We Are Family by Sister Sledge

Mary McLeod Bethune

It is a holiday called Family Day here in Ontario so what better way to celebrate than with the story of one of the most iconic songs about “family” ever, “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge. As some of you may know, Sister Sledge were an all-girl singing group that gained fame during the Disco period of the 1970s. All four singers are actually sisters and they are all named Sledge. The singers are Joni, Debbie, Kathy and Kim. The Sledge sisters grew up in Philadelphia in the 1960s. They were always a very musical family and regularly sang in their church. From a very young age, the Sledge sisters were mentored by their grandmother Viola Williams. Williams, in turn, was a close associate of Civil Rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune. For those who may be unaware, Bethune was one of the leading voices for female African Americans during the time of the Civil Rights Movement. Prior to that she was the founder of The National Council of Negro Women in 1935. She was also a special advisor to U.S. President Roosevelt and was the only African America woman involved in the creation of the United Nations Charter. So, needless to say, under the guidance of their grandmother, the Sledge sisters grew up in an environment where the term “Family” meant more than just your biological relations. “Family” was a term that encompassed whole groups of likeminded people. So, it should not have been a surprise to anyone who knew these sisters that they would go on to have one of the biggest hits of the year in 1979 with a song about unity called, “We Are Family”.

The Sledge sisters: Joni, Kathy, Kim and Debbie

Initially, when the girls were all younger, they limited their public performances to their church. But, as they began to finish high school, one by one, the prospect of a career in the music began to appear as a legitimate possibility. So, they took their personal, family act and rebranded it. They were no longer the Sledge sisters but instead, they became Sister Sledge and headed out onto the road. As Sister Sledge, the girls travelled all up and down the eastern seaboard of the U.S. Their stage show was basically the same act that they used to perform in church except that they soon began to cover Soul and R&B classics such as Mary Wells, “My Guy”, too. In time, Sister Sledge began to develop a reputation as a talented quartet who knew how to sing and put on a good show. They were eventually signed to a record deal with a small local label called Money Back. From their first record, they had a moderate hit in the UK with a song called, “Mama Never Told Me”. Then, the following year, they hit in big in Japan with a song called, “Love Don’t Go Through No Changes On Me”. They were invited to tour Japan and while there they won a Silver medal in a song competition. That recognition caused them to be invited to travel to Zaire, Africa to be part of a bill, along with James Brown, that was part of The Rumble in the Jungle boxing match between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali.

Nile Rodgers, Bernard Edwards and Sister Sledge in studio.

However, once back in America, their career began to plateau. They had been signed by a new label which was a subsidiary of Atlantic Records, which was one of the biggest record labels at the time in the 1970s. While there, they were paired up with songwriters Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of the hit Disco group, Chic. The story goes that while Rodgers and Edwards were confident writing songs for their own band, there were not so ready to work with bigger Atlantic acts such as Bette Midler so they asked to be assigned to a novice group to see what might become of their efforts. That “novice” group was Sister Sledge. When Edwards and Rodgers were first told that they would be working with the four sisters from Philadelphia, they asked for some background information on them. They took copious notes. After that meeting was over, they felt the notes that they took described a unified family and used their notes to create the lyrics to a song that they presented to the sisters the first time they met in studio. That song was “We Are Family”.

Pirates pitcher Kent Tekulve and sluggers Dave Parker and Willie “Pops” Stargell of the “We Are Family” Champion Pittsburgh Pirates in 1979

“We Are Family” was not the only hit Sister Sledge ever had but it has come to define them just as if it had been their only hit. “We Are Family” reached #1 on the charts and ended up being the #2 song for the entire year of 1979 (finishing second to Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff”). Its theme of togetherness and unity struck a chord with audiences and with organizations. The song was adopted by the World Series Champion Pittsburgh Pirates in 1979. “We Are Family” has been selected for inclusion in The Library of Congress and having had a culturally significant impact on American society. The song was also performed at many benefits such as the post 9/11 fundraiser in NYC, as well as for the organization known as Feed The Children.

So, as you celebrate Family Day in Ontario or as you reflect on your own family and social connections wherever you happen to be, do so with the soundtrack of this peppy dance song playing in the back of your mind. “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge is one of those rare songs that is so uplifting, fun and positive that it is impossible to find any fault with it at all. It was a perfect song for the times in 1979 and has been a perfect song for all of the times that have followed, including this, day…Family Day in Ontario. Have a wonderful day wherever you are as this post finds you. Thanks for reading my words and for being a part of my blogging family. I appreciate your presence here very much.

The link to the video for the song, “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge can be found here.

The link to the official website for Sister Sledge can be found here.

The link to the video of Sister Sledge singing their hit song during the Pittsburgh Pirates championship season can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this blog post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023 http://www.tommacinneswriter.com

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

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