Joni Sledge, a longtime Phoenix-area resident who was a member of the family act behind the beloved '70s disco anthem We Are Family, was found dead Friday at her home in the Valley. She was 60.
Sledge was found by a friend on Friday, according to Biff Warren. Warren, who serves as publicist for Joni's sister Kathy Sledge, said the cause of death had not yet been determined. During a phone call on Saturday night, Warren told The Arizona Republic that more details would be available Sunday after he spoke with the family.
The group announced the news on their Facebook page Saturday night: "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 miss her and hurt for her presence, her radiance, and the sincerity with which she loved & embraced life."
Warren said they last performed together in concert in October.
Raised in a show-business family, Sledge and and sisters Debbie, Kim and Kathy formed the band Sister Sledge in 1971. Joni had said they owed much of their vocal sophistication to their grandmother, Viola Beatrix Williams, a lyric soprano who tutored them in singing.
''She wouldn't let us get away with just shouting,'' she told The Republic in 1994. ''She'd say, 'Oh no! Sing that note there.' ''
The band’s first album, Circle of Love, was released in 1975, but the group didn’t achieve major success until 1979’s We Are Family, which was produced by hitmakers Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards.
The album produced two huge hits. The first single, He’s the Greatest Dancer, moved from the disco clubs to the pop charts, where it reached No. 9. The song’s distinctive rhythm track was later sampled by Will Smith for the 1997 hit Gettin’ Jiggy Wit’ It.
The title song was released as the album's single. It was an even bigger success, topping the R&B charts and reaching No. 2 on the pop chart. It sold more than a million copies and emerged as an anthem for the LGBT community in the following decade.
"One time, we were on an all-gay cruise," Sledge told The Republic in 2002. "People kept coming up to us, saying that our music was like a place of respite, a place of comfort. We were really flattered by that."
Still, despite their identity as a disco act, Sledge was never fond of the title. Instead, they liked to emphasize their intricate familial harmonies and musical chops.
"'I really hate the term 'disco,' '' she told The Republic in 1994. ''It conjures up all these mechanical studio gimmicks.''
Though the group never repeated such massive success, there were more hits, including the bouncy All American Girls (a Top 5 R&B hit in 1981) and a 1982 remake of Mary Wells’ My Guy that cruised into the Top 40. The women enjoyed a comeback of sorts with 1985’s playful Frankie, which reached No. 1 in England but stalled outside the Top 30 on the American R&B charts.
Kathy, the group’s lead singer, left the act in 1989 for a solo career. The other sisters continued to perform and record together; Sledge even served as producer for the 1997 disc African Eyes. All four sisters later regrouped for an all-star remake of We Are Family with the likes of Diana Ross, Roberta Flack, Debbie Gibson, Taylor Dayne and Matthew Modine, among others, that was designed to raise funds for 9/11 charities.
"It really kind of shook us all," Sledge told The Republic. "People started re-evaulating, and so did we. We were reminded of how much we value the gift that God gave us, and how much fun it is to just hang out together."
The Sledge family connection to Arizona started when Joni Sledge moved to the state in 1992 due to her then-husband's work. Debbie followed for the same reason. Both marriages ended, but Joni stayed. Debbie later moved to the Netherlands, but is again in Phoenix, according to her Facebook page.
The four siblings again reunited for a 2002 fundraiser Phoenix Body Positive, an HIV and AIDS resource center. That was orchestrated by Joni Sledge, and indicative of her connection to the community. She didn't simply move here; she involved herself in what was going on.
In 2005, for example, then-Gov. Janet Napolitano appointed her to the state's Film and Television Commission, along with people like TV anchor Hugh Downs and actor Ricky Schroder. Thanks to Joni Sledge, Sister Sledge performed in benefits for Tanner Chapel AME Church in downtown Phoenix. Sledge also participated in charity events like Alice Cooper's Christmas Pudding and raising funds for the Celebration of Fine Art in Scottsdale.
Not all her appearances were high profile: In 2000, she performed to help raise funeral expenses for a Valley child who died at Canyon Lake.
Sledge would sometimes joke about why she lived in Arizona: ''I didn't want to raise my child in 213 or 310,'' she said, referring to the telephone area codes for greater Los Angeles. But she gave another reason in 2005.
''I've never in my life seen skies like this. It's the fluffy clouds; the sunsets; the blue, blue skies," she said.
Sledge is survived by an adult son, her sisters and other relatives.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
The Arizona Republic