ever platinum album "Diana."  The 1980 LP "Love Somebody Today" did include a pair of charted singles in the form of the title track and "Reach Your Peak" but coming up with something to match the impact of their '79 hits was tough and for its fifth album, Sister Sledge turned to Bay Area-based producer Narada Michael Walden.

    A former drummer with The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Walden had been recording for Atlantic as a recording artist in his own right since 1977 and working with Sister Sledge was his first assignment as a producer for others.  Ultimately, Walden would go on to work with Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston among others, giving both divas major hit records in the mid-80s.  He produced just one album with the Philly quartet: 1981's "All American Girls" did moderately well, with the title track gaining some ground on the R&B charts without making much noise in the pop arena.  One cut, "He's Just A Runaway" did enjoy some chart action but it was only after the group itself created a new reggae-styled version as a tribute to Bob Marley that was not included on the original album.

    In 1982, Sister Sledge produced their fifth album: "The Sisters" contained two songs of note - a revival of Mary Wells' 1964 smash "My Guy" and "All The Man I Need," which featured Philly soul singer David Simmons.  The latter song had originally been done by Chicago-based dance and R&B hitmaker Linda Clifford and even though Sister Sledge did get some attention with their version, it wasn't until 1991 when superstar Whitney Houston revived it that the song achieved mainstream notoriety.

    The group's last couple of albums for Atlantic (and its subsidiary Cotillion) did little to restore Sister Sledge to the plateau they had reached in the late 70s.  Produced by jazz-oriented keyboardist George Duke, who had begun working with R&B/pop artists like Jeffrey Osborne and Stephanie Mills, the 1983 album "Bet Cha Say That To All The Girls" featured the chart single "B.Y.O.B. (Bring Your Own Baby)"; 1985's "When The Boys Meet The Girls" reunited Sister Sledge with a solo Nile Rodgers and the easy-on-the-ear track "Frankie," with its slight Caribbean flavor, was major hit in the U.K. without creating the same kind of reaction in the U.S.

    Since the late 80s, Kathy has made some solo records; three other sisters made a 1998 album, "African Eyes" which received critical acclaim. As the much-misunderstood chorus line from "He's The Greatest Dance" states, "oh what...wow!" - those hot disco nights would never have been the same without Sister Sledge...

    Contributed by David Nathan, http://www.soulmusic.com/

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