Listen to this track by familial R&B vocal group from Philadelphia, Sister Sledge. It’s “We Are Family”, a signature tune from them as written by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic, who also play on it along with drummer Tony Thompson. All three are namechecked in the performance by lead singer Kathy Sledge. The song is taken from their 1979 album of the same name; We Are Family. This is the full length version of the song, which would otherwise appear in a three-minute and change radio edit.
This is a classic tune of the disco era. It’s an anthem to celebrate those who are singing it, a paean to sisterly bonds and to what is means to be a part of something greater than oneself – a family. It’s also something of an anthem to those who gathered in the clubs as a subculture of those not recognized by the mainstream yet made into a family of sorts by virtue of their disenfranchisement. But, really, anyone can see what this song is about, and can relate to it. No wonder it was such a hit.
The song would be one of Sister Sledge’s biggest hits, released in March of 1979 and scoring a #2 chart position on the Billboard 100 and a #1 showing on the R&B charts. This was after the single made headway in the clubs then into local and national radio play. Not bad for a song that the label was unsure about whether or not this would make any waves, hitwise. It was also something of an extra victory, considering that it was made to order for the group, even if Rodgers and Edwards hadn’t heard or seen them before the song was written.
Even if the writing (and the playing!) was in place courtesy of the members of Chic, what really makes this incredible is that the four actual sisters – Debbie, Joni, Kim, and Kathy – completely rise to the occasion, making it very difficult to figure out which came first, the song about a tight-knit family or the group that brought that picture to life. More incredibly, lead singer Kathy was sixteen years old when she sang this, surely one of the most precocious talents of the era. Her part was done in a single take.
The single itself was undeniable, made to be the anthem of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who won the World Series that year. Sister Sledge performed the national anthem at the opening game. And of course there were Grammies to be had, too. But beyond all of that was the impact this song had on culture in general, serving as shorthand for unity, acceptance, and belonging for many, and in many different social contexts, and covered by many too over the years. It is quite simply one of the most life-affirming songs ever written. It’s of its time. Yet, it translates all the same. It is full of positive energy and the light of the world.
There’s just something about it. It is full of The Life Force.
Years after he’d co-written it, and after many musical accomplishments, and after Bernard Edwards died of pneumonia while on tour in Japan, Nile Rodgers was sick himself. Diagnosed with cancer, he was looking at a fight with the disease and with the negative feelings that often goes along with it. So one day, he took a walk. He ended up at his local diner and walked in. Playing on the box was “We Are Family”, and everyone inside was singing along. That’s the magic of this song. “That’s my song!” he said.
From Nile Rodgers’ blog:
Cancer is horrifying. It makes you think a lot. My ex-partner passed away and most people don’t realize many songs they sing along with every day he did. Maybe, I was just afraid of dying and feeling sorry for myself – cancer also makes you do that. But my sadness was real. Cancer is a humiliating disease and I wanted to feel dignified about something. I wiped the tears from my eyes and told the diner’s staff that I wrote the song they were singing. I finished my coffee, smiled, hugged everybody and waved goodbye … After I left the diner I sang “We Are Family” to myself, three times – in its entirety… all the way back home. (Read the whole article )
It’s a cliché maybe, but music can be a healing agent. This is one story which certainly illustrates that, and from a unique perspective. It’s like the song was sent out into the world like a child leaving its parents, only to return to give care back to its parent again. It’s positivity is almost palpable. Once again; The Life Force. This tune is bursting at the seams with it.
Sister Sledge would have other hits besides this one, including “He’s The Greatest Dancer” and “Lost In Music”, both featured on this album. They’d enjoy other chart hits into the 1980s. Kathy Sledge would pursue a solo career by the end of that decade, sometimes joining her sisters on stage who continue to perform today as a trio. You can catch up to them at sistersledge.com
And as for Nile Rodgers, in addition to his cancer treatment, he would eventually throw himself back into music as a way of working through his situation, working with Daft Punk, Pharell Williams, and many others, while also continuing to tour with a new configuration of Chic. As of this writing, his cancer is in remission. You can expect a new album from Chic soon, entitled It’s About Time. The first single, “I’ll Be There”, drops on March 20. You can learn more about the new record, which is partially made up of classic unreleased Chic demo tapes, right here at djmag.com wherein Nile Rodgers himself talks you through his process.
Otherwise, check out nilerodgers.com for general updates.