March 10, 2017 – Joni (Joan Elise) Sledge (Sister Sledge) was born on Sept. 13, 1956, in Philadelphia to Edwin Sledge, a performer on Broadway, and Florez Sledge, an actress who oversaw her daughters’ careers as their business manager and traveled with them on tours.
Joni and her sisters, Debbie, Kim and Kathy, received voice training from their grandmother Viola Williams, a former operatic soprano, and gained early experience singing at the family church, Williams Temple Christian Methodist Episcopal.
Best known for their work with Chic in the late ’70s, siblings Debbie, Kim, Joni, and Kathy Sledge — collectively Sister Sledge — reached the height of their popularity during the disco era, but had been recording since the early ’70s and were still active in the late ’90s. The group was formed in Philadelphia in 1971, when the sisters’ ages ranged from 12 to 16, and they recorded their first single, “Time Will Tell,” for the Philly-based Money Back label. (For the first few years, the group called itself Sisters Sledge.) In 1972, Sister Sledge signed with Atco and recorded its second single, “Weatherman,” which was followed by the Jackson 5-like “Mama Never Told Me” in 1973.
Sister Sledge’s first national hit came in 1974, when “Love, Don’t You Go Through No Changes on Me” reached number 31 on the R&B charts and the Philadelphians recorded their debut album, Circle of Love. Their second album, Together, was released in 1977 and contained the number 61 R&B hit “Blockbuster Boy.” It wasn’t until 1979, when Chic leaders Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards produced We Are Family, that Sister Sledge really exploded commercially. “He’s the Greatest Dancer” and We Are Family’s title song both soared to number one on the R&B charts, and the latter (a number two pop smash) was adopted as a theme by the World Series-winning Pittsburgh Pirates.
We are Family elevated their career to a new plane, but they could not sustain its enormous success. The follow up album, Love Somebody Today, was also produced by the Rodgers/Edwards team, but fell way short of its predecessor and delivered modest hits Got to Love Somebody and Reach Your Peak, which turned out to be enough to keep the sisters on the road for another 3 years of international touring.
They switched to producer Narada Michael Walden for All American Girls (1981). The title song was a number three R&B hit, and in 1982, Sister Sledge had a number 14 R&B hit with a cover of Mary Wells’ “My Guy” that appeared on The Sisters.
In 1984, they enjoyed a fresh spurt of chart activity with a re-release of Lost in Music, which had been remixed by Rodgers and reached No 4 in the UK, and also had a UK No 11 hit with Thinking of You, belatedly extracted from the We Are Family album. In 1985 they topped the British chart with Frankie, from their album When the Boys Meet the Girls.
But after that, the foursome’s popularity faded, and it never had another Top 20 hit in the U.S. – although 1985’s “Frankie” (a number 32 R&B hit in the States) became a pop number one hit in England. Sister Sledge left Atlantic for good in 1985. Epic released Kathy’s debut solo album, Heart, in 1992, and 1997 found the sisters recording a risk-taking date, African Eyes, arguably one of the finest albums they ever recorded.
In 1996, Joni wrote the song Brother, Brother Stop after witnessing a shooting incident in Los Angeles, and it was recorded for a Sister Sledge greatest hits collection. She also wrote several of the songs on, and produced, their album African Eyes (1997), which was nominated for a best-production Grammy.
A younger generation became familiar with the group’s song, “He’s the Greatest Dancer,” when it was famously sampled in Will Smith’s 1998 hit “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It.”
In 2001, Sister Sledge (including Kathy, who had left to pursue a solo career in 1989) recorded an all-star version of We Are Family as a post-9/11 benefit disc. Joni and Debbie performed on the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury festival in 2005, with Kim, now an ordained minister, rejoining them to perform for Pope Francis at the World Meeting of Families festival in Philadelphia in 2015, alongside Andrea Bocelli and Aretha Franklin.
Even though their hit-making days were behind them, Sister Sledge remained active all the way up to the unexpected death of Joni on March 10, 2017. Their next show had been scheduled for March 18 and a series of European performances was planned.
The following deep introspection is what Joni wrote when Prince moved into the aftermath last year:
This morning, I woke up to the same sunlight pouring in to my bedroom window and I thought, the sun moves silently, like clockwork. Somewhere there are children laughing under it, while the sound of water rushes from rivers, showers, boiling tea pots, guitars. All things beat to a life rhythm, over which we as humans have no control.
The same sun rises over Paisley Park today, but in the home of our Prince of Passion, there is silence. “Silence”. How could that be, God? Will you not explain the mystery of this deep silence? I am listening.
While I listen to the slow hum of my dishwasher, it is hard to fathom that this day, there is silence in the body of a man so animated with passion, that he lived compelled to share it through music. Blissful, provocative, symphonic, chocolate, creamy, dreamy, cacophonous, stimulating music. This is the artist, known as Prince, saturated with party, pathos and brilliance.
Why God are his hands so abruptly silent?
When describing Prince, “unresponsive male” doesn’t work for me, for any of us. It has been made clear to me that our souls, our brilliance, our passions, have nothing to do with physicality. Without them we are silent.
Only God knows where you are sounding off now.
Prince, Michael, Bowie, Miles. I dream of Angel’s overwhelmed by your gifts. But thank you for sharing. Your music is the only instrument I have to forever assuage the deep silence within my heart.