A Sledge sister's family follow-up Kathy Sledge hit it big with "We Are Family." Today, she manages artists - and the credo still holds true.

Posted: March 02, 2008

It was different more than 30 years ago when Kathy Sledge of Newtown and her sisters were driven to concert dates in an old station wagon.

Back then, the members of the singing Sister Sledge were youngsters new in the business. They performed in nooks and crannies to crowds that barely knew them.

Three decades later, a group of performers that could be described as the next generation of Sister Sledge made its debut on a concert stage sandwiched between Patti LaBelle and John Legend.

You could call it Kathy Sledge's second act, and proof that not everything has changed. The late Florez Sledge drove the station wagon and managed her daughters into "We Are Family" stardom. Now, Kathy Sledge has taken on the same challenge with her own children.

The lead singer of Sister Sledge and her husband, Phil Lightfoot Sr., have launched the Flywheel Music Group, a management and production company. Among the firm's first signings were the couple's twentysomething children, Kristen and Phil Lightfoot Jr.

"Sometimes I look up to the heavens and go, 'Mom, how'd you do this?' " Sledge said.

The recording veteran acknowledges that she is learning on the job, but she has surrounded herself with industry pros. Sledge is walking the line between mother and manager, figuring out when to hold the hand and when to let go. At the same time, her children have the advantage of their mother's contacts and know-how.

"I'm showing them the ropes," Sledge said. "They have to do it, live it, and go on stage and become it."

The family's roots in music go back to Kathy Sledge's grandmother, an opera singer. Sledge and her sisters grew up singing in their grandmother's West Philadelphia church. They sang in small venues before making it big with hits including "We Are Family," which this year was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

When the hits stopped coming in the United States, the sisters concentrated on raising families. They continued performing, sometimes together and sometimes solo. Sledge and her family settled in Cheltenham, and moved to Newtown seven years ago.

"All my life I grew up on the road and I would see the countryside, especially in England," Sledge said. "[Bucks County] reminds me of that. I just think it's beautiful."

Daughter Kristen, 24, graduated from Linden Hall, a boarding school in Lititz, and studied communications at Howard University. Son Phil, 26, graduated from Cheltenham High School and spent a year at Valley Forge Military Academy and College in Wayne. He started dabbling in underground rap that had lyrics that made his mother shiver.

"I think I was rebelling against God," said Phil Lightfoot Jr., whose family raised him in the church. After a music collaborator went to jail, Lightfoot turned to the thing he was rebelling against for inspiration, and adopted the stage name Testimony.

He is nearly finished recording a CD, and has at least two record companies interested in signing him, Sledge said. He says he got an appetite for the entertainment business when he and his sister traveled with their mother to concert dates. In Kristen Lightfoot's case, traveling sometimes meant singing backup for her mom.

On a day that Kathy Sledge was performing at a show in Washington, she had, well, an epiphany. She took her daughter and three nieces (Candace Allen and sisters Anjeli and Domini Lenoir) to the gig for fun. All eyes turned to the four beautiful young women.

"It was like the parting of the Red Sea," said Sledge, who is in her late 40s; when asked her age, she said she was "somewhere between Madonna and Whitney [Houston]."

After the Washington gig, Sledge decided to see if she had a singing group in the making. She gave her nieces a lesson on the difficult harmonies of an old Andrews Sisters number, "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy." They nailed it.

"At that point, I cried," Sledge said. "I felt I was putting this together, but it was really in God's plan because they didn't have to be able to sing." Sledge named her new girl group Epiphany.

Then the veteran singer's contacts began to work for her. Songwriter/philanthropist Denise Rich, who wrote the Sister Sledge hit "Frankie," signed Epiphany to her 785 record label.

The group, which has added fifth member Prinnie Stevens, is recording a CD with the help of a group of platinum-record talent, including producer Rodney Jerkins (Beyonce, Whitney Houston). The album's release is scheduled for later this year.

Epiphany's debut performance came in October at Rich's annual Angel Ball charity event in New York. The group took the stage after LaBelle, and sang "Ain't No Mountain High Enough."

"I kept catching glances of people like Damon Dash and P. Diddy. It was kind of surreal," Kristen Lightfoot said. "But once I was off stage, I wanted to go right back on."

They were a hit, Sledge said.

"I was extremely proud, and grateful," Sledge said. "I was thinking that a while ago, this was just a thought, and now, it's here."

Contact staff writer Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or kholmes@phillynews.com.

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