As one of the world’s most successful female groups in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Sister Sledge’s hits include We are Family, Lost in Music and Thinking of You. This Saturday, the disco pioneers will headline the Chingford Big Weekender. Ahead of their show, Amie Mulderrig talks to Debbie Sledge about religion, working with family, the craziness of Studio 54 and just who is the greatest dancer.
Where are you at the moment?
I’m visiting family in Amsterdam, I’ve been here a few days. I’m taking some time out before performances.
Sister Sledge are coming to Chingford, for the Chingford Big Weekender, are you excited?
Very excited. I don’t recall being in Chingford before. This will be new for us, every show is exciting, but we’re looking forward to it.
What can we expect from your set?
Well, we’ve been adding a few new things, of course we’ll do our hits, but every now and then we put in something different and something new. So you can expect that at Chingford.
What’s your favourite song to perform?
Thinking of You. It’s a very hard choice, we have a ball with lots of our music, our musicians are so great, they take us all into ‘lostness’. But Thinking of You is such a great song, it’s so melodic. One of the reasons I love it is because I always think of a very special person and that is God when I’m singing that song. I feel his presence when I’m singing that.
Sister Sledge is synonymous with disco. When you look back, how do you feel about the impact you’ve had upon the music industry?
It’s a marvel, we’re still in wonderment about this. We’re still kids at heart, but when you think about the enormity of it, we’re just in the midst of something very significant that’s bigger than us. We’re still learning and enjoying new experiences.
How do you feel when you hear other musicians sampling your music?
It’s a compliment, a big compliment.
Your mother Flo was an entertainer, but it was your grandmother Viola who got you together singing at various charity and civic events. What impact did Viola have upon your careers?
She was very important in terms of the development of music in our lives, she was an opera singer, a highly educated woman, and she noticed right away that we had the ability and potential to sing, so she taught us at early stages in our lives an appreciation for music and vocal techniques.
Who were you listening to when you were growing up? What musicians inspired you?
Besides our grandmother’s influence - she taught negro spirituals, some classical music, we listened jazz at our aunt’s, we listened to motown that was out at that time, we listened to various artists - Dionne Warwick singing Burt Bacharach tunes, Smoky Robinson, and every now and then, my uncles and aunts, believe it or not, would break out in a country song. They would do it for fun, they weren’t big fans, but there was this appreciation for all kinds of music.
How did you manage your religious background with the crazy Studio 54-vibe of the disco era? Was there any conflict?
No, there weren’t any conflicts. We are who we are, no matter where we are. The only conflict was with the lyrics, I was especially adamant that I didn’t want to sing certain things particularly if they aren’t true. So, there was one line in one of the songs - Greatest Dancer - which was ‘please take me home’, which we said we didn’t want to sing, so we sang: ‘please go home’. That’s what we sing on the live stage, on the record we sing it as it was written.
What did you make of the New York party scene in the late 70s?
We were taking it all in. We were sheltered even in the midst of all that, we were always together in a clump, which Kathy didn’t like, even back then, but we were always together, we had chaperones, I’m a home-body at heart, so I wasn’t much of a hanger-out. We enjoyed it. If my sisters wanted to go out they went out together, we had a rule that we would always go in twos.
What’s it like being in a band with your sisters? Do you ever fall-out?
(Laughs) Oh yeah, we have fallings out. But there’s always reconciliation, because we realise that strength is unity. And that’s something our grandmother taught us in the very beginning.
Why the name Sister Sledge?
It was actually a coincidence. We were being introduced by someone and he asked us what our name was. We said: The Sledge Sisters, and he turned it around, Everybody this is Sister Sledge. My sister Carol was backstage and she said: You guys should keep that! It’s a good name. So it stuck.
Where’s the strangest place you’ve heard your records being played?
I know a story of one, which was a hut in Africa. That was neat. Someone said they were there, and there was a picture of Sister Sledge, and they knew the song We Are Family.
Why wasn’t Carol a permanent member of the group?
Carol did occasionally join the group, when I was on maternity leave, but she decided it wasn’t for her, she had a little stage fright she didn’t get over. She enjoyed stepping in, but in the long run she didn’t want to do it.
Over the years your musical styles have changed. Why the change in direction?
We’re very versatile and there’s a lot of music in each of us as individuals. So we don’t want to not pull out everything that we have. We realise there’s a time and a place to release different styles. We love the disco sounds, we love the Chic sounds, we have a great deal of respect for that. But we’re also lovers of jazz, of R n B, all different genres. We’re very versatile.
Are you planning to release anything new?
Yes, a new album called Women are the Rhythmn of the World. It’s going to be totally dance music, but dance music with a purpose and a message. It’s pure Sister Sledge, we’re collaborating with different producers, but it’s the Sister Sledge sound. We’re thinking of collaborating with some UK DJs to do some mixing, but I can’t say who yet!
What keeps you guys going?
A culmination of knowing who you are and faith in God. We know that he’s a god of love and if you have that security in the love of god, that’s all you need. Because of that, that love in our heart, we have a security to love others who don’t necessarily love us back. That’s a good way to be sustained and to keep going and to enjoy life.
What’s on the Sister Sledge rider?
(Laughs) In-ear monitors, and lots of healthy foods. I love Trail Mix, organic stuff - we’re trying to keep the energy up and the waistlines down, but it’s a losing battle.
And finally, who’s the Greatest Dancer?
The Greatest Dancer is going to be in Chingford and we’re going to be looking for him or her!
Sister Sledge will perform at Chingford Big Weekender on Saturday, August 9. Details: walthamforest.gov.uk