“We Are Family” catapulted Sister Sledge to stardom in 1979, but while the uplifting anthem was a breakthrough, it wasn’t a beginning. Philadelphia-based Kathy Sledge and her three older sisters Debbie, Joni and Kim had been recording for Atlantic Records since 1973 when all four members were still teenagers. In 1975, Sister Sledge’s first album, Circle of Love, was released. This lost gem has been previously released on CD in a bare-bones version, but Cherry Red’s Big Break Records label has happily revisited it as a comprehensive, expanded edition that adds 10 bonus tracks to fully chronicle the group’s early Atlantic years.
Recorded by producers Tony Silvester and Bert De Coteaux at New York’s Media Sound, Circle of Love offers a heady brew of lushly orchestrated soul and disco. Silvester and De Coteaux turned to soul legend Gwen Guthrie and Patrick Grant to provide seven of the album’s nine tracks, creating a cohesive sound both in production and songwriting. (Ironically, the delightful title song wasn’t from the team but by Patrick Adams and Faye Hauser.) Guthrie and Grant penned upbeat, infectious dancers like the delicious ode to a “Pain Reliever” and the even more urgent “Love Don’t You Go Through No Changes on Me.” Kathy, backed by her sisters on harmony vocals, channeled the same fire on the smoldering slow burn of “Don’t You Miss Him Now.” Guthrie and Grant’s songs were diverse showcases primarily for Kathy’s leads, but also for the distinctive group blend as heard on the funky, brassy “Protect Our Love” or the slinky soul of “Fireman” (the latter co-written by Guthrie, Grant and Charles Sampson).
The dreamy harmonies of “Cross My Heart” betray Sister Sledge’s Philly soul roots, a connection further underscored by the cover of Thom Bell and Linda Creed’s beautiful “Give In to Love.” Debbie Sledge sang lead on the ballad which Bell produced on Ronnie Dyson at Columbia in 1973; he also reportedly cut a still-unreleased rendition with Little Anthony and the Imperials at Avco Embassy. In his comprehensive liner notes, Christian John Wikane quotes Kathy about Bell’s influence on Guthrie as heard on the sweetly longing “You’re Much Better Off Loving Me.”
Reissue producer Wayne A. Dickson has rounded up Sister Sledge’s rare Atco and Cotillion singles – ten sides, total – both before and after Circle of Love, all of which feature the classic Philadelphia sound. The group’s first two 45s for Atco were produced by The Young Professionals, a.k.a. Atlantic A&R man LeBaron Taylor, Phil Hurtt and Thom Bell’s brother Tony Bell. (Bunny Sigler was another member of the collective during this period.) Recording at Philly’s renowned Sigma Sound Studios with members of MFSB including guitarist Bobby Eli and bassist Bob Babbitt, The Young Professionals gifted Sister Sledge with top-notch, elegant productions.
Hurtt and Bell wrote both sides of the March 1973 single that introduced Sister Sledge at Atco: the creamy “The Weatherman,” led by Debbie, and the shimmering B-side “Have You Met My Friend.” The latter drew on the Sledge sisters’ spirituality (“Have you met my friend? His name is God…”) and showcased both Joni and Kathy’s lead vocals. A second single helmed by Hurtt and Bell followed six months later. The perky A-side “Mama Never Told Me” took Sister Sledge in a new, uptempo direction contrasting the ballad-heavy first single. Kathy’s bright, youthful vocal glides gracefully above Tony Bell’s lush arrangement, played by the A-list crème de la crème (Philly legend Bobby Eli recalls Steve Gadd in the drum seat for the session). “Mama” was backed with Kathy’s mature, sensitive reading of the Gladys Knight and the Pips hit “Neither One of Us” which was an onstage staple for her.
The bonus material jumps ahead to the non-LP single from producers Silvester and De Coteaux released in October 1975, eight months after the Circle of Love release. The Kathy Sledge/Don Freeman-written A-side “Love Has Found Me” should have had a better shot on radio as an irresistible tribute to The Motown Sound and the music of The Supremes, in particular (think “My World is Empty Without You”). It was supported by a Joni Sledge/Anthony DeCarolis composition, the funky “Love Ain’t Easy.”
By mid-1976, Atlantic had shifted the quartet from Atco to another imprint, Cotillion. With the move came another change in producers, this time to Bobby Eli. The hitmaking guitarist/songwriter/producer wrote the glistening ballad “Thank You for Today” with Lee Phillips and its catchy, danceable B-side “Have Love, Will Travel” with veteran Philadelphia artist and songwriter Len Barry. The jubilant vibe conjured by Eli continued on Sister Sledge’s next Cotillion single released in November 1976. Eli and Barry’s “Cream of the Crop” is a brisk slice of alluring pop-disco. Wikane’s liner notes reveal that one candidate for the B-side was an Eli-helmed recording of his song “From Me to You,” but it was unfortunately shelved in favor of a reprise of “Love Ain’t Easy.” Tom Moulton’s 1976 extended mix of U.K. Top 20 hit “Mama Never Told Me” rounds out the generous heaping of bonus tracks.
Typically for Big Break, Circle of Love has been packaged to the highest standard with a full-color booklet containing Wikane’s liner notes and numerous images; sound has been remastered by producer Dickson and Nick Robbins. This expanded edition of Circle of Love boasts music that’s stylistically removed from the delicious, CHIC-helmed disco grooves of “We Are Family,” and this discovery of another side to Sister Sledge will prove a must-have for connoisseurs of classic – and classy – soul.
- Circle of Love (Caught in the Middle)
- Cross My Heart
- Protect Our Love
- Give in to Love
- Love Don’t You Go Through No Changes on Me
- Don’t You Miss Him Now
- Pain Reliever
- You’re Much Better Off Loving Me
- The Weatherman (Atco single 45-924, 1973)
- Have You Met My Friend (Atco single 45-924, 1973)
- Mama Never Told Me (Atco single 45-6940, 1973)
- Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First to Say Goodbye) (Atco single 45-6940, 1973)
- Love Has Found Me (Atco single 45-7035, 1975)
- Love Ain’t Easy (Atco single 45-7035, 1975)
- Thank You For Today (Cotillion single 45-44202, 1976)
- Have Love, Will Travel (Cotillion single 45-44202, 1976)
- Cream of the Crop (Cotillion single 45-44208, 1976)
- Mama Never Told Me (A Tom Moulton Mix) (from Disco Trek, Atlantic LP SD 18158, 1976)