Sister Sledge Sing “We Are Family”

We Are Family Sister SledgeListen 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. Read more

Chic Plays “Le Freak”

Listen to this track by dance-music pioneers and disco heavyweights Chic. It’s “Le Freak” an enormous hit single from 1978’s C’est Chic album, and one of the biggest hit singles of the era. Written by guitarist Nile Rodgers and bassist Bernard Edwards, the song became the biggest selling song on the Warner Music label, holding that position until it was supplanted by Maddona’s “Vogue” in 1990 – twelve years!

But, like many smash singles, it had a fairly humble origin. Rodgers and Edwards, along with drummer Tony Thompson, had been on the New York scene for a while. And while there, they made a lot of friends. One such person by 1977 was singer and model Grace Jones, who had made a name for herself on many fronts, one being her association with Andy Warhol, and by extension Studio 54.

But, that particular nightclub was not known to be friendly to “the little people”, with long lines and surly doormen turning people away being standard fixtures. And yet ironically, in the age of optimistic and inclusive disco music, it would be this very surly and elitist attitude at the door of ’54 that would inspire this now immortal dance track. Read more

Diana Ross Sings ‘The Theme From Mahogany’

mahogany-coverHere’s a clip of Diana Ross’ “The Theme From Mahogany”, the title song from the 1976 film in which Ross stars as an ingénue in the fashion industry. The picture was directed by her svengali figure and Motown label boss, Berry Gordy.

This tune is very much of its time perhaps, much like the film in which it features. But, for whatever reason, I love it. It’s almost classical sounding to me, like a Bach fugue in places. And usually sumptuous orchestration is a red flag for this kind of song, unless the vocalist presents a contrasting texture of some kind. Ross doesn’t do this, which is a testament to how well arranged the tune is. It shouldn’t have worked, but it does. Well, it does for me, anyway.

I’ve said before that Diana Ross’ career owes a lot to the material upon which it was built. This tune, for instance, was co-written by former Brill Building songwriter, Gerry Goffin, for which he won an Oscar nomination. And her Motown oeuvre owed a huge debt to the superlative writing talents of Holland Dozier Holland. I’m not sure that her voice is terribly special, frankly. But, maybe her bland voice is her secret weapon in this way. For one, it doesn’t draw too much attention to itself, and makes way for the delivery of the material. Maybe this is why Ross was able to skip across genres so easily too.

Her late 70s-early 80s renaissance was largely down to her being able to etch out a niche for herself when disco came along. There again, she was bolstered by great producers and players, as well as great songs in “Love Hangover”, “I’m Coming Out”, and “Upside Down”. Her 1980 album Diana, produced by Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers of Chic, is the perfect example of Ross working with the best to get the best results.

Although saying that, there is the story of Ross demanding that her vocals be brought up in the mix, after hearing a version of the record as laid down by Edwards and Rodgers. I wonder how grand the original mix of the Diana album would have sounded, with a slinkier bass, a more playful rhythm guitar, and funkier drums. It might have caused heads to explode, or very least for disco and funk to remain more mainstream further into the decade. Who can say?