Soul Survivors

Strong family ties impel iconic Sister Sledge to carry on

It’s late April and Debbie Sledge, one quarter of the legendary R&B group Sister Sledge, is juggling packing for a European concert tour and planning a memorial concert to honor her late sister Joni, who unexpectedly passed away in 2017.

As most Valley residents would agree, Sister Sledge is local royalty. Like Bruce Springsteen is to the Jersey shore, or the Beatles to their native Liverpool, Sister Sledge has been revered in the Valley of the Sun for their “hometown” band status, with all the attendant love and esteem that designation confers.

The sisters—Debbie, Joni, Kim and Kathy (who stepped away from the ensemble in 1989)—started out in Philadelphia, where, from a very young age, they were no strangers to performance and musical entertainment. The daughters of actress Florez Sledge and acclaimed Broadway performer Edwin Sledge, they also enjoyed early musical guidance from their grandmother Viola Beatrix Hairston Williams, an accomplished lyric-opera soprano who gave the siblings some unique vocal training early on, arranging for them to perform at church events and community functions.

The sisters’ gentle nudge toward music was never forced, Debbie Sledge is quick to explain.

“They—my family—didn’t push us into a musical direction, but it was something that just happened naturally. There was so much music around us, with my parents and our aunts and uncles…we were just a family that loved music, and we absorbed it,” she says. But a real crossroads for the group was when they learned the complex harmonies they became noted for. “We could sing these four-part harmonies and that made a big difference.”

Their move westward occurred somewhat piecemeal. Debbie relocated to Phoenix in the late ’80s, when her then-husband got a job teaching at Arizona State University. She loved the area so much, she encouraged her sister Joni and their mother to move to the Valley. “It’s our home base,” Sledge says resolutely.

When they arrived in the Valley, the sisters were already internationally acclaimed musical stars, with a considerable catalog of hits to their credit and a growing audience of international fans. As Sledge describes it, “The band got its start in 1971, and we signed our first recording contract in 1974. That really was the beginning of our professional career, and it just seemed to take off from there.”

After a few early hits, Sister Sledge achieved true legendary status in 1979, when their chart-busting hit “We Are Family” first hit the airwaves. Penned by premier songwriters Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, the now iconic, “feel-good” tune went on to capture a 1979 Grammy nomination and chart successfully around the globe in more than a dozen international countries.

“It was a major turning point in our lives; it changed our lives drastically,” Sledge says of the song. “It didn’t change us so much in the sense of who we were as people, but, rather, it changed our outlook on what was possible for us. We were asking ourselves, ‘Wow! What’s going on here? Why are we the focus of all these blessings?’ ”

More than anything, “We Are Family” helped brand Sister Sledge, defining the precise direction their music would take thereafter, and stamping the sisters’ act with the very message of solidarity they’d been seeking to share with their audiences.

“The song gave us the privilege of being vessels to channel the joy we were experiencing to others,” Debbie explains. “And, as it turned out, that very same joy we were hoping to share was being fed back to us by our audiences.”

Despite all the joy emanating from and surrounding Sister Sledge, the group is no stranger to tragedy. The latter occurred in 2017, when Joni Sledge passed away suddenly, at age 60.

“It was devastating,” Debbie says. “It left a huge challenge for us as a family and a group in the sense that she was such a huge influence on all of us, and she possessed such a brilliant business mind. She had enormous vision.”

One of the challenges the group faced in the wake of Joni’s death was whether to continue performing or, instead, take a hiatus. The only answer, Debbie says, was to carry on. “We wanted to honor Joni by continuing to tour—and we didn’t stop. We went on to honor her in every show we performed after she died, and we still do.”

Debbie is excited to discuss yet another means of honoring their sister, which will take the form of a tribute concert celebrating Joni’s music and spirit. With a date yet to be determined, the event is shaping up to be a highlight in the sisters’ illustrious career—as well as a “must-attend” show for fans and followers of Sister Sledge. “We want to honor her and her legacy,” Debbie notes.

The tribute concert will include a full slate of celebrity performers—musicians and entertainers who’ve also been touched by Sister Sledge through the years—performing many of Joni’s visionary songs.

“In some capacity, all of the artists we’ve met along the way want to do something,” Debbie says. “I’m so excited about it; it’s going to be an elegant evening—that I can assure you.”

As to the future of Sister Sledge, fans and friends won’t have to worry if one of their favorite groups is contemplating retirement anytime too soon. As Debbie states without hesitation, “We have no plans of stopping.”

“I think one of the reasons that we’re still around [as a performing group] is because of the ‘grace’ we’ve been given,” she adds. “God has been good to us. Also, because we’re a family, we’ve had a huge support network, mothers and fathers and aunts and grandmas who’ve watched over us, kept us together, prayed for us—and also reprimanded us when we needed it! We’ve had each other, our bond, and our faith. And we held that faith and developed it for ourselves to reflect in our music.”

And, she assures us, the music will continue.

 

Story: Bruce Farr

Photo: Camilla Camaglia

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