Sister Sledge: “Family is extremely important. It’s the root of where everything started”

Sister Sledge are keeping it in the family with a new gen line-up and a forthcoming show at London’s iconic Royal Albert Hall

When it comes to disco royalty, Sister Sledge are the queens.

Born in Philadelphia to Broadway tap dancer father Edwin Sledge and actress Florez Sledge, sisters Debbie, Joni, Kym and Kathy Sledge were introduced to music by way of their grandmother Viola Williams, a former opera singer and protégé of civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune.

After a few years touring up and down the East Coast of America as Sister Sledge, their breakthrough came when Atlantic Records connected them with Chic’s Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards. The result was We Are Family, the album that put Sister Sledge on the map in 1979.

Featuring singles such as ‘He’s The Greatest Dancer’, ‘Lost in Music’, ‘Thinking Of You’ and of course, that barnstormer of a title track, Sister Sledge became a dancefloor sensation enjoying success on a global scale for the next four decades, playing everywhere from Carnegie Hall to Glastonbury’s Pyramid stage.

However, when sister Joni sadly passed in 2017, Sister Sledge decided to take things in a new direction – one that welcomed a second generation of the Sledge family into the group to continue the legacy, while allowing them to grow as artists in their own right. Sister Sledge ft Slegendary, under the musical direction of founding member Debbie Sledge, features Debbie’s daughter Camille, her son David, nephew Thaddeus (Joni’s son) alongside long term co-performer, vocalist Tanya Ti-et. This is ‘We Are Family’, evolved and ready to bring their brand of uplifting musical joy to masses, be that to the die-hard fans or the next generation of dancers getting hopelessly lost in the music.

We spoke to Sister Sledge ahead of their Royal Albert Hall show on June 8 to find out a bit more about what keeps them on tour, the importance of family, and why ‘joy’ means so much to them…

You grew up in a very musical household. How important was family to you starting out?

Debbie: Extremely important. It is the root of where everything started. I grew up in a very musical family, plus we all had an energy that was so unique. Despite having aunts, uncles, grandparents who all performed – some professionally – the most formative thing is that we sang for fun. Music was such a massive part of my family, and it still is. I mean, my children and my nephew are now part of Sister Sledge so we’re keeping that family energy going as Sister Sledge ft Slegendary. That bond has kept us grounded and high at the same time.

I’ve seen you play live a couple times, and I’m still taken aback as to how much fun you’re having on stage…

Debbie: It’s an ongoing thing. We love to party – in fact, we had a party last night in Belfast.

Camille: Belfast is crazy. The crowd was super lit, and a lot of fun. 

I asked my friends to sum up Sister Sledge in just one word, and nearly all of them said ‘joy’ – how does it feel to know that you’re still bringing people so much joy after nearly 50 years in the industry?

Camille: Joy is such an important word, and one that means a lot to us because we feel like we’re passing this happiness on. Joy is something that keeps you young, and keeps you alive. I mean, if you can feel happy about rainy cloudy weather in Belfast, then you can be happy about anything. You can’t let the weather get you down, right? For us, joy is the most important element of being a musician because you really have to emote that to the audience on stage. And if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, then why are you doing it? 

Sister Sledge - Lost In Music • TopPop

‘Lost in Music’ is the perfect example of this joy coming alive within a song – when it was recorded, did you ever have that lightbulb moment of thinking: wow, we’ve got a song here that’s going to mean a lot to a lot of people?

Debbie: Yeah, because that feeling was happening to us, right at that exact moment. ‘Lost in Music’ always felt very true to us because it was describing what was going on in our lives at the time. And that’s why joy is so important because there’s also truth in that feeling of being uplifted by a song. It’s so honest. It sounds corny, but we’re all just very positive people. I believe in the saying that you can’t complain and be grateful at the same time, and we’re just all so incredibly grateful that we have the opportunity to still be around each other playing these songs. We’re family, and we’re friends, and no matter what we’ve gone through (and we have been through some incredibly tough times), we try to stay positive all the time.

What did it feel like going to all the legendary NYC discos of the 70s and 80s, hearing one of your tracks drop and watching the dance floor lose their minds?

Debbie: Wild! We were so excited and just so, so surprised. Like, ‘you guys hearing this? That’s our song!’ I cannot begin to explain to you how that feels. Also, when we heard ‘We Are Family’ on international radio for the first time… Yep, that was pretty mind blowing.

Is that the point where you realised things would never be the same again?

Debbie: [Laughs] We don’t know what “same” is! Our lives were always so hectic, but we were happy to go with the flow and commit 100%, and look where it took us. It’s been a blast, and it still is.

Has there ever been a point where you thought you didn’t want to do this any more?

Debbie: Yes, actually. At a point very early on when my children were young and it was getting increasingly hard to leave them when we would go off on tour. And Camille is going through that now with my grandchildren. It’s very hard to leave your little ones. And Sister Sledge was super busy at that point. Whenever we could, I would bring the children with me, but then when school started, I realised that they had to stay in one place. I feel proud now looking back that I did the best I could, because I remember Camille saying that she never felt that she was losing her mom to the industry. That makes me so happy.

Camille: I never felt like you were gone all the time. I felt like you raised us. I remember getting disciplined by you when I acted out! You were always there. I mean, I knew you travelled a lot. I don’t know, it just never felt that you were an absent parent.

Sister Sledge - We Are Family (Official Music Video)

Even though this isn’t the original Sister Sledge, you are still playing as family – was there ever any question that some of you guys wouldn’t get into music too?

Camille: For me, no. Never any doubt that I would follow my mother onto the stage. Thaddeus thought he was going to be a footballer, until he realised he was going to have to sacrifice his body for that… 

Thaddeus: Music seemed safer!

Tanya: I always knew I wanted to sing. There was never any doubt in my mind. The problem was that when I started out I didn’t enjoy singing in front of people. It took me a long time to find the confidence to sing in front of an audience, and even then I would wear sunglasses so I couldn’t see people looking at me.

Camille: And now she’s a stage maniac.

Tanya: Being asked to join this family has been the highlight of my musical life. I still have the voicemail saved on my phone saying I was going out on tour with Sister Sledge.

Camille: When I was little, I used to play around with my mom’s stuff, you know. I would play with her makeup, until she caught me one day. Imagine the sparkly costumes I used to find in her closet? I was so intrigued by it all.

Debbie: And now she’s also another stage maniac!

It feels like Sister Sledge have always been very much in control of their artistry – are there any female performers out there that you admire?

Camille: I love Lizzo. And Adele. There’s an artist that stays true to herself and her authenticity. I also really like Cleo Sol.

Debbie: Being authentic is very important to us as artists. We’re still discovering new aspects to Sister Sledge, and Slegendary. You know, we’re not the original…

Camille: Well, you’re the original…

Debbie: This is a second generation, and we have a legacy we can be proud of. The difference is that now I’m approaching this new formation as a mother and an aunt rather than as a sister. The dynamic is slightly different because these guys are all artists in their own right, but what’s important is that they want to be part of this. It had to feel like a natural progression rather than something forced. I want them to discover every gift that’s inside them. No holding back.

So tell me about the Royal Albert Hall, are you excited to be playing it?

Debbie: Very excited. I’ve turned into a bit of a rehearsal tyrant with these guys because I want us to be prepared. It’s such an iconic venue, and we need to be on fire.

Camille: I’m excited. It’s a big deal and is all anyone can talk about right now. We’re getting bombarded on social media about it. And we’re going to be in London. London always feels so alive.

Tanya: London kind of reminds me of my home city, New York. It has that same buzz. I always love being back there.

Camille: You guys have all the history, all the style. ALL the vintage shopping. The energy is just always popping. England is just one of those places where they keep things alive without it ever feeling corny, you know, all the festivals and the 80s parties – music feels so immortal in the UK. And you’re always up for a good time.

You have this massively inspirational legacy – what would your advice be for other women wanting to make it in the music industry?

Debbie: We said it earlier, but being authentic and staying true to who you are as an artist is so important in this game. Don’t ever let anybody else change you. And even if you’re performing someone else’s music, try and put something of yourself into it. I did a Nina Simone tribute and had to choose songs that felt authentic for me to perform – she has so many awesome songs, but there are some that I knew I could sing that felt more natural. And I would advise any artist to do that. Always come at something from the position of discovery and exploration. Don’t get stuck in the past. Live in the moment.

Camille: We have so much fun on stage because we love singing the songs, and while these tunes are old, every show always feels brand new. If you are enjoying yourself, then you are timeless in that moment. And the audience are such a massive part of that too. Last night in the Belfast crowd, we had a woman dancing at the front who was 87 years old popping to ‘He’s The Greatest Dancer.’ It was such a moment for her, and for us. And that’s what we live for.

Sister Sledge are playing The Royal Albert Hall on June 8, before joining The Jacksons on June 23-24 and playing Soul Town festival in September. Find Sister Sledge tickets here.