"I never outgrow the fact that we are family": A conversation with the one and only Kathy Sledge

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Kathy Sledge — Photo courtesy of the artist
Kathy Sledge — Photo courtesy of the artist

Of all the chart-topping hits in history, few are quite as timeless as "We Are Family" by Sister Sledge. The song far outlived its disco-era omnipresence, and its earworm chorus is instantly recognizable and just as infectious after all these years.

"We Are Family" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2008 and added to the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry in 2017. Sister Sledge's lead singer, Kathy Sledge, honors this legacy: she continues to perform with the same fervor of her teenage years, both to intimate crowds and at festivals.

On April 28, Sister Sledge featuring Kathy Sledge kick off a four-day set of performances at Dimitriou's Jazz Alley. I got the chance to chat with the girl-group icon herself ahead of the upcoming show.

Nick Rapp: How does it feel to have sung the lead vocals on one of the most widely known songs of all time? And what was it like watching "We Are Family" blow up and become such a cultural touchstone?

Kathy Sledge: Well, you know, if you'd asked me that when I was 16 — when I sang it — I would wonder [if it would be successful], which is really a true story.

I used to always follow Nile Rodgers around in the studio. I was this goofy kid with braces. And I would ask him, "Do you think they're even going to play this record?" And to this day we laugh at that, because he had his confidence — he and the late Bernard Edwards.

So, to answer your question, I had no idea. And it feels surreal to be a voice that people relate to, to sing a song that literally brought the world together, you know, as a family, and in so many ways. I'm hugely proud, and it feels surreal.

And I never outgrow the fact that we are family. I always know it's gonna be here when we're all long gone, so I feel like it's always new to me. It always catches a feeling when I'm singing it.

I can't even tell you how many times I have performed that song. But just like this upcoming show in Seattle, it's going to be new to everyone in that room, that experience.

NR: Obviously family is a fraught subject in the Queer community. With chosen families and Queer friendships, family often represents those people who make up your closest relationships in life. So, it's interesting to me that the song shifts and takes on so many meanings to you in performing it. "We Are Family" brings about such a loving, connected group energy that really is the essence of what family and close friendship is.

Kathy Sledge — Photo courtesy of the artist  

KS: Yeah, I totally agree, one hundred percent. And I think it's a song that embraces you. It's a song of a feeling of belonging to each other.

Performing it, not just for the Gay community — everywhere I perform it — it does the same thing. What I learned with "We Are Family" is that by the end of it, you're just hugging that person next to you. I feel like I had no idea, again, at 16, what it would mean globally to so many different platforms.

And I think the reason that it is embraced the way it is — I always say from the Gay community to the Girl Scouts — is because it's real. The realness of it was originally written about the sisters; it was describing this closeness that we really did have when we were younger. But it's gone far beyond that.

I always say, we live a lifetime knowing what our passion is. I love music. But sometimes it takes a lifetime to find out what our purpose is. And what I'm really learning at this place in my life, is that I hear a lot that my voice brings joy, and that song brings a cohesiveness unlike any other. And I feel like "wow," what a very cool feeling of having the purpose of being a voice that brings people together and embraces you.

NR: How did you meet the current band members that you're touring with?

KS: No pun intended, but they're like my family. My husband is actually the drummer. And I met him, what, when I was 19 years old? We've been married forever.

And they [the current band members] have formed their own band within themselves, called Somebody Tell Joe, because they used to have a percussionist named Joe. Joe didn't have email and he didn't have a voicemail. So, all our emails would always end like, "Here's the itinerary and by the way, will somebody tell Joe?" It stuck. And anyway, the guys are family to me.

I always, no matter what, have a family-style dinner after our performances, because I really believe that the true cohesiveness starts there. I just make sure that we are all embracing each other musically, as well as who we are as people. That's what makes the music so strong and so real. Onstage, when we perform, there's a feeling of support that we have for each other.

NR: Have you performed in Seattle before?

KS: You know, if I have, it's been so long ago, I don't remember. But that's why I'm really hyped. I'm very excited about what we'll be doing at Jazz Alley. It is definitely intimate, up close and personal.

I'm also hyped because I've been producing shows with the real surprise of jazz. I'm working on a project now with the legendary Stanley Clarke, because he says I have one of the strongest jazz voices that he's heard. And coming from him, that's huge to me.

So, there will be jazz along with the hits that we know and love. And I'm just really excited.

According to a press release, the band members are: Kathy Sledge (vocals), two special guest vocalists, Philip Lightfoot (drummer), Michael Kwas (keys), Stacey McGee (bass), Dai Miyazaki (guitar), and Louis Taylor (trumpet). Showtimes are Thursday and Sunday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m.; doors open at 6:00 p.m. Thursday and 5:30 p.m. Friday through Sunday. More information at https://www.jazzalley.com/www-home/artist.jsp?shownum=6332. Jazz Alley is at 2033 6th Avenue in Seattle.