Local Wire

Sister Sledge's Joni Sledge Dead At 60

Sister Sledge's Joni Sledge (middle) died on Friday.
Sister Sledge's Joni Sledge (middle) died on Friday. Shervin Sardari - www.stage1.at/CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
It was announced on Saturday, March 11, that singer, songwriter, and producer Joni Sledge was found dead of unknown causes Friday at her home in Phoenix at the age of 60.

Sledge was part of the Philadelphia rhythm and blues group Sister Sledge alongside her sisters Kim, Debbie, and Kathy (who left in 1989). The siblings were best known for the disco-era hits “He’s The Greatest Dancer,” “Lost In Music,” and the worldwide hit “We Are Family.”

The Sledge family made this announcement on the group’s Facebook page:

"Yesterday, numbness fell upon our family. We are saddened to inform you that our dear sister, mother, aunt, niece, and cousin, Joni passed away yesterday. Please pray for us as we weep for this loss. We do know that she is now eternally with Our Lord.

"We thank you in advance for allowing us the privacy to mourn quietly as a family. We miss her and hurt for her presence, her radiance, and the sincerity with which she loved & embraced life.

"We love you & God Bless You all.

"The Sledge Family"

Joni’s sisters and bandmates, Debbie and Kim Sledge, describe her sister as “crazy,” “creative,” and “full of life” on a 2015 video on their YouTube channel.

“I don’t think Joni knows how brilliant she is,” Kim describes Joni in the clip.

Joni Sledge was part of the third generation of a talented family that began with their grandmother Viola Beatrix Hairston Williams, an alumna of Juilliard and an accomplished lyric soprano. Williams trained her talented granddaughters vocally and scheduled them to perform at church and community functions. The siblings became Sister Sledge, with their mother, actress Florez Sledge, serving as manager and Joni as artistic director.

The ensemble tasted some success internationally, even performing with funk legend James Brown during the famous Rumble In The Jungle boxing match in Zaire between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. It wasn’t until they collaborated with producers Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers, members of the disco outfit Chic, that the quartet would reach breakout success with “We Are Family,” their tribute to female empowerment and the strength of family.

Sister Sledge’s appeal has endured for more than four decades. They continued to have hits well into the 1980s and released stunning live albums long after their time in the disco spotlight faded. Joni produced the group's Grammy-nominated 1997 album African Eyes. They have performed for presidents, and in 2015 they sang for Pope Francis in their hometown of Philadelphia. They headlined several LGBT festivals.

Over the years, “We Are Family,” due in no small part to its association with the Robin Williams comedy The Birdcage, became an anthem to members of a community that felt excluded by their own families because of their sexual orientation.

“They see us loving each other and singing about family and they feel like we’re their sisters and that this is a family,” Joni Sledge said of the song’s enduring appeal to the LGBT community in an interview with the website Georgia Voice. “And it is. We just say to them, ‘Thank you for sharing your love and accepting and embracing us, too.’ We should all just love and embrace each other.”

Joni Sledge performed at numerous benefits throughout Arizona and in 2005 was appointed to the state’s Film and Television Commission. She was also an aunt and mentor to Camille Sledge, the lead singer of Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra.

"She was the aunt who was super encouraging to me about doing my own music," Camille Sledge told New Times. "She made it clear that this work is not for everyone, but she believed I could do it. She inspired by giving me business tips. Showing me the ropes by allowing me to break into singing with Sister Sledge gigs when I was very young as a teenager. I admired her zest for life and her endurance to keep pushing and moving forward effortlessly. Not only did she make it look effortless, she often had a smile on her face and was thankful to God for providing the opportunity to do music for a living.

"I am going to take her advice and continue my music career. Pursue a real way of life through doing what I love."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jason Keil was the Phoenix New Times culture editor from August 2019 to May 2020.
Contact: Jason Keil