How we made Sister Sledge’s We Are Family

‘The boss of our label had paper dolls made of us. We were like … nah’

Joni Sledge

Sister Sledge’s 1979 album We Are Family
Sister Sledge’s 1979 album We Are Family Photograph: PR Image

We’d had a couple of hits in 1974, 1975, we’d been to Germany and made an album with the disco act Silver Convention, but by the time we met Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic, the four of us had been in the music business for eight years and we were frustrated. We were saying: “Well, maybe we should go to college and just become lawyers or something other than music, because it really is tough.” My sister Kim actually started law school.

We’d been working in Atlantic City, four in the afternoon to four in the morning, six sets, opening for everybody that came through – the Emotions, Bill Withers, the Pointer Sisters – and they were all really encouraging: “You girls are really good, you should stick with it.” That kind of solidified our desire to continue, but our record company, Atlantic, didn’t quite know what to do with us. One time, the president came to us with this brilliant idea: he was going to make paper dolls. He cut them out in front of us. We were all looking at each other, like … nah. So our expectations when we met Chic were not, “Wow, we’re going to work with them and become big stars”; it was more, “We’ll see what happens.” We’d heard the album they’d produced for Norma Jean and thought it was nice, so we figured making our own album would be interesting.

Watch Sister Sledge perform We Are Family

It was fun, but challenging. Bernard and my sister Debbie were both musical geniuses when it comes to harmony, chording, things like that, and in the studio, they were like, “Grrr!” Nile was the mediator. One day in the studio they both walked out, and Nile was like, “All right, OK, everybody take a break. I’m going to talk to Debbie.” They would bicker and he was the vicar!

Recording the track We Are Family was like a one-take party – we were just dancing and playing around and hanging out in the studio when we did it – but Lost in Music was totally different. It was like being in a trance. Even when we play it today, it’s different every time we do it. We have brilliant musicians, and we just say, “Take us somewhere. Go deep,” and we let the audience know, “You know what? Come along if you want to, but they’re really going to take us somewhere!” And they do.

Sister Sledge performing c.1979.
Sister Sledge performing c.1979. Photograph: Denis O'Regan/Corbis

Debbie Sledge

Chic had some awesome tracks in mind for us, but they were developing the songs as they went, and actually writing lyrics in the studio. They said they had a concept, but they didn’t necessarily tell us what the concept was, which was kind of frustrating. We were used to coming in to the studio prepared. Our grandmother had trained us and she was a classical artist, an opera singer, so we were very disciplined. And the way Chic worked was the opposite.

They wouldn’t show us what they were doing because they said they wanted spontaneity. Everything with them was: “We want the spontaneity.”

“But we want to learn the part.”

“But we want the spontaneity.”

“But we want to know what we’re singing.”

And then they’d sing the melody and they weren’t really people who could sing, so it was fun, but frustrating.

When they brought us Lost in Music, I in my ignorance even said to Nile: “Well, I think it’s too repetitive.” He just looked at Bernard. But Joni sang that song and the lyrics were so reflective of her personality. She’s like that to this day: it’s all of our passion, but she’s really focused, she’s all up in that music.

The words are about determination, not giving up, so they kind of fitted where we were at the time. if you have something that you really, really desire, and you’re good at it, even if you’re raw, it’s a good thing to do. And don’t let anybody deter you from it.

Sister Sledge perform Lost in Music
  • Sister Sledge’s new track Women are the Music of the World is released on 29 May


Interviews by Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
How we made the Jackson 5's I Want You Back
‘Michael and I were such pranksters. We’d put itching powder on men’s bald spot – or a bucket of water over a door to give someone a soaking’

Interviews by Dave Simpson

09, Oct, 2017 @4:18 PM

Article image
Ian Schrager: how we made Studio 54
‘We wanted a mix of rich, poor, gay, straight, old and young … somebody topless could dance with a woman in ballgown and tiara’

Interviews by Dave Simpson

16, Jan, 2018 @7:00 AM

Article image
Candi Staton: how we made Young Hearts Run Free
‘I was with a pimp and a con man. The hurt in my voice is real. I was singing my life’

Interviews by Dave Simpson

30, Jun, 2015 @6:00 AM

Article image
How we made: Car Wash by Rose Royce
‘This will never be a hit, we told each other – we are literally singing about a car wash!’

Interviews by Dave Simpson

12, Jul, 2021 @3:00 PM

Article image
How we made Back to Life by Soul II Soul

Jazzie B and Caron Wheeler on how reggae violins, shuffling beats and an outstanding vocal made a 1980s club classic

Interviews by Jack Watkins

22, Oct, 2012 @4:03 PM

Article image
‘When Ms Dynamite played, the crowd bent the barriers’ – how we made Rampage sound system
‘The most frequently asked questions at Notting Hill carnival are: “Where’s the nearest tube station?”, “Where are the toilets?” and “Where’s Rampage?”’

Interviews by Dave Simpson

26, Jun, 2023 @2:15 PM

Article image
The O'Jays: how we made Love Train
‘Donald Trump used it in his campaign – join a Trump train. Our lawyers sent him a cease and desist letter’

Interviews by Dave Simpson

01, Nov, 2016 @9:00 AM

Article image
How we made Leftfield's Leftism
‘We ploughed everything into it, re-examining the whole history of pop – admittedly while on drugs’

Interviews by Dave Simpson

16, May, 2017 @5:00 AM

Article image
How we made Orbital's Chime
The Hartnoll brothers reveal how their rave anthem was created for £3.75 in a cupboard under the stairs at their parents’ house

Interviews by Dave Simpson

18, Jun, 2018 @2:38 PM

Article image
SG Lewis: Times review – soaring, subtle disco for kitchen dancefloors
Given the British producer’s skill for emotionally attuned nightclub elation, his debut shouldn’t suffer from the shutdown of its natural habitat

Alexis Petridis

18, Feb, 2021 @12:00 PM