Sister Sledge’s Joni Sledge (1956 – 2017) – Lost in Music…Second Fiddle to None

Joni Sledge was the second-oldest (behind Debbie) of the four sisters who formed the ’70s and ’80s R&B/Disco group Sister Sledge.  She also sang lead on the second-most of their hits, behind youngest sister, Kathy, who did lead vocals on their two most iconic R&B/pop/disco singles: “He’s The Greatest Dancer” and “We Are Family.”

But, as you’ll learn in this article, Joni Sledge was no second fiddle in this group of sisters from Philadelphia.

Joni Sledge (September 13, 1956 – March 10, 2017)

Sadly and unexpectedly, Joni passed away on Friday, March 10, 2017, of undisclosed causes. She was just 60.

This latest music industry loss is heart wrenching because it’s yet another stark reminder of how much time has passed since artists like Sister Sledge were in their heyday, yet it shocks because of the artist’s relatively young age when she departed.

This article is thus a celebration of Joni’s life and her significant contributions to Sister Sledge.  It makes a case that she could’ve been the most talented of the four sisters and certainly one of the most highly regarded…which became more evident during the post-Kathy years.

For the most part, by the time of her death this past weekend, Joni and her singing sisters, Debbie, Kim and Kathy (there’s one older sister Carol who was not part of the group), had been out of the limelight since their last big commercial success in the early 1980s.  Kathy, who sang lead on most of their hit songs, enjoyed a modest solo career after leaving the group in 1989, while the other sisters continued performing as Sister Sledge.  They last performed together – without Kathy, of course – as recently as just five months ago.

I recall a time in my youth when Sister Sledge was all the rage, particularly in 1979, after they hooked up with Chic and its talented producers Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards.  That union produced the two aforementioned classics “He’s The Greatest Dancer” and “We Are Family,” the latter of which was the album’s anthemic title track and ultimately became the Sledges’ signature tune, as well as a family rallying cry for generations to come and the adopted song of the 1979 World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates.

That platinum album also gave us the lush beauty of a disco ballad “Thinking of You,” a tune that enjoyed a second and third life in the U.K., thanks to a reissue in 1984 and an updated remix in 1993.  The song reached the U.K. Top 20 in both years.

The back album cover for Sister Sledge’s 1979 classic album, We Are Family.  Joni Sledge is lower left.

But more importantly, the We Are Family album included the song that I consider to be Sister Sledge’s best, if not one of their most popular back in the day.  It was one that producers Nile and Bernard must have known would need the sophisticated vocals of a slightly more mature – and dare I say sexier – Sledge sister who was truly immersed in the music, as the group’s 40-year timeline and her legacy would later show.

That sister was Joni.  The song? The stellar disco classic “Lost In Music.”

To understand the historical context of “Lost In Music,” one of several singles on which Joni sang lead while Kathy was still in the group, a person must look beyond those only-music-matters-to-me lyrics, those seriously haunting and discofied Chic strings and that signature rhythm track by ‘Nard, Nile and (late former Chic drummer) Tony Thompson.

One must also look at the song’s unfortunate timing and dire circumstances to get a sense for how Joni’s biggest chance to emerge as the face of the group was dashed before it could even start.  Indeed, if Kathy was the group’s Michael, Joni most certainly was its Jermaine.

When the We Are Family album was released in early 1979, “Lost in Music” was the forgone conclusion to be the group’s third single from it.  It had already topped the Billboard disco chart as a joint listing with the album’s first two classic singles, and was poised to follow in those tunes’ footsteps on the soul and pop charts as well.  (Both “He’s The Greatest Dancer” and “We Are Family” had reached #1 on the Billboard Hot Soul Singles chart – the predecessor to today’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs list – and both hit the top ten on the Hot 100.)

More importantly, baby sister Kathy had enjoyed the spotlight as the lead on those first two hits, and now it was Joni’s turn.

But a funny thing happened as Cotillion/Atlantic records readied shipments of the group’s latest 45 (that’s how we bought singles back then, folks).  Perhaps the label didn’t get the memo, but disco was on its way out.  It was July 1979 and the disco sucks campaign was in full swing.

“Disco” as we knew it then might not have been dead (yet), for it still had a faint pulse and a few more months on life support, but the groundswell of anti-disco sentiment was rising fast.  The Chicago White Sox/ Comiskey Park/ Steve Dahl disco demolition night had just happened (that’s when thousands of mostly white people took to the field and burned thousands of disco records in protest of the music genre) and several pop radio stations that had put disco in heavy rotation only months before were now abandoning it in droves.

There were still some residual disco hits that lingered, like Chic’s “Good Times” and Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” and a few of Donna Summer’s last genre-defining singles, but the number of dance songs that radio was willing to give a chance had dropped significantly during 1979’s second half.  And very few disco artists were given free passes, even those who’d enjoyed tremendous success during the year’s first half.

Sister Sledge was one such group, and “Lost in Music” was the casualty.  Joni Sledge’s ode to melody and rhythm languished not because it was inferior to Kathy’s songs (it wasn’t), but because pop – and to a lesser extent R&B – radio couldn’t get behind a disco record that so unabashedly celebrated the genre.

Other records that rode the charts during 1979’s second half had all of disco’s musical elements but mostly spoke of other topics like bad girls, good romance and love gone awry.  “Lost in Music” was strictly about the music itself – and the love of it.  This was too bad because had the song been released just four months earlier, it might have enjoyed the tremendous success that its two predecessors did, or at least reached the top 20 on one of the main charts.

Check out this performance of “Lost in Music”

As it stood, “Lost In Music” petered out at No. 35 on the R&B chart and didn’t even make the Hot 100.  And the would-be spotlight that shone on Joni dimmed just like that!

She’d get other chances though.  In 1980, after the label released the next album and single, the under-appreciated, Chic-produced Love Somebody Today and its quasi-title track, “Got To Love Somebody,” on which Kathy sang lead, they went with another Joni-led song as the follow-up.

That tune, “Reach Your Peak,” actually fared better on the charts than “Lost In Music,” but failed to return the sisters to the gold and platinum glory they’d enjoyed just a year earlier.  Still, “Peak” peaked at No. 21 R&B and bubbled under the Hot 100 at No. 101, a modest showing that at least kept the Sledges relevant during disco’s down period.  (It also reigned at No. 1 for four weeks on a personal Top-75 chart I used to create back in the day.)

In all, Joni contributed solo lead vocals to two songs on each of Sister Sledge’s albums with Chic.  In addition to “Lost In Music” and “Reach Your Peak” were the ballads “Easier To Love” (from We Are Family) and “Good Girl Now” (retitled from “I’m A Good Girl” on Love Somebody Today).

Both of the non-singles were very easy on the ears, with “Easier To Love” being that era’s “Living In A World They Didn’t Make” (by Janet Jackson) and “Good Girl Now” capturing that moment of second-guessing that all women have probably endured at one point or another when love comes a-knocking.

Joni Sledge (lower left) sang lead vocals on “Reach Your Peak” and the sexy “I’m A Good Girl” on this 1980 album by Sister Sledge.

Joni delivered all her solo performances convincingly, and cemented herself as the group’s second lead in the process.  And because she certainly carried her own weight vocally, she could easily serve as a capable fill-in should the day ever arise that a replacement for Kathy’s soaring chops be needed.

That day came in 1989 when Kathy left her three sisters to pursue a solo career.  By default, Joni’s role would become even more prominent in Sister Sledge.  There were touring reunions with Kathy throughout the ensuing decades, but the days of finding four-part harmony in the studio were now gone.  In fact, after 1985’s album, When The Boys Meet The Girls, the sisters would never again record together as a quartet.  For the most part, Joni, Debbie and Kim have carried the Sister Sledge torch for the better part of the past three decades.

The trio has only recorded two albums during the post-Kathy era, one of which – 1997’s African Eyes – was produced entirely by, you guessed it…Joni Sledge.  African Eyes was critically well received and referred to by some as the group’s “finest achievement,” even though it was recorded well after the band’s commercial period had ended and thus was overlooked by radio stations and record buyers nationwide.

Listen to this audio clip of the album’s title track below:

Joni produced this album after spending time in Africa, and musically it showed.  The album fused jazz, funk and even world music as it departed mightily from the poppier sound of their bigger hits.  As one reviewer on the website cduniverse.com so eloquently put it, “the uplifting tone of (three of the album’s tracks) “World Rise and Shine,” “The Unraveling” and “Walking in the Light” gives you an idea of what Sister Sledge might have sounded like had they worked with Maurice White in the late ’70s, instead of…Chic leaders Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards.”

That may be true.

Chic’s Bernard Edwards and Nike Rodgers in the recording studio with Sister Sledge (from left): Kim, Joni, Debbie and Kathy.

But then, without Chic’s leaders and that breakthrough We Are Family album; and more importantly without its third single, “Lost In Music,” we might not have ever gotten to know Sister Sledge and the beauty that embodied Joni Sledge’s voice and her musical talents.

And were it not for people’s disdain for all things disco back when “Lost In Music” was hot, maybe it would have been even hotter…and perhaps not so “lost” itself.

So next time you catch a news article that reads, “Joni Sledge of ‘We Are Family’ fame” or “‘We Are Family’ singing group member, Joni Sledge,” you can quietly say to yourself or anyone who’ll listen, “no, Joni Sledge was much more than just “We Are Family.”

She was truly “Lost In Music.”

May you Rest in Harmony, Joni Sledge.

DJRob

Postscript:

When Sister Sledge parted ways with the Chic Organization after Love Somebody Today, they released four albums between 1981 and ’85.  Those albums generated some moderate hits like “My Guy” (the Mary Wells remake), “All American Girls,” “Next Time You’ll Know,” “All the Man That I Need” (remade by Whitney Houston) and the U.K. #1 tune, “Frankie.”

Those songs were all nice, but to me the Chic -related tunes were the best.  To see which eight Chic-produced Sister Sledge songs made my special Nile Rodgers/ Bernard Edwards countdown last year, click the link.

Also, check out the following video clips, all featuring the late Joni Sledge in some capacity.

First: Joni and Debbie reminisce about what it was like to work with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards:

Then, watch how Joni mesmerizes Dick Clark on American Bandstand by introducing her sisters in French:

Finally, check out this clip of sisters Debbie and Kim speaking Joni’s praises:

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