Debbie Sledge swears she never gets tired of talking about “We Are Family,” the glittering 1979 disco phenomenon that’s been played at countless weddings, bar mitzvahs, sporting events, political conventions, and social-justice rallies since, well, 1979. Kelly Clarkson has sung it. Eddie Murphy has sung it. Sponge Bob has (controversially) sung it. In 2017 the song was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or artistically significant.” Yet Debbie Sledge—one of the four founding members of gold-and-platinum-selling group Sister Sledge—says it’s joyfully impossible to move on from the track’s unfathomable legacy. “The song goes beyond us. It really does,” she says.
General everywhere-ness and lyrical earnestness aside, “We Are Family” is a pretty heavenly 3 minutes and 37 seconds that’s sonically complex and encapsulates the sound of pure, uncut disco. Go to your Spotify right now and listen to the iconic opening notes, the funk-driven backing bass line, the inherently danceable four-on-the-floor tempo, and the deceptively airy vocals that are tinged with surprising grit. I’ll wait.
As a band, Sister Sledge got its start in the early 1970s, a family outfit from Philadelphia that had some mild success throughout the decade but didn’t hit it big until 1979 when the singers were paired with two members of formative disco band Chic—Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards—who were trying to make it as producers. Before they were famously crooning about the importance of family, the Sledge band lived by the message: its members—Debbie, Kim, Joni, and Kathy—were trained by their grandmother, Viola Williams, a former opera singer and protégé of civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune, “The First Lady of the Struggle.”
“We always sang,” Sledge says, “but my grandmother taught us about breath control, vocal ability, being able to build, and diction.”
Grandma might have educated them about the fundamentals of their craft, but it was their mother, Florez, who navigated the murky waters of the entertainment industry to make sure her daughters got a shot once the sisters—still teenagers—starting playing paid gigs. “My mom took it very seriously at the time because she was struggling,” says Sledge. “She was rotating three jobs at a time. She learned how to maneuver agents, record execs, tour managers.” The word momager inevitably comes up, but Sledge uses it proudly, not bitterly.
Almost five decades after getting their start in Philly, the remaining Sledge sisters are taking cues from their grandmother and mother. Led by Debbie, 67, Sister Sledge ft. Sledgendary is a new iteration of the original group that includes her daughter Camille; son David; nephew Thaddeus, son of original Sledge member Joni, who died in 2017; and friend and vocalist Miss Tanya Ti-et. Their first single, “Free,” is out today, a disco-flavored dance song Debbie says lives up to its name. “There’s complete freedom in the track. Nobody is holding back at all. It’s not allowed.”