While 1979's anthemic "We Are Family" broke Sister Sledge into the mainstream, Kathy Sledge and her older sisters Debbie, Joni, and Kim were hardly overnight sensations. They paid their dues, and had been recording for Atco Records since 1973 when all four members were still teenagers. Now, Cherry Red's SoulMusic Records imprint has compiled all of the Sledges' recordings for Atco, its parent Atlantic, and sister imprint Cotillion into one tidy 6-CD box set. Thinking of You: The Atco/Cotillion/Atlantic Recordings (1973-1985) isn't just unwieldy in its title; for timing reasons, four of its eight albums have been split across discs to accommodate bonus singles. While this isn't the ideal presentation for a "complete albums"-style box, the set is nonetheless comprehensive and wholly enjoyable thanks to Sister Sledge's upbeat blend of R&B, pop, and disco.
The first disc pairs Sister Sledge's long-playing debut, the 1975 Atco release Circle of Love, with a clutch of singles and the first two tracks from the 1977 follow-up Together. Circle of Love may be the most underrated gem in the sisters' discography. Recorded by producers Tony Silvester and Bert DeCoteaux at New York's Media Sound, it offers a heady brew of lushly orchestrated soul and disco. Silvester and DeCoteaux turned to soul great 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 peppy dancers ("Pain Reliever," "Love Don't You Go Through No Changes on Me"), smoldering ballads ("Don't You Miss Him Now"), and funky workouts ("Protect Our Love") for the young talents, emphasizing both Kathy's leads and the distinctive group harmonies.
The dreamy harmonies of "Cross My Heart" betrayed Sister Sledge's Philadelphia roots, a connection further underscored by the cover of Thom Bell and Linda Creed's beautiful, imploring "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. The sweetly longing "You're Much Better Off Loving Me" also recalled Bell's sophisticated style.
A number of Sister Sledge's singles before and after Circle of Love feature the classic Philadelphia soul 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," showcasing 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. It 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 DeCoteaux 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 MFSB/Salsoul Orchestra veteran 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 artist-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. (Its flipside was a reprise of "Love Ain't Easy.")
The first eighteen tracks on CD 1 replicate Big Break Records' 2016 expanded edition of Circle of Love. SoulMusic's new set continues from that point with the opening tracks of Together, which continues onto the second disc. Their first album for Cotillion, Together took Sister Sledge far from New York and Philadelphia - to Germany, in fact. Produced by the European team of Michael Kunze and Sylvester Levay (then best known for Silver Convention), the album gave the sisters a chance to further explore their own songwriting; Kathy co-wrote two songs ("Can't Mess Around with Love," "Do the Funky Do") and Joni penned one ("Hold Onto This Feeling"). Kunze and Levay contributed six of their own compositions, and the album was rounded out by two lively Stevie Wonder covers ("As," "I Was Made to Love Him") and one from Allen Toussaint ("Sneaking Sally Through the Alley"). Much like Gwen Guthrie and Patrick Grant hat, Kunze and Levay offered both uptempo pop-disco confections ("Blockbuster Boy," "Moondancer") and silky soul ballads ("Baby It's the Rain") to present all sides of the artists' talents.
When Together failed to soar commercially, Cotillion tried another sound on Sister Sledge. Philly soul, New York uptown soul, and Europop/disco hadn't panned out, so the women were sent to Muscle Shoals, Alabama for a single with producer Brad Shapiro (The J. Geils Band, Wilson Pickett). "I've Seen Better Days" was pure, gut-wrenching southern soul while its B-side was sheer swamp funk. These two rare single sides make their long-overdue CD debuts on this package.
Enter Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards. The pair had recently soared to fame with their band CHIC and were looking to expand their production portfolio. 1979's We Are Family became the very first album Rodgers and Edwards wrote and produced for an outside artist. (The duo had previously helmed Norma Jean from CHIC vocalist Norma Jean Wright.) The duo had already established their preferred style of working, in which they laid down the rhythm tracks for the album before the singers ever entered the studio. While Rodgers and Edwards respected Sister Sledge's voices and familial blend, they enlisted their CHIC corps of Alfa Anderson, Diva Gray, David Lasley, Luther Vandross, and Norma Jean Wright to enhance the overall sound. From the very first notes of We Are Family's opening "He's the Greatest Dancer," it was clear that this was the work of the CHIC masterminds. The taut funk sound anchored by Rodgers' guitar and Edwards' bass was more adult, more sexual, and more smoldering than anything previously recorded by Sister Sledge, which gave them pause in the studio. But they'd promised the group a hit, and they delivered four times over. "He's the Greatest Dancer," "Lost in Music," "Thinking of You," and especially the joyful, triumphant declaration "We are Family"- a No. 1 R&B/No. 1 Dance/No. 2 Pop smash in the U.S. - all became oft-sampled, era-defining classics.
The Sledge/CHIC family was reunited for 1980's Love Somebody Today which follows the final tracks of We Are Family on Disc 3. One of four albums produced and written by the prolific Rodgers and Edwards in 1980, Love Somebody Today was anchored by its "We Are Family"-evoking nominal title track, "Got to Love Somebody." Similarly, "Reach Your Peak" recalled "Lost in Music." While the sisters' own harmonies were more fully utilized throughout, Alfa Anderson, Michelle Cobbs, Luci Martin, and Fonzi Thornton all added their own magic. One exception was Kathy's solo "You Fooled Around," revealing the purity and soul of her lone voice. The LP was a true continuation of We Are Family, with typically grooving CHIC compositions and instrumentation, but didn't top its success as the label hoped. Nonetheless, "Got to Love Somebody," "Reach Your Peak," and the bright "Let's Go on Vacation" all became moderate R&B hits.
Singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist Narada Michael Walden was a solo artist on the Atlantic roster when he agreed to produce 1981's All American Girls (split between Discs 3 and 4 here). Walden had roots in both rock and jazz, and brought all of those styles to the album's melting pot. The sound was in a contemporary R&B vein, with heavy synthesizers, but wisely didn't ape CHIC. Established songwriter Allee Willis co-wrote the confident, buoyant title track with Walden as well as the vibrant "Ooh, You Caught My Heart" (the latter with future American Idol judge Randy Jackson who also supplied its liquid bass); she also delivered the urgent, rock-tinged "He's Just a Runaway" and the soft, timeless ballad "Next Time You'll Know." Kathy and Joni both contributed songs, too. Kathy's upbeat "If You Really Want Me" and sleek "Happy Feeling," featuring Debbie on lead vocals, were clear standouts as was her brassy "Music Makes Me Feel Good." Joni co-wrote "Make a Move," a propulsive dancer, with Bob Allen. While Sister Sledge continued to have a hard time making the upper reaches of the Pop chart, "All American Girls" gave them a top 5 R&B hit in the U.S.; it also was successful throughout Europe.
Having learned from the best over the past decade, the sisters Sledge opted to produce their next album, 1982's simply-titled The Sisters. The main attraction was a sweet, straightforward revival of Smokey Robinson's "My Guy," the 1964 smash by Mary Wells. It earned Sister Sledge a top 20 R&B berth. Another cover, Dean Pitchford and Michael Gore's "All the Man I Need," had been introduced by Linda Clifford but would register most as "All the Man That I Need" in Whitney Houston's 1990 chart-topping rendition. Kathy duetted with vocalist David Simmons on Sister Sledge's slow-burning version. "Jacki's Theme: There's No Stopping Up" was an ebullient slice of retro disco, with swirling strings and a thumping beat, from songwriters Carol Connors ("Gonna Fly Now," "With You I'm Born Again") and William Goldstein (Fame, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings).
The box set's fourth disc closes with the opening tracks off 1983's Bet'cha Say That to All the Girls. This time, the versatile George Duke was on board as producer. Duke's resume was eclectic, from French violinist Jean-Luc Ponty to iconoclastic rocker Frank Zappa. On his own albums, he skillfully blended jazz with funk and R&B; by the time he worked with Sister Sledge, he had more than a dozen solo LPs under his belt as well as productions for artists including A Taste of Honey, Dee Dee Bridgewater, The Blackbyrds, and The Brecker Brothers. Justin Kantor's exemplary liner notes quote Kathy Sledge: "I don't think that the record label knew what to do with us...When after the first two weeks your record's released, they go 'We're gonna try another one now.' You go, 'Wait! We just got [one] out!" Duke was in mainstream mode on Bet'cha Say That, though he brought his always impeccable musicianship to the album. Among its highlights, Kim led the mellow "Once in Your Life" with Ronnie Laws' smooth-jazz saxophone, and Kathy delivered the message to "B.Y.O.B. (Bring Your Own Baby)" with vigor and sass. It was selected as the first single. Debbie's showcase "Dream On" was a midtempo groover, while Duke's "Let Him Go" was a new wave-ish rocker. David "Hawk" Wolinski and Richard Rudolph's playful, cheeky title track featured Al Jarreau rapping (!) and bright horns punctuating its beat. Jeffrey Osborne, one of Duke's production clients, added backgrounds to "Thank You for the Party."
None other than Nile Rodgers was tapped to produce Sister Sledge's debut on the Atlantic label proper. When the Boys Meet the Girls (1985) turned out to be the group's final release as a quartet, but it was certainly a high note on which to exit. Rodgers, who had split with Bernard Edwards and had recently produced Madonna and Duran Duran, was still in a big, bold pop mode when he returned to Sister Sledge. He dialed down the funk but retained his keen ear for a hook and tight production and arranging skills. Rodgers only wrote one song this time ("The Boy Most Likely"), but added gloss to the well-selected tunes including Denise Rich's cheerful "Frankie," and Dave Conley, Bernard Jackson, and David Townsend's "You're Fine." Nile even added his own lead vocals to the latter, surrounded by the sisters' voices. Joni and Kathy each contributed two songs to the LP with other writers. Joni's pretty ballad "You Need Me," with its smoky saxophone interlude, offered a respite from the exuberance.
That would be where Thinking of You ends, but SoulMusic has included a sixth CD of ten selected remixes from the entirety of Sister Sledge's Atco/Cotillion/Atlantic discography. The sound is variable on a couple of these tracks, and more notably, the "Sure Is Pure" remix of "We Are Family" is actually the full-length album version as heard on CD 2. (Warner Music Group has the incorrect track on YouTube, as well. The true "Sure Is Pure" remix is identifiable from the first bars from its added percussion.)
The six discs, each housed in individual sleeves adorned with small replicas of the front and back covers and labels, are packaged within a compact clamshell box. The 36-page booklet is light on photographs but heavy on text thanks to Justin Kantor's compelling, in-depth essay featuring new quotes from Kathy Sledge, Phil Hurtt, and Alfa Anderson. Nick Robbins has remastered. The subsequent acrimony between members of Sister Sledge is rendered all the more bittersweet after having revisited their career on this box set. (Joni Sledge passed away in 2017.) Thinking of You is filled with the joyous sound of sisters making music together. It's beautiful, indeed.
Sister Sledge, Thinking Of You: The ATCO/Cotillion/Atlantic Recordings (1973-1985) (Cherry Red/SoulMusic QSMCR5191BX (U.K.), 2020) (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada)
Disc 1: Mama Never Told Me
- 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
- Have You Met My Friend
- Mama Never Told Me
- Neither One Of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye)
- Love Has Found Me
- Love Ain't Easy
- Thank You For Today
- Have Love, Will Travel
- Cream Of The Crop
- Blockbuster Boy
- Do The Funky Do
Disc 1, Tracks 1-9 from Circle Of Love - ATCO SD-36105, 1975
Disc 1, Tracks 10-11 from ATCO single 45-6924, 1973
Disc 1, Tracks 12-13 from ATCO single 45-6940, 1973
Disc 1, Tracks 14-15 from ATCO single 45-7035, 1975
Disc 1, Tracks 16-17 from Cotillion single 44202, 1976
Disc 1, Track 18 from Cotillion single 44208, 1976
Disc 1, Tracks 19-20 and Disc 2, Tracks 1-10 from Together - Cotillion SD-9919, 1977
Disc 2: Do It To The Max
- I Was Made To Love Him
- Hold On To This Feeling
- Sneaking Sally Through The Alley
- Funky Family
- Baby, It's The Rain
- Can't Mess Around With Love
- My Favorite Song
- Hands Full Of Nothing
- I've Seen Better Days
- Do It To The Max
- He's The Greatest Dancer
- Lost In Music
- Somebody Loves Me
- Thinking Of You
- We Are Family
Disc 2, Tracks 11-12 from Cotillion single 44234, 1978
Disc 2, Tracks 13-17 and Disc 3, Tracks 1-3 from We Are Family - Cotillion SD-5209, 1979
Disc 3: Reach Your Peak
- Easier To Love
- You're a Friend To Me
- One More Time
- Got To Love Somebody
- You Fooled Around
- I'm a Good Girl
- Easy Street
- Reach Your Peak
- Pretty Baby
- How To Love
- Let's Go On Vacation
- All American Girls
- He's Just a Runaway
- If You Really Want Me
- Next Time You'll Know
- Happy Feeling
Disc 3, Tracks 4-11 from Love Somebody Today - Cotillion SD-16012, 1980
Disc 3, Tracks 12-16 and Disc 4, Tracks 1-5 from All-American Girls - Cotillion SD-16027, 1981
Disc 4: All The Man I Need
- Ooh, You Caught My Heart
- Make a Move
- Don't Let Me Lose It
- Music Makes Me Feel Good
- I Don't Want To Say Goodbye
- Super Bad Sisters
- My Guy
- My Special Way
- Get You In Our Love
- Il Mácquillage Lady
- Everybody's Friend
- All The Man I Need
- Jacki's Theme: There's No Stopping Us
- B.Y.O.B. (Bring Your Own Baby)
- Lifetime Lover
- Once In Your Life
Disc 4, Tracks 6-15 from The Sisters - Cotillion SD-5231, 1982
Disc 4, Tracks 16-18 and Disc 5, Tracks 1-7 from Bet Cha Say That To All The Girls - Cotillion 90069, 1983
Disc 5: Frankie
- Shake Me Down
- Dream On
- Let Him Go
- Bet Cha Say That To All The Girls
- Gotta Get Back To Love
- Thank You For The Party
- When The Boys Meet The Girls
- Dancing On The Jagged Edge
- You're Fine
- Hold Out Poppy
- The Boy Most Likely
- You Need Me
- Following The Leader
- Peer Pressure
Disc 5, Tracks 8-16 from When The Boys Meet The Girls - Atlantic 81255, 1985
Disc 6: Lost In Music
- Mama Never Told Me (A Tom Moulton Mix)
- We Are Family (Steve Anderson DMC Remix)
- He's The Greatest Dancer (Josh Abbey Remix)
- Lost In Music (1984 Nile Rodgers Remix)
- Thinking Of You (Ramp Club Mix)
- He's The Greatest Dancer (Brutal Bill Remix)
- Lost In Music (Sure Is Pure Remix)
- We Are Family (Sure Is Pure Remix)
- Frankie (Dub Mix)
- Frankie (Club Mix)
Disc 6, Track 1 from Disco-Trek - Atlantic SD-18158, 1976
Disc 6, Tracks 2 and 8 from Atlantic/Rhino U.K. 12″ single A4508T, 1993
Disc 6, Track 3 from Atlantic U.K. 12″ single A9547T, 1985
Disc 6, Track 4 from Atlantic U.K. 12″ single B9718T, 1984
Disc 6, Track 5 from Atlantic/Rhino U.K. 12″ single A4515T, 1993
Disc 6, Track 6 from Rhino Spanish 12″ single R0-74530, 1998
Disc 6, Track 7 from Atlantic/Rhino U.K. 12″ single A4509T, 1993
Disc 6, Tracks 9-10 from Atlantic 12″ single 0-86882, 1985
Although the albums have unfortunately been split across different discs, this set would have been the perfect release to finally bring the 'We Are Family 1984 Mix By Bernard Edwards' back to life in master quality for the first time. But no, we get the Sure Is Pure mixes for the 20th time or so (on which they also made a mistake as well). 100% disappointed.
Excellent review by the way, Joe!
I'd delete the tag on CD 6, track 8 or mention that it's the album version by mistake.
Daniel Maher says
Donna Summer "Encore": too many discs. Sister Sledge "Thinking of You": too few discs. We need Goldilocks to ensure the number of discs is just right.
Larry Davis says
I love this set & have no problem with the squeezing of albums so tracks cross from one to another...I do that many times...I fix & put album tracklistings together when I put this set on my computer...for me, the one missed opportunity is not including the post-1985 soundtrack cuts that were mentioned in the booklet, like on "Playing For Keeps"...coulda fit on Disc 6...the box doesn't close all the way either on it's own...contents too thick...and as for the Donna Summer box, zero problems with that either...I normally would have an issue with the double LPs replicated as double CDs with room enough to condense onto one each...I think it was an aesthetic choice & sleeves gatefold...but I don't...and like with Sister Sledge, I make the double albums as 1 tracklisting each on my computer...it all works for me...
I don't mind about the albums being split across the 6 discs, either. What I find so odd is that the Bob Marley Tribute single version of "He's Just A Runaway" has been neglected. That was hit version & it was also released as an extended mix. Surely one of those duplicate mixes on disc 6 could have been sacrificed. Many of those are widely available already. Still, it's terrific to see these ladies anthologized like this. But again, what an oversight.
Fully agree. The 12 inch reggae version (6:05) would have been a great addition. Never before released on CD as far as I know.
The short reggae version (3:45) is available on the:
- Rhino 1992 The Best Of Sister Sledge (1973 - 1985)
- Rhino 2006 The Definitive Groove Collection
- Music Club Deluxe 2010 Sister Sledge – We Are Family The Essential
- Rhino 2013 We Are Family: The Essential Sister Sledge.
The single version (3:45) is available on the Rhino 2002 Sister Sledge – The Essentials.
JAMES BUNDY says
I love Sister sledge ...Never knew they had this much music ...Its worth me downloading some of these songs to see what I missed
Larry Davis says
I got into them through Chic...but saw they had more, so first I bought the 2CD "Definitive Groove Collection" and was blown away by tracks on the other Chic produced album "Got To Love Somebody", the early stuff & "All American Girls"...so I was looking into getting the Wounded Bird reissues, all out of print & pricey, and waiting on a Chic box volume 2...then I saw this set, and Bam, ordered and happy with it...most underrated girl group in my eyes, aside from the UK's Girls Aloud...great stuff...