“Did you see Bohemian Rhapsody?” Kathy Sledge asks me from New York. “Oh my gosh, I think Rami Malek was just amazing.” What you learn from that film, says the youngest member of the original Sister Sledge, is that Freddie Mercury was unapologetic about his talent. She was different, feeling “almost guilty” as a lead singer. She was just 13 when she recorded lead vocals on Sister Sledge’s ‘Mama Never Told Me’, which made the UK top 20 in 1975. Did she feel guilty because she was the youngest Sledge sister in the group? “I think it had a lot to do with my age. I didn’t grow up,” the Philadelphia-born performer resumes, “thinking I had a distinctive voice at all, I had one sister who told me I was ‘lucky’ I got to sing ‘We Are Family’.” But she walked away from the Queen film of last year having learnt that “when God gives you a gift, you better share it and know it – never be apologetic about something special.”
The girls of Sister Sledge were taught to harmonise by their grandmother, an opera singer “who gave us huge appreciation for music”. At the age of four, Kathy was unable to see the top of the piano her grandmother played, “but I would always remember my harmony.” Their father was a tap dancer, one half of the duo Fred & Sledge, and credited as the first African American tap dancer to perform on Broadway. She’s in the process of making sure he becomes part of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, where “he definitely deserves to be”.
Their dad broke down barriers, as they would go on to do. “People say they appreciate the mark my sisters and I left in this industry.” They weren’t just siblings who harmonised, she cites them as really the first girl band to have “full-on choreography”, to “get down, have fun and not necessarily have to stand there and be gorgeous”.
But in 1989 she embarked on a solo project, and in 2013 her sisters took legal action to stop her using the Sister Sledge name. “I had to find ways to perform without saying I was from Sister Sledge, which was very hard, it’s my derivative, where I’m from.” It did however prompt her into exploring new avenues, namely The Brighter Side of Day, the live show in which she embodied Lady Day, Billie Holiday. When she was a teenager, she had an aunt she would stay with in New York, whose album collection featured Holiday. Aged 14 or 15, she was able to replicate the singer’s voice – jazz musicians have told her since that the two share “similar tonal qualities”, both sounding something like a clarinet. Her mother recommended her impersonation become part of Sister Sledge’s Vegas act, as it did.
With The Brighter Side of Day though, she wanted to present Holiday in a way she’d want to be presented. “We all know the story of Billie, the heavy story, but there had to be a time in her life when she was at her best.” The show – which took audience members back to the forties, giving them a taste of what it would be like to see Holiday onstage with Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five – included on screens “only the most gorgeous pictures of Billie, not the ones with a glass in her hand when she’s downtrodden”.
When I think of Holiday, my mind goes to her penultimate album, Lady in Satin, surely one of the saddest and most emotional records of the 20th century. She looks pained on the cover but still, “she’s dressed to her fullest – she had so much class.” Kathy says she’ll revisit The Brighter Side of Day, which is yet to come to the UK. Should it do so, it will only be in “the best jazz venues”. Stanley Clarke has said she has one of the greatest jazz voices he’s heard, I learn, but people don’t consider her a jazz singer. “You definitely wouldn’t think of me when you want to hire someone for one of the biggest jazz houses, but you would think about a production about Billie Holiday.”
Outside of music she is a director of the We Are Family Foundation. Founded by Nile Rodgers (who wrote ‘We Are Family’) and Nancy Hunt, it helps young people in their efforts to try and make the world a better place. Every year, she explains, it finds people they call Global Teen Leaders, “and they partner them with mentors to help them realise their dreams and aspirations. We find there are so many gifted Teen Leaders around the world that are making changes.”
She doesn’t fear for today’s young people anymore that she does for others. There’s a disconnect in 2019, she says, and it’s not limited to one generation. “You can be in a room full of people but everyone’s in their own isolated place with their phone. The whole communication system has broken down.” Her song, ‘We Could Turn This World Around’, written with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, is about this. “I wanted to write something profound.” Her attention turns to Prince, who she admires for the messages he underlined his songs with. She got to meet him once in a club. “Everyone was there for him, but he sat with a colleague of his while everyone partied and enjoyed it.” There are lots of stories about the musician, she says, but she only experienced “a kind spirit” and deep thinker.
This year she takes to the Rewind South stage on the Sunday, part of a bill that also stars Michael Bolton, Belinda Carlisle, Paul Young and Midge Ure. We can expect “the hits the way we know and love them”, she says, not enamoured by artists who decide to do a reggae version of one of their pop classics during a live show – “Don’t do that.” She did Rewind some years ago but hasn’t been all that present over here in recent times. One of the reasons for that is the legal dispute she’s been involved in, “but I’m starting to come out of that now. I’m so excited to be singing [in the UK] again. There are so many songs that are very strong hits we all grew up with, that I actually sang, and now I’m getting to perform those again.”
There may have been a Sister Sledge feud, but she doesn’t wish she’d never worked with her sisters, she loved being with them. “We’ll always be family, I love my sisters dearly, lost one of them sadly,” she adds about Joni who died in 2017 at the age of 60. “It’s a huge challenge when you work together for a lifetime and you’re under a magnifying glass as a family,” she points out, but despite such a vast task, “I will always love my sisters unconditionally.”
Kathy Sledge of the Original Sister Sledge plays Rewind Festival South 18 August.